COMMENTARY: U.S.-Russian relations have been historically worse

The Trump White House has already demonstrated its tendency to ignore history and to overemphasize current conditions. This is certainly true as it pertains to U.S.-Russian relations.

If Trump administration personnel are to be believed, we are presently experiencing the lowest point of the American-Russian connection in history. However, a top-10 list of crisis points in American-Russian ties does not even include 2017. Below is a review of the years when the relationship between Americans and Russians was really in danger of collapse or close to direct military conflict with one another:

(1) 1962: The two weeks in October that comprised the Cuban Missile Crisis was scary for anyone who lived through the period. Having discovered intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads positioned toward the U.S. in Cuba, the United States demanded removal of the weapons and the Kennedy administration instituted a blockade to force same. The Russians finally agreed to remove the weapons for transport back to the Soviet Union, but not before making the world contemplate what would have happened if they did not. The emergency phone connecting the American and Russian leaders was set up in the wake of this incident.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

(2) 1957: The successful Russian launch of the first human-made satellite began the Space Age as we know it. But it also made Americans paranoid and angry at the same time. The ensuing four years saw a number of accomplishments for space exploration, most of which the Russians achieved before America. With Sputnik came an increase in civil defense exercises. Eventually, the Americans beat the Soviets to the moon, but the path there was anything but easy.

(3) 1983: This year is often overlooked in examination of U.S.-Russian links. But not only was there great distrust between American and Soviet authorities, there were actual military exercises which came just short of open hostilities. During this year, the Soviets shot down a Korean airliner. Movies seemed to imitate real life, as the film “The Day After” showed what a post-nuclear exchange would look like. The changes in Soviet leadership made the circumstances more unstable, adding to the uncertainty.

(4) 1973: The Yom Kipper War saw Arab states attack Israel in October. Because the United States and the Soviet Union aggressively assisted their respective allies with resupply efforts, there was almost a direct confrontation between the superpowers. The resulting victory by the Israelis hardened Soviet support for Arab nationalists.

(5) 1979: The Christmas-season invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union greatly changed world affairs. The Carter administration quickly condemned the invasion and took actions to punish the Soviets, including boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. The Soviets got bogged down in Afghanistan, with the U.S. supporting opposition forces which it later fought against. Combined with the Iran hostage crisis a short time before, the White House appeared feckless in dealing with foreign policy crises.

(6) 1968: The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was an effort to prevent the latter nation from leaving the Soviet orbit. While America recognized the Soviet sphere of influence, it harshly criticized the move and monitored events closely to ensure that the Soviets would not move any further. Meanwhile, U.S. authorities were preoccupied with the Vietnam War and the aftermath of the Tet Offensive there.

(7) 1956: The invasion of Hungary by the Soviets was one of many events in a very active year. As he campaigned for re-election, President Eisenhower had to manage this crisis along with several others, including the Suez Canal incident. This was a prototypical event as part of the Cold War.

(8) 1960: The shooting down of an American U-2 spy plane by the Soviets was a public relations disaster for the Americans, though there was an amicable swap of the pilot for a Russian officer. The incident actually allowed candidate John Kennedy to charge a “window of vulnerability” existed in America’s stance with Russia, helping him beat Richard Nixon but heating up the Cold War even more. The incident lead to a chilly end to the Four Powers Summit at the time.

(9) 1991: The end of communism as the official government of the Soviet Union came on Christmas. But before that, there was the attempted coup to get rid of Mikhail Gorbachev in August.

The aborted coup, while increasing uncertainty and tensions for a time, was followed by the rise of Boris Yeltsin, who became his nation’s first post-communist leader in 1992.

(10) 1989: The tearing down of the Berlin Wall was the first step toward German unification a year later. But at first, no one quite knew how the Soviets would react to the spectacle and the dropping of East Germany from the list of communist governments. As it turned out, Mikhail Gorbachev’s changes in the Soviet Union spread to other areas, soon leading to independence movements in other areas of Eastern Europe.

If a No. 11 were added to the aforementioned list, it would be the 1986 failed summit between U.S. president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev over intermediate-range nuclear weapons, not the falling-out between the Americans and Russians which transpired following Syria’s employment of chemical weapons in that nation’s conflict and the U.S. reaction.

Still, the present predicament could land on the “worst” list through miscommunication, hubris, or incompetence. In short, the blustery rhetoric emanating from both sides is doing no one any good. The Americans and Russians must look beyond the blinders of a single incident to grasp the long-term implications of a stable relationship, if not a friendly one.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. He has taught and published extensively on American foreign, military, and national security policy.

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