Russian-American relations, sixty years after the end of World War II

This year, the world marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Back then, our country and the United States were allies; so why can’t we manage to overcome the legacy of the Cold War now? In the 21st Century, we cannot permit ourselves the luxury of rivalry.

This year, the world marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. We shall never forget what was accomplished by those who stopped the threat of fascism, and paid such a terrible price for doing so. Back then, our country and the United States were allies; so why can’t we manage to overcome the legacy of the Cold War now? Here is the opinion of Alexander Lebedev, chairman of the Duma committee for CIS affairs and contacts with compatriots abroad.

* * *

Six decades have passed, but as we look back, our pride in and respect for the deeds of our forefathers are accompanied by some bitterness: the alliance of the 1940s has never been repeated in either Soviet-American or Russian-American relations, and still seems unachievable now.

In the Cold War period that followed 1945, when the world sometimes stood on the brink of nuclear catastrophe, and the rules of the game in Moscow-Washington relations defined any success for one side as a defeat for the other, it was hard to even imagine relations between our countries ever returning to the level achieved during the war against fascism.

All this changed drastically as the 1990s began. The Berlin Wall came down, the Warsaw Pact broke up, and the USSR ceased to exist – peacefully, with almost no bloodshed. A new democratic Russia came into existence after August 1991. The ideological barriers which had divided our countries for generations were relegated to the past.

US-Russian relations seemed to have great prospects. At first it was really so. Though rather instinctively, our counties were moving towards each other. Both nations were obviously prepared to corroborate. Suffice it to mention the storm of applause with which US Congress greeted the speech of the Russian president in 1992. But the honeymoon in relations between the two countries did not last long. By the mid-1990s, it seemed to have ended.

The new century has brought few changes, even despite the September 11 events when it became obvious that our countries have a common enemy – international terrorism, which is no less insidious and atrocious than was the fascism in the 20th century. We have not become rivals in the sense that applied during the Cold War period, yet it is difficult to call us friends either. We consider ourselves partners and even allies in the joint war on terrorism, but not friends. Why is that so?

First of all, there remain obvious contradictions between our two countries regarding a number of issues.

In fact, there is nothing unusual or negative in this. Even such long-standing partners as Britain and France have had and will have disagreements, which does not affect the general tenor of their relations.

It is more complicated when it comes to countries which not long ago used to be rivals which possessed comparable military and economic potentials. But the situation has changed. Both countries retain the capacity for mutual nuclear destruction, which is regarded by many as anachronism, while their economic potentials as well as political influence are not comparable any more. These factors form the basis for the constant contradictions and disagreements in the US-Russian relations.

Washington wants Moscow to be more compliant, which in fact means recognitions of its leadership. Yet, it is exactly what causes Moscow’s discontent, as it seeks more equal and balanced relations. From the point of view of Moscow, equality presupposes reciprocal recognition and respect for each party’s own primary interests. Not surprisingly, in our view Russia’s priorities include the former USSR republics with which it has had centuries-long economic, political, cultural, ethnic and other ties. However, this state of things is not acceptable for the United States which for a number of reasons, like fuel sources or geopolitical status, includes some CIS countries in the sphere of its own interests.

The CIS is the most obvious, yet not the only instance. For example, Russian military authorities, and not only military authorities, are greatly concerned about the rearrangements in the U.S. military presence abroad as well as NATO’s expansion closer to Russia’s borders.

NATO is certainly changing, yet it remains a military-political bloc which can admit almost any of Russia’s neighbors, except Russia itself (one of the reasons is that the bloc cannot guarantee security of our borders). The list of reasons can be continued.

There are serious differences in the economic sphere as well. For instance, in the talks on Russia’s accession to the WTO the United States persistently demands new concessions from Russia. It stands to reason that admission to the WTO cannot be free, but the price for it ought not to be overcharged. Finally, the fact that the United States still applies the Jackson-Vanik amendment to Russia is simply outrageous. It seems absolutely unreasonable to apply to Russia an amendment which was introduced thirty-odd years ago for states without a market economy which restricted free emigration of their citizens. The fact that the amendment still applies to Russia is insulting.

If differences and disagreements between our two countries often exists despite our desires, there are a number of factors which prevent the US and Russia from becoming true friends. These factors are found mainly in the sphere of collective and individual psychology.

Among these factors I would give the first place to Cold War inertia. The bulk of the present politically active population in Russia and the United States was formed in the time of stiff opposition between the two countries. Regretfully, it has to be admitted that the image of enemy that was cultivated in our youth days proved so enduring (though many might object saying that the “communist values” which used to be widely propagated in the USSR have not been so long-lasting and have nearly disappeared by now in Russia). In any case, reciprocal mistrust can be felt in both countries almost everywhere, including, which is most important, in the media. My own experience lets me state that our parliaments have no immunity to such attitudes.

In both Russia and the United States, the other side would seldom be perceived as a natural and reliable partner. Therefore, in my view, the positive impulses issued by both presidents to facilitate development of US-Russian relations are of little effect. In such conditions it is very difficult to build solid bilateral relations. Difficult, but possible.

Credit should be given to presidents Vladimir Putin and George Bush. They belong to those who understand that in the 21st century our countries cannot indulge in rivalry. They are natural allies and their interests in many principal issues complement each other, and therefore the countries should cooperate. Luckily for us, who stand for extension of cooperation between our two countries, the terms of offices of the American and Russian presidents practically coincide. Therefore, they have a chance to lay the foundations for US-Russian relations which would secure us against various unexpected hazards.

It is no easy task, especially when bilateral relations are not secured by mutual trade interests ($10-15 billion per year is a negligible trade balance for our countries). Yet there is quite substantial, though hypothetical, potential for development in that sphere. For instance, both sides are strongly interested in expanding energy cooperation.

However, the most work remains to be done by civil society activists, who are sincerely interested in strengthening US-Russian relations and who do not look for pretexts to pull our countries apart, but take advantage of any possibility of bringing us closer to each other. This is for those who want to help, not to do harm.

It requires joint efforts to establish sound, comprehensive relations between the parliaments, business communities, scientific production associations, mass media, research and educations institutions, student and voluntary associations. Only in this was can we offset the negative effect of the Cold War which precludes possibilities for the future generations to benefit from cooperation based on mutual respect.