U.S. and Russia: A History Lesson

Second Lieutenant William Robertson (left) shaking hands with Lieutenant Alexander Sylvashko (right) on April 25th, 1945 at the Elbe River meeting. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Inside of Arlington National Cemetery is a small stone marker written in two different languages. A statement in English informs the visitor that the marker is “in recognition of the cooperation by American, Soviet, and Allied armed forces during World War II. This marker symbolizes the link up of Soviet and American elements at the Elbe River on 25 April 1945. In tribute to the partnership in the battle against tyranny.”  Below, is the same story in translated Russian. The stone is called “The Spirit of Elbe.”

On April 25th, 1945 Soviet and American forces met in Germany at the Elbe River. Considered a turning point in the war, this day has come to be known as Elbe Day. Following a formal handshake between Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Sylvashko and Second Lieutenant William Robertson, the Soviet, American, and British governments released statements reaffirming the allied determination to rid the world of the Third Reich – of which, we know, they successfully did. Last month, at Arlington National Cemetery, veterans of World War II, their families, Russian and American diplomats, and citizens, both Russian and American, took part in a commemoration of Elbe Day. During a time of media misinformation and increased Russophobia in the western world, Elbe Day serves as a stark reminder of the significance of a strong relationship between our two nations.

History serves to inform society as a teacher and at times, as a devil’s advocate. Without the cooperation between the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union during World War II, we rightfully believe that the world would have been an unimaginable place. As the crises in Syria and Ukraine continue, we are shown very clearly that tension between the U.S. and Russia are exacerbating conflict in these areas. Our high school history books are screaming at us, urging us to advocate for less sanctions and NATO presence and for more diplomacy. It is difficult to imagine both Syria and the Donbass region of Ukraine reaching a long-lasting and restorative peace in the near future if the U.S. and Russia fail to negotiate.

Why is it that every news story chooses to blame Russia for even the most minor of situations, such as the recent story of Russian infiltration at a Burlington, Vermont power plant, which was soon after proven false? Rather than actively instigating a new cold war, politicians and citizens alike should look beyond the mainstream narrative and focus instead on open and just dialogue with their Russian counterparts. The United States has the opportunity to play an important role in actively encouraging restoration and justice in war-torn areas of the world, rather than turning to sanctions and the build-up of NATO on Russian borders. The effects of continued sanctions and NATO are not long-lasting and only promote increased tensions between the U.S. and Russia. In order to continue living in a world without the overbearing threat of nuclear weapons, it is important that we turn to history.

We must recall the history of the North Atlantic Trade Organization (NATO). Established in 1949 as a means of collective security against the Soviet Union, it was formed as an intergovernmental military alliance between North American and European states. The infamous Article 5 of NATO states that an attack against any member is an attack against all members and that they will assist the attacked parties. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO should have also collapsed. But this is not what happened. Today, NATO continues its build up in Eastern Europe, having never left. Following dated Cold War hysteria, NATO is a detrimental threat to Russian security and peace.

What can you do? It is easy to feel helpless facing a situation of international conflict. However, it is important to remind yourself of the importance that you can have, even in matters of global concern. The first step you can take is to educate yourself. To understand why Russia has a particular stance with Ukraine and Syria, read sources and statements from every side of the conflict; remember that every source has its bias. Keep track of legislation being passed by congress regarding the issue. The second step is to communicate. Talk with local leaders, family, and friends. Attend events at local universities regarding Syria, NATO, Russia, Ukraine, or nuclear weapons. Ensure that you are asking questions and are a part of the conversation. While many members of the international relations and media communities are actively promoting Cold War rhetoric, we must continue digging further, educating, and communicating.