At a conference in Moscow, Russian and American academics came together to discuss lessons from past periods of cooperation during times of war and geopolitical struggle.

People dressed in military uniforms attend a ceremony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Photo: Reuters.

Russian, American and European experts gathered in Moscow for "Russia and the United States in the World Wars: Cooperation Experience During a Time of Global Crisis,” an international academic conference held at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH) this week. 

It was supported by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, the Institute of World History (Russian Academy of Sciences), Cold War Studies Program of the Davis Center (Harvard University), Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Research on War Consequences (Austria), and the Austrian-Russian Commission of Historians. Participants discussed how historical lessons from past global conflicts might be applied to the current situation in Ukraine.

Remarkably, it is now 75 years since the outbreak of World War II, 70 years since the launch of the D-Day operation in Normandy, and 100 years since the start of World War I. Jeffrey Sexton, Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, underscored the historical context of the current Ukraine crisis, “Earlier this month, the leaders of the nations that were part of the great alliance that defeated the Axis powers in World War II gathered in France to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Normandy invasion.”

“That was a time when we put aside our differences and fought together to achieve a noble goal,” he added. “Today, we gather for an international conference dedicated to such times in history when the peoples of our nations faced grave threats, established constructive dialogue in an atmosphere of political tensions, and achieved productive collaborations in times of global crisis.”

RSUH Vice-Rector Alexander Bezborodov agreed. He underscored the role of the U.S. during World War II as well as expressed his hopes that this shared history will bring Russia and the U.S. together at the negotiation table again. “There was always a dialogue between Russia and the U.S. regardless of the nature of their relations,” he said. “In the framework of academic dialogue, the interest to common history did always matter.”

Given the timing of the Ukrainian crisis – a crisis that has severely hampered U.S.-Russia relations and threatens to spillover into other geopolitical issues  the Moscow conference included a number of high-profile participants. The list of participants included academics from leading universities and institutions such as RSUH, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Higher School of Economics, Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO-University), Harvard University, Austria's Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Research on War Consequences and the University of Kansas.

Participants discussed how historical lessons from past global conflicts might be applied to the current situation in Ukraine.

Can Russia and the West learn lessons from history?

According to one of the organizers of the conference, Victoria Zhuravleva, a professor at RSUH and the head of the American Studies program, the models of U.S.-Russia collaboration during two previous world wars can be seen as examples of effective cooperation between the countries despite existing polar geopolitical interests and ideological contradictions that are being conditioned by international challenges and threats beyond the agenda of bilateral relations.

Attendees focused on the forms of military, political, socio-cultural and economic cooperation between the U.S. and Russia during times of crisis. They also discussed the factor of Austrian neutrality; the impact of public diplomacy on resolving the crises; and the mutual perceptions of both countries during these unique historical periods.

For example, Zhuravleva points out that, “World War I illustrates the importance that the context of Russian-American relations (in this case of military, political, economic, and humanitarian collaboration) had for the formation of mutual representations. At that time, the propensity to search for similarities and to get to know the other country and its people grew stronger.”   

The Russian-American cooperation improved the image of Russia in American society while demonizing the common threat: Germany. The U.S. revived its hopes of integrating Russia into the “civilized world” fighting against an aggressive Germany, noted Zhuravleva. “Russia became a worthy partner of civilized nations in their campaign against the ‘German barbarism’ as they saw Germany’s aggressive ambitions at that time.”

U.S. President Barack Obama receives a salute from an honor guard upon his arrival in Paris on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on June 5, 2014. Photo: Reuters

Zhuravleva also mentioned increasing interest toward Russia from the U.S. and attempts by Americans to refute stereotypes and myths about Russia created during the first crisis in bilateral relations of 1903-1905, when Russia was demonized like Germany during the World War I. Both Russians and Americans admitted that was the lack of knowledge and expertise about Russia in the United Sates, Zhuravleva clarified.

“The start of the First World War marked the beginning of a rapprochement between the two countries and placed the need for better mutual knowledge and understanding on the agenda of Russian-American relations for the first time in their history,” she said.

Meanwhile, Professor Stefan Karner, Director of Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Research on War Consequences, points out Austria’s mediating role in Soviet-American negotiations to tackle global conflicts. According to him, Austria was a bridge between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the second half of the 20th century and now it might play the same role. 

Professor Bruce Menning from the University of Kansas believes that Russia and the U.S. should thoroughly learn from the experience of their collaboration during the previous world wars.

“International cooperation and coordination—especially in the military sphere—is an objective not easily won,” he said. “The objective can be elusive, and its pursuit can easily lead to unfulfilled promise and even disenchantment. Yet, when promise does attain fruition, the returns can produce gratifying results. These assertions capture the essence of the US-Russian/Soviet experience during the two world wars.”

Menning sees World War I as “a tale of two endeavors,” pointing to the “paltry amount” of direct military assistance and arms transfers to Russia in comparison with other countries as well as to the facilitation of aid and assistance to enemy prisoners of war in Russia.

“Each of these endeavors was marked by false starts, misunderstandings, structural impediments, practical obstacles, and mid-course alterations,” he concluded.

In contrast, Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union during the Second World War was an impressive success story, Menning said. The U.S. offered military assistance early, and by October 1941, a Soviet delegation was in the U.S. to work out administration and details.

