Fort Report: Russia

Mar 13, 2017
Fort Report

I once drank some Russian vodka. It was not ordinary vodka; it was special vodka laced with pepper. I rarely drink vodka. However, given my circumstances and in deference to my host, I decided to take it. It was very nasty.

Given the news stories about contact with the Russians, I should tell you that I have met with the Russians. As an order of business, I frequently dialogue with members of the diplomatic community from countries with which we have strong bonds, budding friendships, or deteriorating relationships. In fact, last fall, as tensions with Russia were rising on multiple fronts, I called the Russian Ambassador—a central figure in controversial stories that are dominating the media these days—after I learned that the one remaining thread of scientific cooperation between our two countries regarding the disposition of spent nuclear material was dying. The conversation was tense at first, with much back and forth. I said, “I do not think you want America to blow up. I do not think you want Russia to blow up. Neither do I.” It ended more constructively.

Not all my interactions with the Ambassador have been fraught with tension. During an earlier, more pleasant conversation, I said, “Mr. Ambassador, I have no Russian ancestry. I have never been to Russia nor dived deep into your history. Yet, my daughter—I can’t tell you why—announced to me that she has undertaken self-study in the Russian language. Mr. Ambassador, would you be willing to write her a note? Her name is Kathryn.”

The Ambassador politely obliged my request, producing a note in Russian. When I tried to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet, I had to ask him, “What does it say?” He cryptically replied, “That’s between me and Kathryn.”

Jokes and intrigue aside, these conversations form part of an ongoing dialogue with nations around the globe to help ensure a more peaceful and prosperous world.

Nevertheless, we must remain mindful that engagement with Russia should not be interpreted as softness on the hard and complex questions before us. President Vladimir Putin’s acts violate clear international agreements. He has stolen land from Ukraine. He continues to meddle in the Baltics and the Balkans. He has intervened in Syria and has a transactional relationship with Iran. These are hard facts. Furthermore, debates continue about the extent and impact of Russian involvement in our domestic affairs.

Befriending Russia is not a necessary precondition for dialogue, but history can inform why we need to talk to one another. During the Cold War, America conversed with Russia in ways that resulted in “taking down that Wall.” In this context, at a more dangerous time, President Ronald Reagan and the USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev initiated important talks. Their personal rapport helped create the conditions for the historic 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and ensured START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) negotiations. Our acts of soft power, including diplomatic, cultural, and educational exchanges, as well as Voice of America broadcasts—which helped tap into the deepest longings of the Russian people—played a vital role in the eventual collapse of the Iron Curtain.

We also have to be mindful that America cannot always just prescribe outcomes. Relations can be fragile, history is complicated, wounds and suspicions heal slowly, ethnic and nationalistic bonds run deep, cultures differ, and ambitions for power and possessions plague humanity. Lapsed connections and short-term horizons can lead to miscalculations and poor decisions.

Perhaps my interaction with the Russian Ambassador might be viewed by some as inappropriate. Properly understood, semi-regular encounters of this nature can make a difference. Stomaching complex realities to create even a thin thread of connection is critical in dealing with other powers to prevent escalating danger. Even if it involves swallowing some nasty vodka.