The cease-fire in southwest Syria glimmers like a ray of hope from behind the dark clouds of a Cold War. The conflict already has three fronts billowing with peril, namely in Syria, the Baltics, and Ukraine(1). The charged atmosphere could have produced lightning in the encounter where a NATO piloted F-16 encroached upon the jet carrying the Defense Minister of Russia only to be warded off by an SU-27(2). Despite these ominous signs, I hark back to a time of better relations between the US and Russia, ironically at the time of America’s greatest tragedy.
September 11, 2001 remains seared in memory. I was in Ulan Ude, deep in Siberia, with a the US delegation from the Commerce Department. I represented the forestry sector in the Russian American Foundation for Economic Cooperation which emerged from the Gore-Chernomyrdin Accords, and continued under the Bush administration, to foster cultural, political and economic cooperation.
The American delegation returned from a long day of discussions about how to remove obstacles in trade agreements, opportunities for cooperation in finance, energy, agriculture and humanitarian aid. In the forestry sector we discussed issues such as metric vs. American standard measurements for wood-products, equipment standards for imports and exports, international financing, and other issues. After the conference, the American delegation returned to the hotel and gathered a bit later in the bar.
As I witnessed the planes crash into the twin towers, my first thought was that we were watching a commercial promoting the latest blockbuster action movie. Then my eye caught the unmistakable CNN logo at the bottom of the screen. One woman shrieked, “That’s New York! That’s New York! I’m from New York.”
Within hours Spetsnaz soldiers arrived to guard the hotel. The next day Spetsnaz protected a convoy of delegates to reconvene at a distant resort on beautiful Lake Baikal where Spetsnaz secured the premises. They acted with courtesy and rigorous professionalism. The unquestioned good faith shown by Russia in response to this tragedy rejuvenated my hope that one day Russia and the United States could be good neighbors.
I also hark back to that same era after my return when I was working with the Eugene-Irkutsk Sister City Committee. A fantastic array of dedicated volunteers created a number of exchanges including school art contests, a youth basketball tournament with players from a Russian high school, exhibitions, and musical performances. We translated for officials from government agencies, and business people. We also translated at hospitals and clinics for visiting medical professionals, where I learned that the basis for Lasik eye surgery was invented by a Russian doctor.(3) These exchanges promoted a willingness to make friendships, exchange ideas, and build the bridges between peoples that foster prosperity.
Those were balmy days indeed, but the xenophobic storm raging against all things Russian makes difficult the belief that a new détente is possible. President Trump’s disdain for the press, however, has given him latitude to negotiate with Russia and Jordan to create a cease-fire in southern Syria. Despite the thunder for confrontation, if that cease-fire holds, it could prove the first step toward a renewed engagement with Russia, and toward dispelling the clouds of enmity.
Mark B. Baldwin, has a Masters degree in Russian Language and Literature. He worked for thirteen years trading goods between the US and Russia. He now works as a programmer. His views are his own.