US/Russia Relations

The United States’ first Red Scare – the fear of communist espionage and invasion – followed the Russian Revolution of 1917. Over the course of two separate uprisings, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik party took control of Russia. Its Red Army held off the anti-Bolshevik White Army in the Russian Civil War from 1918 until 1921, and in 1922, the Bolshevik (Communist) party formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.).

Developments in Russia ignited a political concern that Moscow’s new communist regime was a threat to all of Europe, “with it subversive propaganda and its determination to spread revolution.” In the United States, a post-WWI heightened sense of nationalism along with labor unrest and the 1919-1920 anarchist bombings led U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to launch a series of raids, rounding up thousands of people and deporting hundreds to the Soviet Union. After an expected uprising failed to materialize on May Day 1920, the Red Scare dissipated.

Quickly after taking office, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and in November 1933, he appointed his friend and advisor William Bullitt as the first United States Ambassador to Moscow. In exchange for formal recognition, the Soviet Foreign Minister promised his nation would stay out of U.S. internal affairs, but during his three-year tenure abroad, Bullitt discovered the Soviets under the Stalin regime were “conducting propaganda and subversive activities” and publicly warned the U.S. and the Soviet Union never would obtain ‘normal relations.’

The two moved closer together during World War II as the American Lend-Lease program gave the Soviets everything from weapons to food in exchange for access to army and naval bases from which to fight Nazi Germany. But as the war ended so too did hope for continued cooperation. The United States and its western allies were concerned with the Soviet Union’s aggressive territorial and ideological expansion into Eastern Europe and parts of Asia. Tensions grew, and in 1947, the Truman Doctrine allotted $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey to fight the threat of communism.

On the home front, a second Red Scare swept across the United States and infiltrated multiple aspects of society. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), formed in 1938 “to investigate alleged disloyalty and subversive activities on the part of private citizens, public employees, and those organizations suspected of having Communist ties,” ramped up after WWII. By the early 1950s, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy made a name for himself attempting to expose alleged communists and communist sympathizers. The HUAC also attacked Hollywood. A group of screenwriters, directors, and producers refused to testify before Congress, earning them the nickname ‘The Hollywood Ten” and kicking off the era of the Hollywood blacklist during which suspected subversive individuals were banned from working in entertainment.

The late 1940s also marked the beginning of the Cold War and the intense communist containment focus that would dominate U.S. foreign policy for the next 44 years. The United States and the Soviet Union never engaged in actual military combat during the Cold War (hence the name), but the battle between communism/state-control and capitalism/democracy played out in proxy conflicts around the globe. The United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War had its roots in the domino theory of communist expansion, a fear that if one Southeast Asian nation fell, then others would follow.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union competed for dominance in spaceflight and sustained a nuclear arms race that escalated to both sides embracing the defense strategy of mutually assured destruction. The threat of nuclear war loomed large and even kids were made aware of the danger. In 1952, the newly created U.S. Federal Civil Defense Administration commissioned and distributed a short film entitled “Duck and Cover” that was shown in schools to teach kids what to do in case of a nuclear attack. (Watch Duck and Cover.) Not yet knowing “duck and cover” would be an entirely ineffective survival strategy in case of nuclear blast, officials required schoolchildren to practice the drills regularly for years.

The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 marked the closest the Soviet Union and the United States ever came to nuclear war. After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion – a CIA-backed attempt to overthrow Cuba’s communist leader Fidel Castro – and the discovery of U.S. nuclear missiles in Turkey, the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev granted Castro’s request to place nuclear missiles on the island nation just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

A 13-day political and military standoff ensued during which President Kennedy went on television to inform and warn the public. Tensions escalated to the brink of imminent war, but through a series of last minute backchannel communications, Khrushchev and Kennedy reached an agreement. The Soviet Union removed its nuclear weapons from Cuba. The United States quietly removed its nuclear weapons from Turkey and agreed not to invade Cuba again unless provoked. The following June, the “Hotline” was born, a direct telephone link between the White House and the Kremlin.

Between 1963 and 1971, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a series of agreements to limit nuclear testing and held Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). In May 1972, President Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to visit Moscow where he and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed the long-negotiated “Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) Interim Agreement.” Relations between the two superpowers stabilized over the next several years, with ongoing efforts to contain the threat of unchecked nuclear proliferation and attempts to find avenues of cooperation. But progress halted when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 26, 1979. The United States condemned the action, stopped exchange programs, pulled export licenses, and became one of 64 nations to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

President Ronald Reagan’s first term ushered in revived attempts to negotiate with the Soviet Union and discuss cutting weapons on both sides, an effort known as Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START). Conversations continued over the next several years, albeit not without stints of disagreement and disruption. However, when Mikhail Gorbachev assumed control of the Soviet state in March 1985, Reagan felt a sense of renewed optimism. Both leaders were amenable to the idea of completely eliminating all nuclear weapons in spite of fierce objection from those surrounding them, but Reagan’s unwillingness to stall development of space-based missile defense systems ended negotiations in Reykjavik, Iceland in October 1986.

At the same time, Reagan remained encouraged by Gorbachev’s apparent openness to loosening control over Eastern Europe. On June 12, 1987, Reagan gave a speech in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate where he famously appealed to his Russian counterpart:

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate.
Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!
Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” (Watch Reagan’s speech.)

Reagan and Gorbachev signed their first nuclear arms reduction treaty in Washington, DC on December 8, 1987. The Berlin Wall finally came down on November 9, 1989.

President George H.W. Bush took a slow approach towards the Soviet Union after assuming office in January 1989. He tread lightly with Gorbachev, and when the two did meet to continue nuclear arms talks in December, President Bush offered support for the momentum that had brought down the Berlin Wall the previous month. Gorbachev allowed a multi-party system and elections and won the presidency in May, but he also faced internal pressure from competing factions – the old guard versus the new. Boris Yeltsin’s push for democratization coupled with an avalanche of Soviet-controlled states demanding independence in the wake of Germany’s reunification chipped away at Gorbachev’s power. In August 1991, a failed hardline communist coup weakened Gorbachev even further, and when he resigned as head of the party, he effectively separated its power from the presidency.

On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev stepped down and Boris Yeltsin became president of the new Russia state, a transition that marked the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Yeltsin’s attempt to move Russia from socialism to capitalism yielded an era of widespread corruption, birthed an oligarchy, and threw the nation into a decade of economic collapse, exacerbated by the financial strain of years of keeping up with the United States’ nuclear development. But the end of the Cold War meant better relations between the U.S. and Russia, and President Bill Clinton and Yeltsin met 18 times over the course of the seven years they both were in office. In June 1994, Russia even joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace, a fascinating development considering the U.S. and its allies formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 as protection against the Soviet Union.

However, when Yeltsin handed control of his presidency to a former KGB spy on New Year’s Eve 1999, he effectively delivered Russia into the hands of a man with something other than more-of-the-same in mind. While Putin promised, “Freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, the right to private property -- all these basic principles of a civilized society will be reliably protected by the state,'' he implemented a return to authoritarian rule, adjusted the corruption to benefit himself and his associates, engaged in rampant human rights abuses, and embarked on an unrelenting quest to re-establish a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and to return his nation to global power status.

With the United States as the strongest state standing up for democracy in Europe, Eurasia, and around the world, a key component of Putin’s strategy eventually becomes the weakening of the United States and its democratic allies. An authoritarian Russia is confronting democracy in America again, and this time around, thanks to advances in technology, Russia won’t need to worry about matching U.S. defense spending. Compared to the cost of building and maintaining a nuclear arsenal and a conventional military, cyberwarfare comes cheap.

What Putin Wants