The Russian Bear and the American Eagle

In the early 1990’s in Saudi Arabia, during my assignment at the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, the Saudis and the Russians opened diplomatic relations. The U.S. and its allies, officially including Russia, had just won the first Gulf war to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqi occupation. The days were full of optimism and enthusiasm. Russia had emerged on the world stage shorn of the Soviets, and we believed democracy had won the Cold War.

For a while, it looked as if a glorious new age was born, when the countries of the former Soviet Union would be overtaken by democracy and capitalism. A Russian official visited our U.S. consulate in Jeddah, and we all basked in cooperative civility.

Alas, it was not to be. Today, Russia and western nations, including the United States, back client conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, like the old days of the Cold War.

U.S. intelligence about Russian hacks interfering with the American election have opened a frontier of grave concern.

Raymond Smith, a U.S. diplomat in Moscow during that early time, writes in a recent issue of The Foreign Service Journal (December 2016), “The Russian people, giddy from the collapse of the corrupt, oppressive regime under which they had labored for generations, hungered for a normal relationship with the rest of the world and believed that the result would be quick and dramatic improvement in their lives. . . . I wrote that these expectations could not be met, and that a period of disillusionment would inevitably follow.”

It did, indeed. For one thing, the golden age desired by the Russians did not materialize. Instead, “Russians saw criminality, disorder, poverty and the emergence of a new, corrupt and astronomically wealthy class of oligarchs.”

Former European nations of the Soviet Union desired the expansion of NATO as a guard against the reestablishment of any future Russian dominance over them. Russia saw the expansion of NATO as a humiliating attempt to force on them an international system managed by the United States, with Russia no longer allowed a role on the world stage.

How to avoid these adversarial roles? Smith suggests coming together on common causes, such the defeat of ISIS. If we have reasons for defeating the terrorist group, Russia has even more: they wish to defeat the groups before they begin attacking the Russian homeland.

The trick is to find those areas of common interest while we stand firm on issues important to us. Foreign interference in our elections is not open for negotiation. We will fight it. Other issues. like the brutal bloodletting of the Assad regime, must be recognized as evil.

Nevertheless, Smith ends on a positive note: “Unlike during the Soviet era, the two countries are not ideological opponents. There will be areas where our interests conflict. Resolving those conflicts constructively will require both countries to understand the limits of their interests.”

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