Russia’s image is but one casualty of the Kremlin’s policy against cultural and person-to-person exchanges with the West. Most importantly, cutting off ties only hurts average Russian citizens – not Westerners.

"A Russia cut off from the rest of the Western world is not what Russians want and is not what the rest of the world wants." Photo: AP

For a very different take read: "Making sense of the Kremlin's move to restrict educational exchanges"

Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov is wrong that Russia’s image abroad doesn’t need restoration. Many people around the globe are well aware of its policy in Ukraine, domestic moves like ending adoptions by Americans of Russian children, or introducing sanctions against Western food importers.

But the wrong thing captivates Mr. Peskov. The most important casualty of recent Russian policies is not Russia’s image, but rather the Russian people. When adoptions by Americans were ended – Russian children stayed stuck in orphanages. When sanctions against the West were introduced – inflation spiked.

Indeed, another equally as important, yet less discussed problem is one caused by the Russian government restricting cultural and person-to-person exchanges between Russia and Western nations. This policy only serves to isolate the average Russian from the West, and it should not be swept under the rug.

Also read: "The Kremlin is inflexible with FLEX educational program"

In the past few years, the Kremlin ended multiple cultural exchange programs. From the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program that brought students from all over Russia to the U.S., to the “Europe Days” cultural exchange that took place in cities all over Russia, to the closing of the American Center in Moscow that frequently hosted informational events about American culture. Russians are being cut off from the West.

If the Russian government is to practice what it preaches, then it should afford its citizens every opportunity to improve their education. A key part of that education is cultivating an understanding of world cultures and international relations.  In that respect, there is nothing more valuable than first-person interaction with foreign peoples and cultures. Yet, as relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated, exchanges between the two sides have slowed.

One of the first educational casualties was the “Europe Days” cultural exchange. Co-organized by the EU delegation and EU member state delegations to Russia, it was a short-term showcase of European cultures in multiple cities throughout Russia. According to EU Ambassador to Russia Vygaudas Usackas, they were effectively canceled in the spring of 2014, as the Russian government voiced its displeasure at Western sanctions. But by canceling “Europe Days,” who did the government really hurt?

The Future Leaders Exchange Program, or FLEX, was canceled later that same year.  The FLEX program brought hundreds of Russian high schoolers to study in the United States every year. The program was immensely popular – applicants outstripped available slots by a 50 to 1 margin – and among its alums was Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT (formerly known as Russia Today), an English-language news service that many in the West see as Russian propaganda.

Ostensibly, the FLEX program was canceled because a Russian student stayed behind after the program was finished and was adopted by a gay couple. However, as objectionable as those in Moscow might find the incident, its cancellation due to one case is not fair to the thousands of students hoping to partake in FLEX each year. In the end, decision-makers in the Kremlin must ask themselves: Who are they really hurting by ending FLEX?

Finally, the American Center in Moscow, a small office that hosted events aimed at introducing Russians to American culture, closed its doors in the fall of 2015. Like FLEX and “Europe Days,” its primary purpose was an educational one.

Nonetheless, the Russian government declared that the center could not function with funding from the United States government. It was forced to close but then eventually relocated to the U.S. Embassy, where it is today. With tensions between the two countries as high as they are, it is unlikely that as many Russians frequent the center as they did previously. In the end, this doesn’t hurt Americans. It only hurts Russians.

Recommended: "Closing the American Center in Moscow closes a door for America"

The Russian government has not been working in the best interests of Russians, and there is no better example than its cancellation of Western-oriented educational programs. Whether those in Moscow actually believe that the exchanges constitute a threat to Russia, or they cynically contend that ending them is yet another way to hurt the West, that logic could not be farther from the truth.

Indeed by forcing each program to close, the Russian government creates a precedent that similar programs are not welcome in Russia. This affects not only the exchanges of culture and people, but also the exchanges of ideas and information.

A Russia cut off from the rest of the Western world is not what Russians want and is not what the rest of the world wants. Russia’s image abroad is tarnished and its people at home are hurting. Beyond rapprochement with the West, if Russian policymakers truly want to afford their citizens every educational opportunity possible, they must end their recent policy of shutting down cultural and person-to-person exchanges. And at the end of the day, discontinuing this policy could only improve Russia’s image.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.