Written by Kyril Benedictov, Political scientist, author of the political biography of Donald Trump “Black Swan”
Originally appeared at russian.rt.com, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
So the first telephone conversation between the presidents of Russia and the USA after Trump’s assumption of office took place. The details of the almost one hour discussion, both the Russian and the American press services carefully retouched with beautiful, but with common terms (“discussed current international problems”, “demonstrated an attitude towards active joint work” etc.) and, probably, for a reason.
Donald Trump, in power for a mere ten days, is still a target for attacks, critics and even direct insults from the “opponents” from around the world: from the singer Rihanna, calling him an “immoral pig”, to the publisher of the German paper Die Zeit Josef Joffe, who without equivocation declared that the simplest way out of the “Trump catastrophe” is to kill him. To hand Trump’s haters, whose name is Legion, another ace in the form of “concessions to Russia” are neither in the interest of the new Washington administration nor the Kremlin. And most likely, any specifics will be interpreted by the media as hostile towards the American president, as concessions to “evil Putin”.
And yet one fragment of the conversation between the two presidents, the ending, made it into the press releases almost in full. We are talking here about these words: “Donald Trump asked to convey wishes of happiness and prosperity to the Russian people, noting that the American people are sympathetic to Russia and its citizens. Vladimir Putin, in his turn, stressed that in Russia they have similar feelings towards Americans. He reminded that our country for more than two centuries, supported America, was its ally in two world wars and now considers the USA as an important partner in the fight against international terrorism”.
At first glance, the words of mutual feelings seem to be somewhat stretched, the necessities of protocol. According to a recent sociological survey, the attitude of Americans towards Russians are at their lowest level since 1986, they were only worse under Reagan, when he declared a crusade against the “evil empire”. If we are to believe data from the Levada Centre, only 23% of Russians think positively of the USA. And in general, about which feelings can there be talk if the two countries view (or most recently viewed) each other as the main geopolitical opponents?
And yet, in the words of the presidents it sounded like a compliment, there hides something bigger than the duty of civility. Because Russia and the United States of America did not always regard each other as enemies. On the contrary, there were cases in our history when Russia helped America and the Americans came to the aid of Russians.
On September 1st 1773 when the thirteen British colonies in North America revolted to defend their independence, King George III appealed to the Russian Empress Catherine II with a request to provide twenty thousand expeditionary troops to crush the rebellion. For each Russian soldier the not-so-generous monarch promised to pay a whole seven pounds. However, Catherine refused, citing the fatigue from the recently concluded war with Turkey, and that such an expedition “will not add dignity” to her empire. Catherine’s decision to not help her “crowned” colleague played into the hands of the supporters of independence and, hand on heart, celebrating the holiday on July 4th the Americans should be grateful to the Russian Empress. Among other things, for her firm rejection of the British offer of creating an alliance against the European governments that recognised the USA, mainly against France and Spain. “We are pleased to learn from reliable sources that the requests and proposals of Great Britain to the Russian Empress were rejected with contempt”, wrote George Washington to one of his correspondents in the spring of 1779.
The president of the Continental Congress of the USA Samuel Huntington sent a letter to Saint Petersburg in which he wrote: “The Congress wishes that feelings and activities outlined in the attached document affecting this important subject be brought to the attention of our great and good ally as soon as possible, as soon as it will be possible”.
This is how Russia saved the United States the first time.
Mutual feelings between the two great people (Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that Providence secretly prepared Russia and America to divide the world among themselves) found the expression in the private life of their representatives. The permanent Russian ambassador in Washington Aleksandr Bodisko at the age of 54 married the 16-year old American schoolgirl Harriet Bill Wiliams and until his death lived a happy marriage. Bodisco was a fervent supporter of Russian presence on the American continent.
He prepared and even agreed with the American administration’s plan for the division between Russia and the USA of Upper California and the San Francisco Bay (this plan was buried in Saint Petersburg by the infamous Chancellor Nesselrode). In the winter of 1854, when Bodisco passed away, both houses of the US Congress, in deference to the memory of the late diplomat interrupted their work for one day, and the President of the USA Franklin Pierce graced the funeral ceremony.
The historical context gave the special importance to such an unprecedented step: At that time Russia was already at war against Turkey, English and French squadrons entered the Black Sea, and Saint Petersburg broke diplomatic relations with Paris and London. Before the actual declaration of war, later called the Crimean War, still a month and a half away, Russia has long been depicted in European papers as the aggressor and the centre of evil. And in distance America President Pierce, receiving the new ambassador Eduard Stockl (the war was already raging), assured him “If the events will expand the scope of the battle and the USA will be forced to take part in it, then we can say with full confidence that they will step in not on the side of Russia’s enemies”.
This did not happen, as Saint Petersburg itself insisted on Washington’s neutrality. But as soon as the Anglo-French troops pressed the Russians in Crimea, feelings in the American society turned more and more towards the Russian side. When the allies tried to organise in San Francisco celebrations in honour of the capture of the southern part of Sevastopol, angry citizens destroyed the pavilion where the winners’ revelry was taking place, and then a crowd of thousands of people passed under the windows of the Russian Vice-Counsel, declaring “Hurrah for the Russians! Down with the allies!”
We can remember about the numerous requests of American citizens to enter the Russian service to fight against the Anglo-French invaders; the Russian ambassador Stockl had instructions to politely reject such applications so that the neutrality of the USA was not risked, and about the arrival in the besieged Sevastopol of volunteers from the USA, which included 30 certified military doctors, and the cargo of weapons that were delivered to Crimea on American merchant ships. In general, no wonder the Chancellor Gorchakov recollected at the end of his life, “The feelings of the American nation towards us continued unabated throughout the war, and America provided us directly and indirectly with more services than was expected from the government, adhering to strict neutrality.”
