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U.S.-Russia Relations: Don't Let Politics Get in the Way of Business

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 17 in Northern Ireland.

Photograph by Evan Vucci/AP Images

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 17 in Northern Ireland.

As an executive straddling the U.S. and Russian economies, I’ve been surprised by the heavy-handed talk about Russia lately. While we can all agree the Snowden affair is controversial, it’s important that doesn’t overshadow the major strides made between Russia and the U.S. in the last decades.

Witness the capital and talent that are being shared between countries: Boeing (BA), Cisco (CSCO), Dow Chemical (DOW), General Electric (GE), IBM (IBM), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Microsoft (MSFT), and many other companies are doing much more than simply viewing Russia as another important market; they are making investments in Russia worth millions of dollars.

Let’s go beyond the Snowden-inspired cold war analogies and consider this: The U.S. economy’s access to global talent and its competitiveness depend not only on immigration policy, but also on the ability of U.S. companies to find gifted employees around the world, as well as their ability to expand business abroad. Regions such as Silicon Valley have long relied on an influx of talent from around the world, and now Russia is pursuing a similar strategy by opening its gates to a flood of entrepreneurial talent nurtured by a $4 billion investment by the Russian government.

It’s not just companies taking advantage. Russia is a world leader in education: 55 percent of 25 to 34-year-olds have an associate’s degree or higher. Universities also see opportunities to increase their revenue and their access to advanced research. I used to work for Stanford’s program on distance learning, which for nine years offered courses to several thousand students in Russian universities. I now work with the international network of partners in a new Russian institute of science and technology, Skoltech. MIT is a strategic partner of the institute working to create a new model for graduate education, research, and entrepreneurship in science and technology. These collaborations are a vital part of U.S.-Russia relations and underscore the need for an increasingly collaborative, global workforce.

Russia understands that in today’s global market a nation’s competitiveness depend largely on its ability to innovate continuously and to attract top talent. This ability, in turn, relies in great part on the quality of a country’s education and research. The government’s creation of the Skolkovo Innovation Centre, which encompasses Skoltech, a technopark, five research clusters, and a city, is testament to the recognition that Russia needs places of higher learning fully integrated into the business and startup community to ensure that research is transformed into commercially valuable products.

In the words of former Intel Chief Executive Craig Barrett, co-chairman of the Skolkovo Foundation Council that advises the Innovation Centre: “There is a great experiment going on here in Russia right now. Russia has a great history of mathematical education and scientific research, but not such a great history of commercialization of the research. I’m very interested in what it takes to turn Russia into an innovative country.”

U.S.-Russia tensions make great headlines, but in the area of bilateral relations we should remember that human capital is what both our countries have plenty of. The exchange of this capital is the best way to enrich and support our relations.

Alexei Sitnikov is Vice-President for Institutional and Resource Development, Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology. Follow him on Twitter, @AlexeiSitnikov.

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