Russian President Vladimir Putin with Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Director Mikhail Fradkov (L) and Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Alexander Bortnikov. The SVR - Russia's CIA - ran the spy operation. Picture: REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin with Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Director Mikhail Fradkov (L) and Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Alexander Bortnikov. The SVR - Russia's CIA - ran the spy operation. Picture: REUTERS

The Russian government wants the country’s academics to win back the prestige they used to enjoy in Soviet times — but also to submit to restrictions similar to those in place in the Soviet Union. Neither is likely.

Earlier this week, Alexander Fradkov, a St Petersburg cyberneticist, revealed that the Russian science ministry had sent around to research centres a set of draconian instructions, adopted back in February. The rules, approved by the minister, Mikhail Kotyukov, regulate contacts between Russian and foreign academics.

They require the Russians to inform the ministry in advance about meeting plans and, after the fact, about the content of the conversations. A scientist’s private meetings with foreign colleagues outside of working hours require permission from his or her research centre’s management. An especially absurd rule appears to require Russian research organisations to take away visiting foreign colleagues’ electronic devices, including watches.

These rules are reminiscent of Communist-era restrictions that were strictly observed, especially by officials and academics who could be accused of working for foreign intelligence services. Their contacts with foreigners had to be meticulously reported to the authorities.

In an open letter to Kotyukov, Fradkov wrote: “Such absurd, unenforceable orders will not improve our nation’s security but will only lead to its growing isolation from developed nations. It will discredit the authorities, complicating the task, set by the president, of achieving academic leadership.”

Indeed, President Vladimir Putin is bent on restoring Russia’s academic glory, lost after at least 20,000 scientists and countless engineers emigrated during the 1990s. One of his “national projects” meant to spur Russia’s development provides the cash for a leap in the quantity and quality of research; the budget for the six years from 2018 is an impressive 636-billion roubles ($9.6bn). The programme sets specific key performance indicators, such as Russia’s share in the global research output as measured by the number of papers published in peer-reviewed journals and presented at conferences, or the number of “world class” research institutions.

Putin has set goals of this kind since 2012, when he returned to the presidency after a four-year hiatus. So far, though, the nation has been missing the targets.

The number of papers by Russian academics on Scopus, the major abstract and citation database, has increased exponentially since the decree was signed. But, according to a 2018 paper by Henk Moed of Sapienza University of Rome and two Russian collaborators, much of the growth was due to increased indexing of Russian-language journals, and the impact of the published papers, as expressed by citations, was “extremely low”.

Another Putin goal from 2012 was getting at least five Russian universities onto reputable top-100 lists. That hasn’t worked so far. Two of the three heavyweight rankings — Shanghai and Quacquarelli Symonds — have one Russian school, Moscow State University, in the top 100; the Times Higher Education Ranking ranks it 199th in the world and all the other Russian schools even lower.

Much of the actual improvement in Russian research activity has been due to Russian organizations’ cooperation with funders from the US, Germany and other Western nations, a paper published last year by a group of Russian Academy of Sciences researchers showed. Kotyukov’s rules strike at the heart of that collaboration.

The strict enforcement of these rules apparently isn’t what the Russian government has in mind. The ministry has stressed that they’re merely “recommendations”. That means they are meant as a warning. Commenting on their disclosure on Wednesday, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said this:

One should, of course, show a certain vigilance because foreign intelligence services aren’t asleep on the job, and no one has ever given up scientific and industrial espionage: It’s taking place 24/7 and it’s aimed at our scientists, especially young scientists.

Not following Kremlin advice on vigilance can have nasty consequences. From time to time, Russian academics are imprisoned for allegedly handing over sensitive material to foreign funders and colleagues. Fradkov’s letter mentions one such case, that of physicist Viktor Kudryavtsev, charged with treason last year for work he did for a Belgian research institute. The work was part of a program funded by the EU, and it wasn’t classified at the time Kudryavtsev got involved in it. A number of other researchers have been accused or convicted of similar crimes during the Putin era.

Kotyukov’s rules are another reminder to Russian scientists of the trade-off they must make if they stay in Russia and take part in Putin’s nostalgic modernisation project. The state is willing to invest in research — but in return, recipients must focus on the state’s interests first and foremost.

I’ve met dozens of Russian academics working at German, French, Spanish, British and US universities; I doubt there’s a single self-respecting Western research institution that doesn’t employ any Russians. That should show Putin and his ministers that the trade-off isn’t universally acceptable. Obtaining a higher standing in global academia requires institutional openness to the world. In its absence, researchers will keep taking advantage of Russia’s still relatively open borders.

• Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg and its owners.

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