Between You and Me: Russia – in and out and back in our daily lives
By Leah S. Dunaief
Here comes Russia again. I am of the generation of children that took refuge from an imaginary atomic bomb attack from Russia by pulling our coats over our heads and crouching under our desks. We grew up with the Cold War always threatening Soviet aggression on both foreign and domestic soils. Were there Communist cells, funded by Russia, hidden among us that could erupt at any time? McCarthy whipped the nation to a fever pitch. The United States and the Soviet Union raced each other to influence governments and people, ideologically and financially, all over the globe.
I still remember the relief I felt, going to the old Metropolitan Opera House in 1959, to view a performance by members of the Bolshoi Ballet, who came to America bringing not only the most breathtaking dancers but also tangible evidence of detente. And then the Berlin Wall came down. I was there. At least I was there in 1989, six weeks before they broke through to West Berlin. I walked No Man’s Land, the barren stretch between East and West Berlin, with cameras trained on anyone who would start the crossing between those two universes, seeking permission from the guards to go behind the Iron Curtain.
I was in the Russian Embassy in Washington D.C. in 1991 with a small group of journalists, being feted with caviar and blinis, when word came that the Soviet Union had crumbled, and then the embassy personnel cried. “The end of a dream,” they sobbed. The end of a nightmare, I thought, as they led us to the exits and fell upon the sumptuous food we left behind. Mikhail Gorbachev won the Nobel Prize, the Russian people were real, not just the Evil Empire, and co-existence was finally possible. In a couple of years our attention turned to jihadists.
Now Russia is dramatically back in our lives. The Russia that for centuries had sought warm water ports and had ruled Crimea for 134 years until 1917. The Russia that again annexed Crimea, a part of Ukraine since 1954 and of an independent Ukraine since 1991, with armed intervention in 2014. The Russia that has now lined up reputedly over 100,000 troops on three sides of the Ukraine border, and with aggressive leadership is making demands.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is insisting that Ukraine not be allowed to join NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization initially formed after WWII as a protection against potential Soviet aggression, that has grown as more Eastern European countries have joined. Putin insists it is a security issue to have bordering Ukraine a NATO member. He also wants military exercises in nearby NATO states to cease and for offensive weapons to be removed from those NATO countries.
So where do we come into the picture?
“It seems to me that the United States does not care that much about Ukrainian security—maybe they think about it somewhere in the background,” Putin said in his news conference. “But their main task is to restrict the development of Russia.”
By “development,” the concern is that Putin wishes to restore the former Soviet empire and that, after Crimea, Ukraine would be the next step. Students of history will remember the lessons of the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia and the “spheres of influence” imposed by the Yalta Conference (in ironically Crimea). Meanwhile, Putin, with his soldiers and weapons at the ready, is accusing the U.S. of threatening Russia. White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, likened Putin’s comments to “when the fox is screaming from the top of the henhouse that he’s scared of the chickens.”
Now, as of yesterday, the decision has been made to send several thousand troops to Poland, Germany and Romania. Presumably they are meant to show support for NATO and for the principle that countries may decide which alliances they will enter.
Meanwhile everyone concerned, including Putin, has embraced the idea of diplomacy as a path to a Ukrainian solution. For the moment, at least, the spotlight has moved away from constant COVID.