Widgets Magazine

American, Russian students collaborate at forum despite tense relations

Despite the tensest American-Russian relations since the Cold War, students from both nations shared collaborative solutions to global issues at a student-run research forum hosted at Stanford in early April. 

Relations soured last March when Russian president Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, a region recognized as Ukrainian territory. The decision provoked international outrage and was followed by sanctions against both Russian businesses and prominent individuals.

Michael McFaul, the former United States ambassador to Russia and a speaker at the forum, wrote in a New York Times piece last March that “the current regime must be isolated.” Yet leaders of the program, called the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum (SURF), find that isolation is the wrong approach. Ravi Patel, a Stanford masters student and president of SURF, believes that the Russian regime and the Russian people must be treated as different entities.

“We shouldn’t take [today’s hostility] as an excuse to isolate the Russian people,” Patel said. “We need to do a better job of distinguishing that the sanctions are intended for Putin’s regime.” 

SURF is one of the few student exchange programs currently operating between the two nations. Russian officials canceled the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) last October after a gay student reportedly sought asylum in the United States. The program had run for 21 years. According to SURF organizer Sahil Shah, FLEX helped build a whole generation of Russians tolerant of American principles. 

“I think that these exchanges between students could be [an especially] good way to get back to normal relations between Russia and the United States,” said Consul General Sergey Petrov in a speech on April 10. “I do count on you, those who came from Russia and those from American universities, to try to discuss topics and find common ground.”

The program began with a weeklong exchange to Moscow last fall, where the 40 participants — half American and half Russian — split into teams and identified issues relevant to both nations. Students then reconvened at Stanford after six months of transcontinental research to present their findings and listen to esteemed speakers such as former Secretary of State George Shultz and U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute. Students presented on a range of issues from public health to nuclear security.

One team recommended a collaborative solution on energy exploration in the Arctic, a region of mutual interest for both nations. Due to global warming, Arctic ice is melting at unprecedented rates and creating new opportunities for oil drilling. Nina Zholudera, a Russian masters student, began the presentation by emphasizing that the group did not promote development in the Arctic; however, “it’s better if [the United States and Russia] help each other and work together” as both nations set eyes on the area.

The team identified three topics — research, logistics and transportation and prevention of militarization —for Russia and the United States to collaborate on. According to Zholudera, Russia lacks the technology to thoroughly research the Arctic and should call on aid from American scientists. However, Russia has the world’s largest fleet of icebreakers, large ships able to push through sea ice, which are necessary to transport gas out of the area.

Syvatoslav Pikh, a third-year undergrad in Moscow, stressed that militarization is the most pressing issue as nations move to protect their Arctic territories. Russia reportedly has 13 airfields and is looking to add four new combat brigades. According to Pikh, Russia currently has 40,000 troops stationed in the Arctic.

“They say they’re just training,” Pikh said. “But Norway and the U.S. will [station troops in the Arctic] too.”

Pikh and Zholudera hope to see their work shared in academic circles by releasing their work on a website, rather than directly approaching lawmakers. According to Zholudera, “the hierarchy [in the Russian government] is very strict. You can hardly influence anyone making political decisions.”

Patel took a similar stance and said that “as students and young people, we can’t really impact policy or politics.” 

Patel instead plans to push future SURF students to develop their research into tangible products or business models, something that “lives beyond the scope of the program.” He also hopes to expand the program to help past participants sustain their projects beyond the program.

SURF recently released its online application for next year’s forum.

“At the end of the day, doing anything with the U.S. in Russia is very sensitive,” Patel said. “SURF is one of the few ways [in which] young Americans can get engaged with Russia in today’s environment.”

Contact Alexandra at nguyenphuc ‘at’ stanford.edu

About Alexandra Nguyen-Phuc

Alexandra Nguyen-Phuc ‘18 is a news deputy desk editor and former staff writer. A freshman from Los Angeles, California, she wants to learn more about urban studies, economics and food system sustainability in her time at Stanford. Contact her at nguyenphuc ‘at’ stanford.edu.