Slavic and Eurasian Studies

First UT Students Participate in Stanford's Prestigious Stanford US-Russia Forum

Thu, December 21, 2017
First UT Students Participate in Stanford's Prestigious Stanford US-Russia Forum
Valentina Bonello and Ryan Williams outside of the governor's house in Tyumen

UT students will be represented for the first time in this year’s cohort of Stanford University's prestigious Stanford US-Russia Forum (SURF). The program, which seeks to foster cooperation between Russia and the US, brings together 20 students from universities in each country to discuss and research issues in public policy, business, economics, and other disciplines. The program opens with a fall conference in Moscow, followed by eight months of collaborating on research projects remotely. A spring capstone conference in Stanford, California closes the year-long project. Two UT students were selected to participate in the 2017–2018 cohort. Ryan Williams, a dual-degree master’s candidate at the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies and the LBJ School for Public Affair’s Global Policy Studies program; is joined by Valentina Bonello, a master’s candidate in the LBJ Global Policy Studies program.

Valentina Bonello, a participant in SURF’s Energy Geopolitics working group, is working with a Russian PhD candidate in Energy Systems who works with Gazprom and an American master’s student who is focused on Environmental Security and the Arctic. Together, the group is focusing on renewables, particularly wind energy, in the remote areas of the Arctic and Alaska. As she explains, it is difficult to find cooperation between the US & Russia, especially when it comes to natural resource extraction, but in these regions there is a need on both sides.

Because diesel is expensive to deliver and to use in these areas, there is an incentive for oil and gas companies to pursue alternative sources of energy there. Although developing the infrastructure and technology to manage these sources requires huge capital expenditures, once in place, they can be maintained at very low operational costs. Bonello says that “the Russian government is eager to increase its use of renewable energy in the Arctic 4.5% by 2020, and in Alaska, there is also the political will to pursue these options.” Bonello adds that within the SURF cohort, the perception of Russia is much more neutral than within the US at large. As a participant, she is excited to contribute to the goal of cooperation between the US and Russia with fewer biases and no talk of “political enemies.” While her own research objectives will be challenging, she is excited to work with a team that will offer a neutral perspective of relations between the US and Russia in the field of energy security.

Ryan Williams is part of SURF’s Financial Technologies (FinTech) working group, which is investigating implications of certain financial technologies and the possibility of US-Russian cooperation, which have yet to be explored. His group is investigating how this emerging industry can be used to improve the efficiency of financial markets, and how the adoption of blockchain technology (what bit coin and other cryptocurrencies operate on) will affect international relations.

Williams is exploring the question of how nations will wield power within a new digital financial system and whether these emerging financial technologies will collapse the existing ways that they use economic power or create new ones. Williams states, "With Russia and the US being the two biggest hubs for cryptocurrency systems (Russia has even been working on it’s own crypto-ruble), the best theories and advances are coming from there, too.” Williams' team (two Russians who work at Sberbank and two American students) is creating a computer simulation to model how these changes will impact each state’s involvement.

When asked why he was interested in participating in the SURF program, Williams said that the program gives him the opportunity to explore emerging technologies that are as of yet relatively under-researched. The opportunity to work on the project for a year with a multidisciplinary international team was also enticing. He was also impressed with how SURF “goes out of the way to submit your research to experts for feedback,” and he knows he will gain a valuable network of contacts in the energy and finance sectors in Russia and the US. He added that “SURF’s strong alumni system, networking opportunities and their dedication to helping its participants succeed” are among the reasons why he is most enthusiastic about the program.

In November, Williams, Bonello, and all seven SURF teams traveled to Moscow for their Opening Conference, where the participants met each other for the first time and presented their research questions and methodology. Notable government officials, including Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, business leaders and scholars were also on site to offer input and speak on current topics. The group also explored the Siberian city of Tyumen, meeting with the governor of Tyumen Oblast (region), who Williams says “had just finished his annual ‘state of the state’-type address (where we were his guests) and headed straight from the speech to the residence to meet with us and answer questions.” They also got to celebrate Thanksgiving while in Russia. Williams and Bonello tell us that their trip was very well organized and included social work and volunteering aspects. During the next, research stage of the program, they will have monthly group video calls, peer reviews of other teams’ work, and weekly video conferences. In April, they head to California to present the deliverables from their travels and research.

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