History of Russian-American relations: Competition and cooperation

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From left to right: Alaska State Sen. Gary Wilken, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, former Alaska State Sen. John Binkley, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov cut the ribbon dedicating the Memorial to the Alaska-Siberia Lend-Lease Program in Fairbanks, Alaska, Aug. 27th, 2006. Defense Dept. photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen.

By JEFFREY W. HAHN with ALEXANDER DOLITSKY

Editor’s note from Alexander Dolitsky: My late friend and colleague Jeff W. Hahn initially published this insightful article in the “Allies in Wartime: The Alaska-Siberia Airway during WWII,” edited by Alexander Dolitsky, Alaska-Siberia Research Center, Juneau, Alaska. 

The purpose of this article is to place the story of cooperation along the Alaska-Siberia Lend-Lease Airway during WWII into a larger context — the development of Russian-American relations over time.

Since 1917, relations between Russia and the United States have alternated between periods of competition and cooperation. My thesis is that whether relations have been cooperative or competitive has depended on the degree to which the leaders of the two sides have perceived that they have a common interest.

This was clearly the case during World War II, when the two countries allied in the face of Hitler’s aggression in Europe; the Lend-Lease cooperation was a particularly clear and dramatic example of that. At the time, the memorial to Lend-Lease operation was unveiled in Fairbanks, Alaska, on Aug. 27, 2006, the two countries again found themselves cooperating in the face of another common enemy—this time, the threat of global terrorism.

Initial American reaction to Soviet Russia was hostile. In 1917, after the October Revolution in Russia, the U.S. joined other European countries in efforts to weaken the Bolshevik regime. They originally supported a “Cordon Sanitaire”intended to isolate the Bolshevik government diplomatically.

Editor’s addition: French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau is credited with the first use of the phrase “cordon sanitaireas a metaphor for ideological containment. In March of 1919, he urged the newly independent border states that had broken away from Bolshevist Russia to form a defensive union and thus quarantine the spread of communism to Western Europe; this he called a cordon sanitaire. This is still probably the most famous use of the phrase, though it is sometimes used more generally to describe a set of buffer states that form a barrier against a larger, ideologically hostile state. According to historian André Fontaine, Clemenceau’s cordon sanitaire marked the real beginning of the Cold War; thus, it would have started in 1919 and not in the mid-1940s as most historians contend.

In fact, until 1933 the U.S. government refused to recognize the Communist government in Soviet Russia. In the 1930s, however, both countries increasingly found a common interest in their shared opposition to the emergence of fascism in Europe. From 1941 to 1945, they entered into an alliance against Nazi Germany and its Axis powers.

After 1945, relations between the Soviet Union and the United States continued to alternate between cooperation and competition. The period from the end of 1945 to about 1965 was a time of great hostility known as the beginning of the “Cold War”— cold only because actual military conflict did not occur. American policy, based on a perception of the Soviet Union as an expansionist power, was one of “containment.” 

The Soviet Union was seen as an imperialistic power whose communist ideology justified its global ambitions. Soviet expansion could only be deterred by the threat of countervailing power. Containment theory received concrete expression in Europe in the NATO alliance and was later extended to alliances in Asia and the Middle East. By 1965, the Soviet Union was encircled by these hostile alliances.

At the end of the 1960s, the initial phase of the Cold War was replaced by a new period of cooperation known as “détente.” Again, cooperation grew out of a common interest—this time, a shared desire to control the growth of nuclear weapons. Although the recognition of this common interest can be seen in the 1967 Non-Proliferation Treaty, détentereached its zenith with the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) of 1972. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) in particular was evidence that both sides accepted the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction, which is based on the assumption that the security of both sides depends on the ability of each to destroy the other.

The other important result of détente, of course, was the political settlement in Europe known as the Helsinki Agreement, signed in 1975, which signaled an acceptance by all parties of a territorial status quo in Europe.

By the late 1970s, however, cooperation was replaced once again by competition. First, the Carter Administration (1976-1980) made human rights issues a priority in its foreign policy and accused the Soviet Union of violating them, pointing to the issue of Jewish emigration to the West in particular.

It was when Ronald Reagan became the U.S. president in 1980, however, that relations became so confrontational that one could speak of a new “Cold War.” Going beyond human rights issues, Reagan condemned the communist Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire” and abandoned the SALT process of limiting arms, arguing instead that nuclear arms must be reduced to the levels established in the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, often known as START.