Meanwhile, Professor Oleg Budnitskii from the Higher School of Economics (HSE) points out that although U.S.-Russia relations before and during the World War I were not in the best condition, Russia relied on American technologies and equipment to build railroads that were crucial during wartime.

At that time, Russia was facing a collapse of its transport system and needed to fix the problem immediately. Likewise, World War II saw the U.S. propping up Russia with its Lend-Lease program, so that Russia wouldn’t have to fight with Germany without the support of allies.

Professor Vladimir Pechatnov of MGIMO-University echoes Budnitskii’s view. This experience of bilateral cooperation during World War II showed that a union between the two is possible, provided that joint and common interests exist.

Nothing brings countries together more than a common enemy. After all, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill hated Russia, but did his best to contribute to its victory over Germany, while U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the main initiator of the union despite the U.S.-Russia rivalry.

He also expressed disappointment that the collaboration between allies was not longstanding and came to an end after the defeat of Nazi Germany and increasing geopolitical rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Pechatnov argues that Russia and the U.S. are more likely to see each other in black-and-white terms during the Ukrainian crisis because “now we don’t have a common enemy” and “geopolitical rivalry is going on.” “[Fighting against] international terrorism doesn’t bring us together,” he said, admitting that tensions are aggravated by the fact that turbulent events are happening in Ukraine near Russia’s border.

“In the current situation, there is an increasing role for the political leadership of both countries,” Vladimir Pechatnov said. According to him, instead of playing up to public opinion or the narrow interests or lobbying groups, U.S. and Russian leaders should find deeper connections between the countries. However, “we lack [these connections] and this is the main lesson from World War II.”

Professor Mark Kramer, Director of the Cold War Studies Program at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, is very doubtful that lessons from history really help.

“My experience over the years has taught me that policymakers will cherry-pick the "lessons" they want to learn (lessons that reinforce their existing beliefs) and ignore things they don't find suitable. As a result, I regard the whole practice of drawing historical lessons to be a waste of time."

The origins of U.S.-Russia differences

Professor Vladimir Sogrin from the Institute of World History at the Russian Academy of Sciences thinks that Russia and the U.S. have always been at loggerheads throughout history regardless of their collaboration during the two global wars. And these differences were the major driver of bilateral relations as soon as “a common enemy was eliminated.”

Photo: RIA Novosti

According to him, after the end of the Cold War, a “utopian” idea of Pax Americana, created during the period after World War II, has been strengthened in the U.S. while “Russia’s imperial matrix” has been weakened.

“The U.S. succeeded in extending its influence in some post-Soviet states, which was met in Russia with pain,” he said.

And this is the problem that creates differences that resemble a new Cold War when “the coverage of U.S.-Russia relations by Russian media is dominated by propaganda,” Sogrin argues. “In fact, anti-Americanism turned into a national idea in Russia.”

Covering events objectively and finding positive aspects of U.S.-Russia collaboration throughout the history is extremely difficult, because the media purposely create negative stereotypes and interpret history in a very biased way, he believes.

In contrast, Oleg Grinevsky, a diplomat and professor at RSUH, believes that Islamism and international terrorism in the Middle East can be seen as common threat that should put both Moscow and Washington at the negotiation table.

His fellow colleague and one of the organizers of the conference Olga Pavlenko, a professor at RSUH and the Head of the Department of International Relations and Area Studies, agrees: regardless of the difference in geopolitical goals and interests, the U.S. and Russia should work together no matter “if we like it or not” because such collaboration is vital today for future security.

Meanwhile, Kramer argues that the West and Russia have overlapping interests on issues such as counterterrorism, counternarcotics, nuclear proliferation, public health, and environmental problems. Yet he believes that the degree of cooperation shouldn’t be overstated.

Although there is "definitely some leeway for cooperation," Russian President Vladimir Putin is hardly likely to eschew anything more ambitious.

"The flamboyantly xenophobic rhetoric over the past year, which is targeted mostly against his domestic critics, probably forecloses anything like a genuine partnership with the West," Kramer said.

Academic collaboration is key to tackle misunderstanding

The participants of the conference also raised the problem of expertise in Russia studies. In response to accusations from some Russian and Western media that American pundits lack expertise in Russia, Kramer says that "the supposed dearth of expertise has been wildly overstated."

"Complaints about the lack of expertise strike me mostly as pleas by people who have a vested interest in gaining state subsidies for the field," he told Russia Direct. "Even though I concur with the argument that some state support of Russian area expertise is worthwhile, I don't like to make that case by citing bogus claims about a dearth of expertise. We do in fact have a very good pool of younger experts on Russia. Bear in mind that it is far easier to study Russia nowadays than it ever was to study the Soviet Union prior to the late 1980s. Experts on the Soviet Union 30 years ago had to rely a good deal on guesswork, whereas scholars can study Russia nowadays in much greater depth firsthand."

According to him, after the collapse of the Soviet Union the level of interest in Russia among Americans and U.S. academics dropped very sharply. Yet he believes that Russia and the U.S. should collaborate at the academic level to improve expertise in bilateral relations.

Zhuravleva agrees. “Now it is vitally important for both Russia and the U.S. to develop a well-balanced dialogue between leaders of two countries, based on serious expertise and the combination of all factors that determine their positions,” she said.

UPDATE: This article was updated on June 28, 2014 to include commentary from Mark Kramer.