“PIR Center finds its venue in MGIMO”, – Vladimir Orlov

Founding Director of PIR Center; Founding President of the Trialogue Club International

Since recently, a rumour has been circulating among the academia: an influential PIR Center, which specializes in nuclear nonproliferation and international security, is coming to MGIMO.

“For 28 years now, the PIR Center has been an independent organization, and it will remain this way,” – explained Dr Vladimir Orlov, PIR Center director, “However, one of its offices is indeed appearing at MGIMO. So, it’s true: our collaboration is moving into a phase of closer cooperation.”

MJ: Especially since MGIMO is your alma mater, isn’t it?

Yes, and I am proud of it. I graduated from MGIMO in 1990, and, in 1994, founded PIR Center. From the very first days of PIR Center, MGIMO has been our reliable partner, and our founding documents included the signature of Dr. Anatoly V. Torkunov. What we have in common is probably boutiqueness. MGIMO has always provided very limited and precise training. Likewise, PIR Center is an expert boutique: it does not seek to embrace all spectrum of international studies, it is not omnivorous. We are working in the direction in which we are the сream of the crop — applied studies of international security, as well as the junction of science and education in this area. I remember how in the mid-90s we were sitting at MGIMO: it was crowded, but the connection between science and students maintained, a student could always come and discuss something, look through scientific occasional papers. And now we are returning to MGIMO home walls, not for sitting idle– we can strain our brains remotely as well. We are not a student department, but an expert institute, but we are very open for mighty students to brainstorm important issues together.

However, most importantly, by being located on the MGIMO site, we will thus join the Priority 2030 Strategic Academic Leadership Program, which is being implemented at MGIMO. We will become part of the hub of academic diplomacy and political science, and we will enter the consortium that is being created as part of this program.

MJ: PIR Center has been a partner of MGIMO for almost 30 years. Which of the most important joint projects would you like to highlight?

We had a number of bright joint projects, but, probably, the main one, which has been successfully implemented for seven years already, is the academic one: International Dual Degree M.A. Program in Global Security, Nuclear Policy, and WMD Nonproliferation.

MJ: I remember how you signed a trilateral agreement on this program between MGIMO, PIR Center and Monterey Institute of International Studies eight years ago in Montreux. Has something changed in this cooperation after the start of the SMO in Ukraine?

It’s incredible, but everything remains the same. Everything is collapsing or being suspended all around, and the agreement that we signed in Swiss Montreux in 2014 – by the way, a thorny place for Russia in terms of history – imagine, this agreement is still valid and yields results! The only thing is that our partner has changed its name – now it is the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, which is still a solid world-class player in nuclear nonproliferation issues.

So, two world-class universities have teamed up with PIR Center to implement a program that is the best in the world in terms of its academic qualities. They provide their expertise and professors, their knowledge and materials to ensure that this unique program gets even better development. Over the years, we have got used to each other very well, which is especially important for educational institutions in the case when graduates receive two diplomas at once. This is a two-year master’s program, within which the first semester takes place in Russia, at MGIMO, then two semesters in Monterey (California). Some call it “Monteparadise” because it is the most beautiful place on the Pacific coast. And the fourth semester is the most interesting of all: there are internships all around the world: at the Russian Foreign Ministry, Rosatom, the UN in New York, and the Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva. Some Americans get job in the Department of Energy, the State Department, and so on.

We train practitioners who work in practical organizations – ministries and expert institutes in Russia, China, Mexico, Ireland, the United Kingdom, the USA, and other countries. We continue to work as a team, together – Russians, Europeans and Americans – in the name of one simple goal: to prevent a nuclear war, to competently manage our knowledge of nuclear weapons, anticipating their spread. We are also thinking about how to develop nuclear energy.

Despite the aggravation of the international situation, the Middlebury Institute, following consultations with PIR Center and MGIMO, decided to continue the program. Frankly, we are preparing for certain logistical difficulties with the arrival of foreigners from the western part of the world to us in Moscow. I believe that we will cope, as we did during the pandemic. Even now, despite the monstrous visa problems, our Russian students are studying in California.