Further, Reagan insisted that the Soviet Union had forsaken détente by increasing its nuclear and conventional military forces. His response was to deploy a new generation of medium range missiles in Europe and to propose a comprehensive missile defense system known as the Satellite Defense Initiative or “Star Wars.” By 1985, all negotiations between the Soviet Union and the United States had ended.

Relations between the Soviet Union and the United States entered a new period of cooperation after Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985. Gorbachev adopted a new approach to Soviet foreign policy, which he called “New Thinking.” For Soviet-American relations, “New Thinking” applied to security meant that under Gorbachev’s leadership important agreements on reducing weapons could be achieved. The very first breakthrough on this issue came in 1987, when the two countries signed the Intermediate Nuclear Force Agreement eliminating all medium range missiles in Europe. This was followed by the Conventional Forces in Europe Agreement in 1990, a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 1991, and other agreements on weapons.

Along with these remarkable achievements in the area of military relations, other issues that had been sources of conflict between Soviet Russia and the United States also began to find resolution. By 1989, the U.S.S.R. had withdrawn from Afghanistan. The Berlin wall came down in the same year and free elections in the communist nations of East Europe brought non-communist governments to power, for the most part without violence.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the emergence of a new world order in which the Soviet Union would cooperate with the United States to preserve world peace was Soviet support at the United Nations for the use of force against Iraqi aggression in Kuwait. In short, by 1991, all the major issues of contention between the Soviet Union and the United States were ended. It seemed that a new era of cooperation was in place.

By the end of 1991, however, the U.S.S.R. had disintegrated into its 15 constituent republics, the largest of which was the Russian Federation. What would this mean for Russian-American relations? At first, the cooperative relationship that had developed under Perestroika [economic restructuring] and Glasnost [freedom of expression and political openness] continued to characterize relations between post-communist Russia and the United States. President Yeltsin and his foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, seemed committed to a pro-western orientation. For one thing, they continued to support United Nations sanctions against Iraq. In the area of nuclear arms reduction, they joined with the U.S. and the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to sign a protocol for START I in Lisbon, Portugal in 1992, which would enable START I to be implemented by returning all nuclear weapons in the former Soviet republics to Russia.

In January 1993, shortly before he left office, President George Walker Bush signed the START II agreement with President Yeltsin, calling for the reduction of nuclear weapons to half of their previous levels.

By the end of 1994, however, relations began once again to shift. In foreign policy, debate in Russia over whether continued cooperation with the West truly served Russian national interests was growing. Those arguing that American and Russian interests no longer coincided could point to a number of issues: American criticism of Russia’s actions in Chechnya in 1995; NATO expansion to the East including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1997; the use of NATO military forces against Serbia, first in Bosnia in 1994, and then in Kosovo in 1999; and growing differences over Russian relations with Iraq and Iran.

As a result, although the U.S. Senate ratified START II in 1995, by 2000, the Russian Parliament had still refused to do so. Perhaps nothing made Russia more concerned about American intentions than the growing consensus in the U.S. government in support of the ballistic missile defense system, in violation of the 1972 ABM treaty. In short, by the time he left office on December 31, 1999, Yeltsin could accurately describe relations between East and West as a “Cold Peace.”

When Vladimir Putin became acting president of Russia on Jan. 1, 2000, little was known about him or his views on foreign policy. The first sense of what direction he might take came even before his inauguration as president in May 2000, when as “acting president” he managed to achieve what Yeltsin could not: Duma ratification of START II (although with the condition that the ABM Treaty remain in force). This, coupled with his inaugural speech emphasizing the importance of economic growth and the need to integrate Russia’s economy into the global economy, suggested a return to a more pro-western orientation.

From the American side, the year 2000 was dominated by the race for president. Relations with Russia were not an important issue in the campaign. After taking office in January of 2001, the initial attitude of the Bush Administration toward Russia was cool. Nevertheless, the administration’s general indifference toward Russia had begun to change, even before the events of September 11, 2001. During their first meeting in Slovenia in June 2001, Bush and Putin appeared to establish a warm personal relationship. As was reported by Frank Bruni, in “Leaders’ Words at First Meeting are Striking for Warm Tone,” New York Times, June 17, 2001, President Bush observed: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy… I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

After Sept. 11, 2001, the dynamics of Russian-American relations completely changed to a better prospect. Once again, it is because of the perception of leaders on both sides that they have a common interest—this time in defeating the terrorism associated with radical Islamic fundamentalism.

