RD is pleased to announce the winner and 3 finalists of our fourth student essay competition for young international affairs experts. Their essays focused on realistic policy prescriptions for the White House to turn around U.S.-Russian relations.

Russian Foreign Secretary Sergey Lavrov, right, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, shake hands during a news conference at the presidential residence of Bocharov Ruchey in Sochi, Russia, May 12, 2015. Photo: AP / Joshua Roberts

No doubt, it’s challenging to compose a policy memo for U.S. President Barack Obama outlining the key factors that should inform America’s foreign policy toward Russia – especially given the ongoing tensions between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine. This requires the unique ability to view current U.S.-Russian tensions from two completely different perspectives.

That was the starting point, however, when Russia Direct announced its fourth student essay competition for young international affairs experts that resulted in entries from so many places – including Japan, India, Brazil, Europe, the U.S. and Russia. Unlike previous student essay contests from RD, this one asked students to offer the type of real-world policy advice that one of President Obama’s chief advisers on Russia might offer. 

Today, the Russia Direct editorial team is pleased to announce the winner and 3 finalists of the student essay competition. After much deliberation, the Russia Direct editorial team has determined that the winner is Peter J. Marzalik, a Master’s student from George Washington University. His winning essay will be published on our website this Monday, May 18.

The three finalists are Jerry Byers from the European University in St. Petersburg; Alexander Kravchenko from the London School of Economics and Political Science; and Steven Luber from Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania. Read the winning essays on our website this week.

How young experts view U.S. policy toward Russia

Almost all of the essay contest participants agree that Russia and the U.S. should seek out dialogue regardless of their differences over Ukraine and other international issues. Among the spheres where the Kremlin and the White House should keep working are counter-terrorism cooperation, the Arctic, the Middle East, Ukraine, nuclear non-proliferation, and educational exchanges.

“Over the last year, U.S.-Russia relations have plunged to new lows due to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, with many labeling this latest phase as a New Cold War,” argues Marzalik. “Despite these tensions, the United States must still strive to partner with Russia on critical shared global issues, including transnational terrorism, nuclear security, financial stability, and climate change.” 

Marzalik proposes conducting a U.S.-led multilateral summit that could actively involve the U.S. in negotiations over Ukraine “in order to directly sway conflict parties in a final push toward peace before deciding to supply lethal defensive weapons.” 

Meanwhile, Byers points to Russian perceptions of U.S. policy. According to him, the Kremlin sees the U.S. as “an erratic actor that doesn’t follow through on its commitments, lacks respect for its international counterparts, is arrogant in its role as a hegemon, and uses its capital and military structure to bully opponents.” 

The fact that the Kremlin believes “that American policy makers can’t be trusted to keep their word and focus on the long-term good over the latest polls” should be seriously taken into account by the Obama Administration. Byers proposes creating a growing number of “cooperative win/wins” that could help “to stave off complete breakdowns in future flashpoints that are likely.”  

According to him, this should be the starting point of building the dialogue between countries.  

“Consistency builds confidence. Inconsistency breeds doubt,” Byers sums up. “The U.S. can begin to remedy this situation despite the current climate in Ukraine through a sustained, consistent approach with Russia in a variety of capacities.”  

At the same time, Kravchenko argues that the U.S. should take a Realpolitik approach in its policy toward Russia. He admits that “Russia is hardly a challenger to U.S. global power” and cannot compete with the U.S., both geopolitically and economically. That’s why Washington should “soften its rhetoric on Crimea,” be more flexible on Donbas and give Russia “a break from at least some sanctions.”

“Overall, the strategy I propose would free up the president, diplomatic and military staff to deal with other issues, restore peace in Eastern Europe, but keep America in control of Ukraine,” he believes.  

Luber looks at international relations with Russia’s perspective. According to him, compromise is possible only “once we understand how Moscow views the world.”  According to him, the geopolitical escalation stemmed from grave miscommunication between the two countries.

“Russia sees itself as a country under increasing attack in a rapidly destabilizing world. Russian foreign policy is first and foremost intended to protect itself from potential threats, especially from bordering countries,” he wrote. 

To read the full essays, follow Russia Direct’s daily updates. We will start publishing essays starting Tuesday, May 19, 2015.