A joint U.S.–Russian statement last month went mostly unnoticed, which was a good thing since it should have never been made.
It was issued by Vladimir Putin’s government and the Trump administration to commemorate an important historical moment: when American and Soviet Forces met on the Elbe 75 years ago as World War II was coming to an end with the defeat of Nazi Germany.
The joint statement, reportedly initiated at the Kremlin, said that the “the Spirit of the Elbe is an example of how our countries can put aside differences, build trust, and cooperate in pursuit of a greater cause.”
It is not likely that America’s allies in what used to be called Eastern Europe were informed before the statement was signed.
That was certainly the intention of the United States, which had by then spent many lives and much treasure to defeat Nazi Germany, while providing Moscow indispensable resources for its war effort against Hitler.
Cooperation was not what Stalin had in mind, however. The joint statement has been read with great concern by Poles, Lithuanians, Czechs, Hungarians, Germans, and others who suffered for more than 40 years Moscow’s “pursuit of a greater cause,” their enslavement under communist rule.
They are, as were their parents and grandparents who lived through World War II and its aftermath, well aware that the Spirit of the Elbe, in Soviet Newspeak, meant Socialism is the Spirit. This translation had made ravages during the war, and it would continue its wicked ways in the years that followed.
The Soviet secret police mass-murdered the Polish elite during the war (see Doug Bandow’s American Spectator article yesterday), and the Red Army was ordered to halt on the east bank of the Vistula and watch while the Nazi army wiped out the Polish Home Army, which expected Soviet help as it rose against the occupier.
This was the Spirit of the Elbe: on this side of the Elbe, communist tyranny — and you better remember it.
To its credit, America never accepted as definite Russia’s control of Central European societies, which was based on brute force. Within a few years, rebellions with sticks and stones were being crushed in East Germany and Poland, and when the Budapest working class took guns to their fight for freedom in 1956, the Reds came at them with their front-line tanks.
Fearful of another European war, successive U.S. administrations showed restraint — variously criticized by roll-backers and democracy missionaries. Through the years, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe broadcast to Central Europe news and the history of the region, which the Kremlin continues to rewrite today.
When Ronald Reagan became president, he reminded the world about the ongoing tragedy in Eastern Europe and Russia, denouncing the massacre of thousands of Polish officers at Katyn in April and May 1940. Moscow had tried to blame the Germans, but as more information became available, Stalin’s responsibility was clearly established.
Diplomacy is not an exact science. Diplomatic statements could have serious consequences, as in 1950 when North Korea tried to conquer South Korea, aware of the fact that Washington had left South Korea outside of America’s defense “perimeter” against communism in Asia. And in 1990, the American ambassador to Baghdad met with Saddam Hussein as he was massing troops at the border with Kuwait, and rather than giving him a strong warning, told him the United States had no opinion on Arab–Arab conflicts, which was the established American policy. Had the ambassador obtained a clarification from Washington taking into account new conditions on the ground and delivered a strong warning, Saddam might have acted differently.
No two historical situations are alike, but what is undeniable is that Putin’s invasions and occupations of Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, the Republic of Georgia, and Moldova have created what he wanted — a climate of uncertainty among countries that used to belong to the Soviet Union.
Even those East European countries that were not Soviet republics but were Soviet satellites feel insecure in the face of Putin’s aggression, including those that are now members of NATO. It is likely that from Estonia to Bulgaria, Ukraine to the Czech Republic, last month’s celebration of the start of their captivity was met with a mix of puzzlement and downright dread. It is not likely that America’s allies in what used to be called Eastern Europe were informed before the statement was signed.
The joint statement provides a startling glimpse at Vladimir Putin’s thinking. He says that the two countries would be able “to pursue a greater cause” if they “put aside differences, build trust and cooperate.”
More than likely the “differences” Putin has in mind are America’s opposition to Russian expansionist efforts that include but are not limited to their aggressive actions in former Soviet Republics, as shown by his support for Assad in Syria, Tehran’s Ayatollahs, the sending of Russian “volunteers“ to Venezuela, the return of Russian spy ships to Havana Harbor, and reported plans to build a nuclear submarine base near Cienfuegos, Cuba.
Putin’s talks about setting aside differences and cooperation is an effort to assuage concerns in the U.S. government and in the foreign policy community about Russian actions and future intentions.
Unfortunately, as it was 75 years ago, what the United States and Russia understand for “a greater cause” is not the same. It would be helpful if American universities required some serious historical studies as they require English and math, that students reading news of mystery spirits might form at least an informed opinion of what evils they can, unchecked, unleash.
Nobody believes that, diplomatic niceties aside, Washington is not aware of Moscow’s mischief. Giving credence to Putin’s entreaties, without obtaining a change in Moscow’s behavior, would be a tragedy for the United States and its allies, and it would be out of character for President Trump.
Frank Calzón is by training a political scientist and a human rights activist.