Despite continuing differences on a number of issues, ranging from the sale of nuclear reactors to Iran and Russian criticism of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, the fact is that today [2007], as in the past, Russian-American relations continue to depend on mutual perceptions of common interests. For now, at least, those common interests compel both sides to cooperate just as they did with the Lend-Lease partnership during World War II. 

Editor’s addition: From 2014 to present, Russian-U.S. relations again entered the phase of the “Cold Peace” or the “Cold Tension” over the situation in Ukraine, including the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022. The following articles in this series will provide a diverse and comprehensive overview of the World War II remarkable cooperation between two countries—one that will serve as a benchmark for future studies on this important subject.

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Jeffrey Hahn was a professor of political science at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. This column was edited and adapted by Must Read Alaska senior contributor Alexander Dolitsky. Dolitsky was born and raised in Kiev in the former Soviet Union. He received an M.A. in history from Kiev Pedagogical Institute, Ukraine, in 1976; an M.A. in anthropology and archaeology from Brown University in 1983; and was enroled in the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College from 1983 to 1985, where he was also a lecturer in the Russian Center. In the U.S.S.R., he was a social studies teacher for three years, and an archaeologist for five years for the Ukranian Academy of Sciences. In 1978, he settled in the United States. Dolitsky visited Alaska for the first time in 1981, while conducting field research for graduate school at Brown. He lived first in Sitka in 1985 and then settled in Juneau in 1986. From 1985 to 1987, he was a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and social scientist. He was an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Alaska Southeast from 1985 to 1999; Social Studies Instructor at the Alyeska Central School, Alaska Department of Education from 1988 to 2006; and has been the Director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center (see www.aksrc.homestead.com) from 1990 to present. He has conducted about 30 field studies in various areas of the former Soviet Union (including Siberia), Central Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and the United States (including Alaska). Dolitsky has been a lecturer on the World Discoverer, Spirit of Oceanus, andClipper Odyssey vessels in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. He was the Project Manager for the WWII Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease Memorial, which was erected in Fairbanks in 2006. He has published extensively in the fields of anthropology, history, archaeology, and ethnography. His more recent publications include Fairy Tales and Myths of the Bering Strait Chukchi, Ancient Tales of Kamchatka; Tales and Legends of the Yupik Eskimos of Siberia; Old Russia in Modern America: Russian Old Believers in Alaska; Allies in Wartime: The Alaska-Siberia Airway During WWII; Spirit of the Siberian Tiger: Folktales of the Russian Far East; Living Wisdom of the Far North: Tales and Legends from Chukotka and Alaska; Pipeline to Russia; The Alaska-Siberia Air Route in WWII; and Old Russia in Modern America: Living Traditions of https://mustreadalaska.com/alexander-dolitsky-setting-the-record-straight-on-israels-history-with-palestinians/the Russian Old Believers; Ancient Tales of Chukotka, and Ancient Tales of Kamchatka.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting article. However the U.S. Russia relationship goes back much further, Alexander II loaned Lincoln money . After France Russia was our oldest ally, and despite B’nai B’Riths attempts to strong arm President Taft into ending the old alliance it continued until the exiled Jews (exiled 1905) returned and launched the Bolshevik revolution (1917) the relationship resumed in 1937 under Stalin.
    200 years together is a good read also.

  2. Our country wasted a once in a century opportunity to secure European security and optimal trade arrangements that would have benefited everybody, especially our Euro puppet dependent countries. We have the most openly incompetent and corrupt congress and government in our history. We are very fortunate that Russia has been patient and measured in response to the outrageous provocations and the undeclared hot and economic wars we started and are losing badly. Russians were not aware of the depth of the intense hatred and contempt in the west for their country, culture and inhabitants. The mass ignorance just makes it easier for asinine and childish narratives spread and maintained to justify the policies of societal suicide we in the west are enacting. Russia has turned to the east and south and is not looking back. The US dominance in a rules based order we created post WWII is over. Internationally we are now viewed as an annoying, yapping ankle biting dog, that although vicious, is diminished.

  3. I would be willing to bet that a majority of Americans don’t even know that we were allied with the Soviet Union during World War 2. Such is the result of the State Department’s vitriolic propaganda.

    • Majority of Americans don’t know it was the Russians who broke the back of the Wermacht, suffering 30 million+ military and civilians killed in the process. Siege of Lenningrad lasting 3 years tied up Army Group North and the Finns. Germany lost the war at Kursk, in July 1943. By June 1944 when America invaded France we faced a 2nd rate and exhausted enemy in its’ death throes.