We have a loss. But it is of a different kind. The human loss. All these years, Amb. Vyacheslav I. Trubnikov, a member of PIR Center Executive Board, former Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, General of the Army, Hero of Russia, MGIMO graduate, has been the Chairman of our State Examination Commission. Vyacheslav Ivanovich thoughtfully, demandingly and with great enthusiasm checked students’ master’s theses – with a pencil in his hand literally. And during the theses defenses, he acted without trying to overwhelm anyone, on the contrary, he identified the strongest works, the most promising graduates. “Colleen McDowell… you did an excellent job with your research. I propose to rate it at 100 points.” The measured voice of Vyacheslav Ivanovich inspired students, convinced other members of the commission, although, of course, 100 points is a rare exception on our program. General Trubnikov, and General Buzhinsky, and Ambassador Lysenko – they all set the bar high, which I, as the founder of the program, really appreciated. The death of General Trubnikov, a man of brilliant mind, erudition, a deep understanding of the problems of nuclear non-proliferation, who was, as we say, a “quality receiver” at the State Examination Commission, is a truly heavy loss. Because he was irreplaceable…

MJ: A question to an authoritative analyst: how much worse has the threat of nuclear war become amid the ongoing tensions?

Unfortunately, the question is natural, and it is a common concern for many. The risk of nuclear war has escalated today, the European continent is extremely unsettled, there is a very strong storm, but I must say that over the past years and decades, very serious practices of a responsible attitude towards nuclear weapons have been developed. And even when there is no dialogue between Russia and the United States on other issues, dialogue on nuclear threats continues. We know that the US Secretary of Defense makes calls to his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu from time to time. The chiefs of the General Staff are also talking to each other – I think they are also discussing this issue. Of course, the risks are growing, but, I repeat, so far this issue is under responsible control, since not only the fate of the world, but the survival of mankind depends on nuclear weapons. This problem is nevertheless singled out as a separate one, requiring maximum accuracy from the military, diplomats, and politicians. And also, from journalists who sometimes incorrectly, sensationally comment on events. Thus, their attention is mainly focused on the European continent, but the risks of the use of nuclear weapons or their spread are actually higher in three other regions – in South Asia, in North-East Asia and in the Middle East. There are points of tension, to be honest, serious ones. We teach our students about regional aspects of nuclear nonproliferation, so they can understand things.

MJ: What is your forecast?

If we are talking about the use of nuclear weapons, then their use in a special military operation is inexpedient, unnecessary and not considered. The limited use of nuclear weapons is impossible, it will eventually lead to total war and total annihilation. Another thing is the risks that I see. If the United States, our potential adversary, loses its sanity, then we will have to retaliate. But I hope that there are no crazy and suicidal people in Washington today.

The second risk is a very serious one: accident. This is not about some military man clicking on something by mistake. This will not happen. But misinterpretation of information (because we are in a state of information war with the United States) is possible. So, I can’t say “zero probability”, it would be irresponsible. Nevertheless, summarizing, I will say that the probability of the use of nuclear weapons is minimal. The acute military phases of conflicts end sooner or later, diplomacy and arms control will continue. Other formats and a completely different architecture of treaties will simply arise – some will disappear, new ones will be formed. This may take a long time, and we are in for something amazingly interesting, although emotionally and not always simple, understanding the prospects, the contours of the new arms control architecture. That’s what we are doing today.

MJ: The Priority 2030 program is quite extensive. Since the PIR Center is going to take part in it within the framework of MGIMO, I would like to know what novelty you are going to bring to its implementation. What are the plans?

