• Lillie Burke

Russian ambassador speaks at Belmont during first visit to Nashville

During his first visit to Nashville, Tennessee, ambassador of the Russian Federation to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak spoke to Belmont students on Monday about his disappointment with current American-Russian relations and America’s misperceptions of Russia.

“The relations between the societies are minimal,” he said. “I believe, personally, that the benefits of economic interaction are not only that people are getting richer and making money to create jobs. It’s also creating understanding in the spirit of what they are, and I’ll always underlie what is important–understanding what they are not.”

The limited interaction between Russia and America has affected Russia down to its small trade– totaling around $29 million– which is about 1 percent of what the U.S. trades, said Kislyak.

The lack of trade was just one instance of the distrusting American-Russian relationship, and as President Bob Fisher introduced the ambassador, he said American diplomats should take a more balanced approach in deal-making abroad.

“It seems to me that this style of diplomacy and diplomacy itself, in our world, is only going to become more and more important as all of us come to understand the balance of power has become more equal among us all,” Fisher said. “I think we need to change our expectations about what deals should look like. Rather than just win-lose deals, we need to do the much, much harder work of trying to figure out what’s a win-win deal.”

The U.S. had not cooperated deals with Russia on several occasions, including the expansion of NATO when the U.S. had promised not to do so, the dissolution of President Obama’s U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission and, more recently, implementation of sanctions on Russia until Ukraine makes constitutional changes, said Kislyak.

The U.S. and Russia still have failed to find common ground in fighting terrorism, and the U.S. chose not to join a coalition to fight ISIL. While Russia’s police force strategizes ways to stop the recruitment of its people to ISIL, America is “hiding behind oceans” and not assisting in defeating a common threat, Kislyak said.

Some of the prevailing attitude between U.S. and Russia dates back to the Cold War. He used the analogy that American journalists choose to “demonize” Russia in the media– just like a computer reverts to a default mode– out of the fear of the past.

“The coverage in the press of the debates and political debates is based on this default mode and not the real assessment of what we are and what we are not,” he said.

Despite Russia’s net growth over the past three years, application of a market economy, the doubling of its people’s income, being the sixth or seventh largest economy in the world and being home to some of the world’s best universities for physics and mathematics, the media still shares Russia in a negative light, said Kislyak.

Still, this distrust is not one-sided.

“If you go to Russia, I would say you also would feel a lot of sentiments that wouldn’t be liked in America about America,” he said. “But, there are good reasons for that. However, sometimes there are also extremes.”

This attitude persists not only because of the lack of interaction between diplomats and governmental heads, but also the absence of exchange between everyday people from the private sector, he said.

This creates a lack of knowledge, and the ambassador challenged American citizens on their general apathy concerning anything that happens outside of the U.S.

“The average Russian, especially the younger generation knows about the United States significantly more than the average American knows about Russia,” Kislyak said.

Despite the average American’s lack of involvement, the United States as an institution intervenes too often in conflicts abroad, said Kislyak.

“You believe the United States has the right to have leadership in everything and everywhere,” he said. “It is something that sometimes creates problems–sometimes painful problems in relations. You believe that you are exceptional. I wouldn’t contest this notion because we also think this, but we don’t impose our exceptionalism on others.”

In the Ukrainian conflict, the U.S. viewed the annexation of Crimea as unnecessary Russian force and intervened with economic sanctions, but to Russia, it defended its people against a forceful coup, and, for now, Russia’s economic fate is in the hands of Ukraine, said Kislyak.

“It’s mind-boggling that the sanctions and the pressure on Russia is dependent on the Ukrainian decision. It’s phenomenal, but it’s also another characteristic of the current Russian-American relations,” said Kislyak.

Some European countries and the U.S. government targeted the Russian bank, freezing the assets of several businessmen, he said.

“You can easily lose your money, your investment for things you had nothing to do with, without any connection to the problems dividing Russia and the United States. The next question is, how can you trust Americans to be a good long-term partner?”

For now, Russia looks to upcoming world powers in Asia and Latin American countries for trade, said Kislyak.

“What is happening is that the world is changing,” he said. “The sense of the exceptional place of the United States is a little bit deceptive. The world is changing the other centers for economic development.”

Despite his disappointed outlook on the American-Russian relations, after living in America, Kislyak’s favorite thing about the country is talking with its people, he said.

“The problem is not Americans, the problem is when Americans come together as America.”

Photo by John Masserini.

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