    • The Soviet Union won the war. They paid dearly for it. US came in way later on. USSR deserves total respect; the Russian soul doesn’t forget.

  4. Don’t forget all of the color revolutions the US started to achieve its means of getting governments friendly to its hegemony. The Obama Administration’s support of the bloody coup against a legally elected president signaled the end of a peaceful competition and the start of what has now turned into an invasion of Ukraine by Russia. We will probably fight until the last Ukrainian in our effort to turn Russia into several mini states. When Cuba was changed via the Castro revolution the US acted to secure its borders and still holds Cuba at arm’s length today. Yet when the US attempted the same thing in Ukraine, it immediately held the Russians up to the world as dictators, ignoring the fact that the Ukraine was historically part of Russia for hundreds of years and was a buffer between it and the expansionist NATO west. Russia has bad memories of invasions from the West, the ones from Napoleon and Hitler being the worst. WWII cost the Russians 27million or more civilian casualties, not counting the military deaths it took to drive the Germans back to Berlin. And Victoria Nuland has vowed to destroy Russia and maybe returning to the State Department to do just that. In short, we are risking WWIII and nuclear devastation to continue a stupid foreign policy endorsed by both political parties.

    • It is refreshing to see opinions expressed by a MustRead viewer who has a grounded understanding of modern Russia and in context with the crisis our state department created in Ukraine. I would argue that Nuland leveraged tensions to start a civil war in Ukraine. The franchise NATO, Inc. created as a defensive alliance has long since been used as an offensive weapon. NATO is a collective of decadent and dying cultures, hollow shells of once proud nation states, whose national wealth has been stolen by globalist oligarchs. They thought Russia was weak (as Hitler famously stated “kick in the door and Russia will collapse). Our modern western elite class is more self absorbed, ignorant and inbred
      than French Royalty before their revolution. Russia entered the Ukraine civil war as France did during our civil war against the oppressions of the English Crown. It was a trap designed to pull Russia in, and with economic sanctions, in their weakness lead to regime change and splintering the massive Federation into small expoitable regions. The trap backfired and now NATO and the EU project may not survive. No number of Ukrainian lives wasted or money spent is too high a price to keep this going until after our November elections.

      • To Brian: 14 million YOUNG Ukrainians left Ukraine since February 2022. Ukrainian refugees are everywhere in Europe, and also among us in Alaska. And I don’t blame them; who wants to die for an irresponsible and mis-calculating politics?

        • The streets in the Elenskii regime controlled portions of Ukraine are devoid of men and what is left of their local economy is being destroyed due to the draft law. People are terrified of the SBU which kidnaps men by force (telegram videos of these events are fascinating) and they appear at the front in 3 or 4 days with no basic training, according to official Ukrainian military units telegram posts. It takes years to train NCOs and officers, along with conscripts to form effective combat brigades. The average life expectancy of a raw conscript deployed to the line of contact has decreased from a few days down to hours. Contrast with the Donetsk and Luhansk militias where the local ethnic Russians volunteered to fight the Elenskii regime, and whose units have since been incorporated into the Russian Federation military. There were approximately 1,000 volunteers per day in Russia before the Crocus City Hall terror event, which increased the rate to 1,500 per day. Russia trains recruits for a year or more before they are deployed to combat. They also have to keep in reserve the largest part of their military in the event NATO starts more offensive actions along the length of their western borders with NATO countries. The eastern oblasts incorporated into the RF will be rebuilt and do well, the concern is we are creating a perpetual European failed state with the western oblasts. Similar to what we did to Somalia by installing Siad Barre to start the Ogaden War against the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia. The US backed Barre regime lost that war but focused on the genocide of the Isaaq clan, which created a permanent failed state to this day. The now congresswoman Ilhan Omar used a refugee camp in Kenya to flee to America, where she was rewarded with a congressional seat. The top Ukrainian regime thugs will also be fleeing here and rewarded. The pallets of our cash they embezzled will grease the wheels well for rapid entry. The depth of unconcern for and hatred of the Ukrainian people here at home and in Europe is surreal.

    • To JaneJames: Sadly, my good friend and colleague Jeff Hahn of Villanova University passed away in 2021. He was a professor of Political Sciences at Villanova University and, yet, in 1984 he took my class when I taught Russian Studies (Ethnography of the Soviet Union) at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. Jeff was an insightful Sovietologist and published extensively on this topic. His article is published in my book “Allies in Wartime: The Alaska-Siberia Airway during WWII.” I edited his article again and republished it in MRAK for a wider audience.

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