Not just plans – we have already begun to implement them. For me, the idea of our partnership lies primarily in the close interaction of education and science. I will move from the educational component to the research one. PIR Center, as I already said, is working on understanding the prospects for nuclear nonproliferation, the dialogue between Russia and the United States in this area, and the risks that may arise. The relevant developments are set out both in our reports and in the notes that we are preparing. And also, in the monograph prepared by PIR Center within the framework of cooperation with MGIMO and which will be published in English this summer by the Palgrave Macmillan publishing house, part of Springer’s global concern. Most of the authors are recent graduates of our double degree program, as well as employees of PIR Center, such is the synergy of promising youth and a generation wiser by experience. The preface to the monograph was written by our Rector Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences Dr. Anatoly V. Torkunov and Professor of the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, foreign member of the Russian Academy of Sciences Dr. William Potter. My colleague-co-editor Sergey Semenov was a student of our master’s program a year ago and has made impressive progress in this short period of time. Working on a monograph with him was a pleasure, although, it must be confessed, he had to sweat a lot. Again, we set the bar high.

Finally, we are approaching the 21st PIR Center International School on Global Security. It will be held in Zvenigorod, near Moscow, a number of its areas are being implemented within the framework of our consortium with MGIMO. By the way, being a leading university in many areas, MGIMO, as it turned out, did not conduct too many training programs for target audiences, and not necessarily students: these could be young diplomats, graduate students, the military, and representatives of the secret services. And on security issues, there were none at all. Therefore, we combine our efforts. Yes, here again the boutique approach.

What is the distinguishing feature of the PIR Center schools that have gained fame all over the world? There are as many, if not more, teachers for 25 students. But teachers are not so much lecturers but participants of a dialogue with students. School students are among the brightest young Russian specialists from MGIMO and other Russian universities. Although classes are conducted in Russian (this is our principle: we are proud that Russian is the language of international communication, the language of the UN, an important language for global security issues), our schools traditionally have young professionals from abroad: from the USA to Syria, from Finland to Kazakhstan… Every year the geography changes, but one thing remains the same: Russian listeners will not have to practice concepts and ideas on themselves and convince themselves of their correctness. There will be no sterile environment! The rule of PIR Center is to develop critical thinking in our listeners.

The lecturers are top notch. Even those who could not reach us this year send video messages and mini-lectures. For example, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, with whom we just discussed the parameters of our school during a meeting at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna. At the same time, we agreed with him that he would soon speak in the traditional format – at the joint venue of MGIMO and the PIR Center in Moscow … Constant discussions, seminars, foresights, situations, analysis – our students will work up to sweat, those who have already taken part in this program know that it is simply impossible to slip off with us. This school has long been a brand, which is recognized by our competitors. If you ask about it, say, at HSE, they will tell you for sure: this is a very serious product.

MJ: The development of MGIMO today is under the sign of numbers, “Priority 2030” involves the accelerated digitalization of the university. How does the PIR Center deal with this?

We at PIR Center are have to react to this. We consider digitalization to be a very important tool in the educational, scientific and expert fields. And we have never opposed it to live human communication.

I must say that the PIR Center was once an Internet pioneer. Our first site, created by an MGIMO graduate, my then deputy, and now the president of Superjob, Alexey Zakharov, was among the first 200 sites in Russia. That is, PIR Center has always been at the forefront of these matters. And now, when we are talking about joint work with MGIMO within the framework of Priority 2030, one of the tasks that I have right now on my desktop is to digitize our curriculum, switch to the models offered by MGIMO, and also to attracting additional teaching and expert forces that will help make this digital material both pedagogically calibrated and unique in terms of content.

Finally, it is the digitization of our archives. And here I can’t help but recall another graduate who graduated from MGIMO back in the 1940s — Roland Mikhailovich Timerbaev, the ambassador who created the arms control architecture and was one of the authors of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. He recently passed away, and this year we will celebrate the 95th anniversary of his birth. We will publish a collection of his works… Roland Mikhailovich left his extensive scientific archives to the PIR Center. They simply do not have the right to gather dust on the shelves. Let’s digitize, make them available to inquisitive students.

We are also working on a digital edition of the textbook Nuclear Nonproliferation. We are obvious monopolists in the publication of quality products on this sensitive topic in Russian, but if this textbook appears in English (and we still need to make efforts for this), then there will be nothing like it in the world! The release of a top-quality digital product is an ambitious task, and we see the possibility of its implementation precisely through joint work within the framework of Priority 2030.

The original interview in Russian is available at the MGIMO Journal here.