Ivan Meets G.I. Joe

In 1980, the Clash released a song called “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe” on their stunning Sandinista album. At the time, U.S. – Soviet relations were at a low point. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan and the U.S. was sending arms to Afghan fighters, particularly Stinger surface to air missiles that fell many Soviet helicopters from the sky.

The Soviet Union invades a sovereign country and the U.S. sends military aid. Sound familiar? Truth be told, this has happened numerous times since World War II. And to think, the U.S. supplied Russia, at great risk to ships and crews, when the Nazis were pushing Stalin and the Red Army to a breaking point. This supply effort did not defeat the Nazis, but it helped.

At the end of World War I, the U.S. had provided aid to Europe and the Soviet Union, in response to the Russian Famine. Providing aid to a Communist government, one that nationalized U.S. business interests, was not popular with many Americans. Still, partly humanitarian and partly strategic, the U.S. saw value in overlooking political differences.

The first American embassy open in Moscow in 1934. The American ambassador conveyed to President Roosevelt, after watching the Great Purge of its own citizens, that Stalin was like Hitler, he cannot stop. “He must be stopped.” Immediately after WWII, Stalin began his death grip on Eastern Europe. Whatever optimism there was at Yalta, quickly evaporated as the Soviets broke their promises for countries now under Soviet influence, Poland and Hungary being prime examples. Free, democratic elections? Did not happen.

Soviet military actions in Poland and the Baltic countries in the late 1930s reinforced concerns about Soviet interests, but when both the U.S. and Soviet Union entered the War against the Axis powers, greater interests prevailed. Through the Lend-Lease Act, the U.S. provided the Soviets $11B worth of military assets, and 1.75M tons of food. Specifically, 400,000 Jeeps, 11,400 aircraft and 12,000 armored vehicles. Much of that was shipped by American ships at great risk to the men on those vessels.

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta (February 1945).

At Yalta, Churchill and Roosevelt looked old and tired, although Churchill still had the growl of a lion. These conferences of the Big Three would set in place the post-war geopolitical framework, and establish the Soviet Union as a key player. Stalin would make a late entry in the war in the Pacific in exchange for the return of areas seized by Japan and the independence of Mongolia.

Yalta would be followed by the Potsdam (Germany) Conference in July 1945. Potsdam, with Harry Truman now president after Roosevelt’s death, went further than Yalta at establishing the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe and the challenges that would lay ahead for the West.

Truman, according to the book, The Accidental President by A.J. Blaine, rarely met with Roosevelt and had no real role as VP, except occasionally presiding over the Senate. He apparently was not privy to war strategy and had never heard of the Manhattan Project. Truman was an unknown, suddenly the Commander-in-Chief of a country at war, and learning on the job.

During the 1950s and 1960s we lived through the Cold War, and children had to live with the threat of thermonuclear war. We practiced the “duck and cover”, like hiding in the school hallways was going to save us from a nuclear sunburn. What was this Cold War and why should we be afraid? Questions unanswered for many years.

The Cold War did several other things to us. Eisenhower warned about the rise of the Military Industrial Complex, but we fell victim to it anyway. It was the arms race as much as anything that crumbled the Soviet Union, bankrupting the evil empire. It’s hard to figure out how to have guns and butter. Somehow Americans managed it, we just cannot afford low-cost insulin or affordable housing. Look up how much of the American economy is tied up in the military and compare that to other countries. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Collateral damage of the Cold War can also be felt in our own national identity. Not nationalism, that’s a very different subject. What I mean by national identity is what we think of ourselves. In the 1950s, this country tore itself apart hunting communists and forcing conformity. In the 1960s, the country fractured, for many reasons, among them the Vietnam War. Hawks and doves. Protests and dissent, whether it was about peace, civil rights, the environment, or some other reason can be summed up as: America, love it or leave it. Fifty years later, same conflicts and same attitudes.

The Cold War was a chess game between the U.S. and both the Soviet Union and Communist China. The war was fought with foreign aid and influence, propaganda, spying and covert action. The U.S. funded and propped up some nasty and repressive governments in order to keep the Soviets and Chinese at bay.

In Vietnam, like in Korea, the East and West were fighting proxy wars, but they were deadly and expensive wars. The U.S. supplied and fought for the South Vietnamese, the Soviets and Chinese supported the North Vietnamese. The Cuban Missile Crisis was about keeping Soviet missiles from being deployed 90 miles from our shore.

The U.S. has been involved in supplying arms and support to conflicts in the Middle East, Central America and Asia, sometimes legal, sometimes not, while the Soviets (or one of their satellite states) were dealing on the other side. An example is the supply of arms to Afghans fighting the invading Soviets. Charlie Wilson’s War told that story.

Congressman Charlie Wilson in Afghanistan.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia, as the largest of the member states, has vacillated between democracy and a new order authoritarian state. The breakup of the Soviet Union began a fire sale of government assets that created a new class of oligarchs and a friendly alliance with the Russian government.

Under Boris Yeltsin, U.S.-Russia relations improved. Arms reduction and denuclearization talks showed cooperation was more than possible. Over a number of years, multiple agreements were signed, including cooperation in space that led to joint space operations and missions.

Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton (1995)

The U.S., during the early 1990s, agreed to send aid to several former Soviet republics, including Russia.

Russia was an active player in peacekeeping in Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts. Russia participated in ongoing security and neutrality conferences regarding Eastern Europe.

Russia joined the G8 in 1997, a group of the highest earning countries. Russia was suspended from the group during the Putin years.

Apparently, by the end of Yeltin’s term in office, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia was frayed. What had been a strong relationship between Clinton and Yeltsin had eroded.

Putin’s reign starting in 2000, cautiously continued the economic and political progress started by Yeltsin. Relations between the U.S. and Russia were tricky as Putin represented a more independent and aggressive actor on the world stage. Disagreements over nuclear programs and missile limits quickly arose. The Iran nuclear program was another issue of disagreement. Russia was becoming more active in world conflicts, including the Syrian civil war, and with China, vetoed United Nations condemnation on human rights violations in Syria.

Conflicts over spying, relations with North Korea, trade and other issues accelerated after Putin returned to power in 2012. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was told to leave Russia, accused of influencing elections. USAID provided funds for a variety of health and anti human trafficking programs. Since 1992, the U.S. has invested billions of dollars for food, health and economic aid.

In 2014, conflict in Ukraine, began new tensions with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists, and Russian troops.

While the new Russia may not be the old Soviet Union, it seems eerily close. Stalin, Putin – meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

Since 2000, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia can be described as challenging. Trump maintained an odd relationship with Putin, one where he was criticized for admiring Putin’s strong-armed rule and crackdown on critics. The world runs on money and both Trump and Putin are both accused of shady dealing in amassing their fortunes. Whether you agree or not, at least a certain degree of alarm should be voiced over Trump being the apologist for Russian military actions and agreeing to meet with Putin alone with no official record of their discussion.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a subject for another time, history is still being written, but the evidence file of war atrocities is growing, hopefully to be addressed by a world court.

The one area that confuses me is how the Russian people feel about their government. Since criticism of the government is frowned upon, it’s really hard to know. Critics of Putin seem to be whisked away to jail, or maybe the gulags of the past. Those who criticize him from afar ingest poison or suffer radiation exposure. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, I read about a poll of Russians that seemed to miss the good ole days of the KGB and the Kremlin’s strong control of life. If all you’ve known is the iron fist and the new economy failing to deliver daily bread and borscht, maybe freedom has no cash value.


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