Ten years passed, and Russia, strengthened, was able to return the favour. Military actions were taking place on the territory of the USA; this was the famous Civil War between the North and South, where on the side of the South (Confederates) were the recent enemies of Russia, Britain and France. They asked Saint Petersburg to step in into the coalition, pretending that nothing happened in Crimea. However, Aleksandr II, having just abolished serfdom, supported the Abraham Lincoln government fighting against slavery and made the Europeans understand that his sympathies are with the North.
Chancellor Gorchakov wrote to American Ambassador Taylor, “Only Russia stood by your side from the start and will continue to do so. Most of all we wish the preservation of the American Union as an indivisible nation…” And in 1863 Russia in total secrecy sent to the USA two naval squadrons: one, under the command of Admiral Lesovsky, was at anchor on September 24 in New York, and the second, under the command of Admiral Popov, reached San Francisco three days later. The unexpected arrival of the squadrons, an almost fantastically precise coordination (one squadron sailed through the Atlantic, the second, through the Pacific Ocean), demonstrated the power of the Russian Imperial Navy, proclaiming the “friendly neutrality” in relation to the USA, caused a new surge of sympathy for the Russians.
It would probably be an overstatement to say that Russia “saved” the USA that time as well, but in any case it demonstrated her military strength off the shores of America which was very helpful to the Lincoln administration.
What followed next is well known. The short-lived alliance period during the First Word War (until the October revolt), the short intervention in the Russian North. The USA did not recognise the USSR officially for a long time, which did not stop them during the terrible famine of 1921-1922 in the Volga region to save close to 10 million Soviet citizens. This was done by the American Relief Administration (ARA), spending on products, medicines and clothes almost $80 million (in those years the dollar was about 25 times more expensive than today), of those, 28 million dollars were given by the American Congress, 13 million dollars were put by the Soviet government and the remaining 39 million dollars were raised by simple Americans.
In the 1930s, American engineers, some out of sympathy for the country of the victorious proletariat, some in the pursuit of the long dollar, helped the young republic create new industry. Let us not forget the lend-lease during the years of the Great Patriotic War (by the way, the last lend-lease debt of the USSR was paid by Russia only in 2006, though the amounts were not astronomical). Then, the Allied landing in Normandy and the rivalry on the way to Berlin, who would reach it, the Americans from the West or the Russians from the East, the division of Germany into sectors, and very, very quickly, so much that yesterday’s allies did not have the time to understand what happened, the Cold War, which lasted for more than 40 years…
The Cold War ended with the American victory, but not because America was stronger militarily, and even not because it was richer, but simply because the Soviet people, as it turned out, wanted very much to be friends with the Americans, in which they saw a bit of fairy tale characters, uncouth but reliable cowboys, or eccentrics but generous millionaires, or rude but honest police, in general, the whole set of blockbuster characters of the late 80s. And the Americans at that time were not averse to get acquainted with “these Russians”, even if they imagined them like the hero Schwarzenegger in the movie “Red Heat”. Later, when a close acquaintanceship took place, came the inevitable sobering.
The Americans lost interest in the Russians as soon as they understood that Russia does not pose a threat to them: they were able to tame the scary bear, teach him to drink Coca-Cola and eat hamburgers, and after that, they forgot about him, let him sit somewhere in the far corner of the world zoo, he does not bother anyone.
But for Russians the myth about America ended in May 1999 when the first NATO bombs fell on Belgrade. After that, our attitude towards Americans became as in the movie “Brother-2”: “Well tell me, American, where is strength? Is it in money? So the brother says, it is in money. And here I think that strength is in truth. He who has truth has strength”.
After this any fellow could sit in Washington, Clinton, Bush Jr., Obama, relations with Washington, in fact, did not change. But now, with Donald Trump in the White House, maybe it will change. It seems that he is not like the majority of presidents that we saw. He seems to be a real American, like from old Hollywood movies (he even appeared in a movie, recall “Home Alone 2”). And since the Russian person is easily appeased and is not inclined saving his anger for near and far, there is a high probability that the coming of Trump, with his statements about the readiness to establish better relations with Russia, will be perceived by us as the famous phrase from the movie Casablanca: “I think it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship”. And probably there is nothing wrong with this.
We, of course, need good relations with the United States and the American people, just as America needs good relations with us. But this friendship is not an end in itself. The goal is the effective resolution of a variety of accumulated problems in international politics. Effective and mutually beneficial. We know how to fight well (both literally and figuratively), but very poorly know how to make friends. We are stubborn in frontal confrontations; we are ready to mellow, it only takes yesterday’s enemy to pat us on the shoulder and say something nice. Just do not forget that governments are friends with each other but not like people.
History lessons convince us in this, in particular, all examples mentioned above of reciprocity between Russia and the USA had a double bottom: in 1775, for Russia, it was beneficial to weaken England during the Crimean War, the same problem was solved by the US, two Russian squadrons, sent to America, were signals to London and Paris, that they should not think to support the Polish insurgents, revolting against Tsarist rule. And even among the staff of the ARA, working in Soviet Russia, there were many staff officers of the US Armed Forces, carrying out not only humanitarian tasks. And the legendary American General Patton, furiously beating the Germans in Africa and Europe, in his diaries spoke about the Russian allies as hordes of drunken Asians.
Therefore, the telephone conversation between Trump and Putin can be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and the beginning of a serious test, perhaps the most serious in the long history of relations between our countries.