The Imprudent Academic Boycott of Russia Should Stop
Western institutions that wish to make a real contribution to resolving the conflict should recall how and why the Cold War came to an end.
German universities have broken off collaboration with their Russian counterparts. So have many others on the continent, along with France’s National Centre for Scientific Research and the European Commission. Some British and American universities have followed suit, and London has defunded research collaboration with Russian scholars. A number of major scholarly publishers have announced they are suspending sales in Russia, which will deprive Russian scholars of legal access to a large share of the world’s journals. In contrast to the Cold War—in which the West made great efforts to reach across the Iron Curtain—today it is doing Vladimir Putin’s censorship for him.
To some, these actions may seem no different from other economic sanctions. “Why should we treat scientific exchanges any differently than Champions League soccer matches, ballet performances, financial transactions, and investment projects—which have all been canceled in recent days?” asks a former World Bank official.
In fact, there are several reasons to draw a distinction. One is that there is more to lose from cutting academic ties. No lasting harm will come to the world from a cancelled performance by the Bolshoi ballet. In contrast, breaking off scholarly collaboration will undermine research on pressing problems such as climate change, in which Russian scholarship plays an important role, notably on the warming Arctic. It will also increase the risk of war. Contacts between Russia and the West allow the two sides to gauge each other’s capabilities, motives and intentions. In their absence, miscalculation is more likely.
This price might be worth paying if it would tip Russian domestic opinion against the war. But far from strengthening Russian doves, the academic boycott will undercut them. Before the war, the regime sought to raise Russian scholarship’s international profile, encouraging it to tolerate liberal scholars and encourage foreign contacts. This included incentives for Russians to publish in journals listed in the Western citation indexes Web of Science and Scopus. Such requirements can promote intellectual monocultures, but in this case, they increased the exchange of ideas between Russian scholars and the rest of the world.
Sanctions have pulled the rug from under these scholars’ feet. The loss of foreign contacts and income will diminish their influence vis-à-vis more nationalist colleagues. In March, Web of Science announced it was withdrawing its services from Russia. The career incentives to publish in foreign-indexed journals have been dropped, no doubt to the delight of critics who regard them as a Trojan horse for Western liberalism. “Ironically,” comments a Russian observer, “…the sanctions have hit first and foremost honest scholars: those who wrote conscientious academic articles, read foreign journals and engaged in scholarly collaboration.”
Many Western universities, including my own, cut ties after an open letter was published by Russian university heads supporting the war. The Russian rectors’ statement is contemptible claptrap, but there is no reason to assume it is representative of the country’s scholars, or even rectors: more than a month after it appeared, fewer than half of those heading higher education institutions had signed it. Leading foreign policy experts—among them the director of the Institute of Europe and the former director of the Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies—have called for an immediate ceasefire. The problem is that the Kremlin is not listening.
Western institutions that wish to make a real contribution to resolving the conflict should recall how and why the Cold War came to an end. The breakdown of the Soviet economy played a key role in persuading Moscow to seek a rapprochement, but so did the recognition of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his advisors that the USSR had provoked its own encirclement, and faced problems it could not solve on its own. These insights arose in large part through contacts with the West.
Well before Gorbachev came to power, exchanges between Soviet and Western natural scientists, notably the Pugwash conferences, transmitted ideas about the risk of nuclear war and the need for defensive defense that were embraced by Gorbachev’s foreign policy reformers. Matvei Polynov of St. Petersburg University goes so far as to call Pugwash the “philosophical founders of the new political thinking.” Dialogue with Western European peace researchers and social democrats encouraged Soviet “new thinkers” to deemphasize zero-sum competition in favor of making both sides more secure.
Tragically, the West squandered the opportunity to build a durable peace at the end of the Cold War. Today, it again finds itself containing a hostile Russian regime. If the two sides avoid nuclear war, this is likely to lead over the long run, as before, to Russia’s exhaustion. But if its inhabitants regard themselves as victims, that will not end the conflict. Rather, Russia could be left like Germany at the end of World War I: defeated but embittered. As Henry Kissinger observed sixty-five years ago, such a peace remains a mere armistice.
Today, the majority of Russians regard their country not as an aggressor, but as the victim of unprovoked Western hostility. Well before the current conflict, surveys found the public fearing war but blaming Washington and its allies rather than Moscow, which it saw as trying to reduce the tension. In this context, it is vital to keep channels open to Russian journalists and scholars. This does not mean condoning aggression, but it offers a chance of eventually persuading Russians that their country is on the wrong course.
Dr. Matthew Rendall is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham, UK.