It was Moscow, May 9, 1995. That day, there was plenty of celebratory noise and color: music, military marching and, after sunset, fireworks so loud that they made windowpanes rattle. But there is a single sound that stays with me: the clinking of countless medals on the chests of war veterans as they made their way to take part in the parade.
The celebrations marked 50 years since the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. President Bill Clinton was there to represent the United States. A quarter of a century later, the current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have issued a joint statement celebrating the meeting of American and Soviet troops on the Elbe in 1945 — an event that "heralded the defeat of the Nazi regime" and turned the corner on World War II.
The words of Trump and Putin celebrate a historical unity of purpose that decades ago rid the world of a great evil. They also ignore the controversies and conflicts that define U.S.-Russia relations today.
The anniversary of the end of World War II is an opportunity to take a closer look at the challenges the relationship faces. As the world faces another crisis, there is little sign that the alliance between the U.S. and Russia celebrated in the statement will find its modern equivalent once the world begins to recover. After all, in the years immediately after the end of World War II, relations between Washington and Moscow deteriorated more rapidly than in perhaps any other period.
The U.S., led then by President Franklin Roosevelt, and the Soviet Union, led by Joseph Stalin, ended the war as allies. Together with the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, they formed what editors of a recent volume of wartime correspondence among the three leaders called an "implausible trio," so different were their backgrounds and political beliefs.
But as victory approached, tensions began to show. A month before Hitler's forces capitulated, Stalin wrote to Roosevelt on a matter relating to the terms of the coming surrender: "Americans, however, and the Englishmen think differently, considering the Russian point of view wrong."
Both the U.S. and the USSR sensed then that the bonds forged in war would not survive the peacetime clash of bitterly opposed political philosophies. My own recent research has focused on the work of American and British correspondents in Russia in the 20th century. The way reporters were treated is the story of relations between Washington and Moscow. While American foreign correspondents were tolerated in wartime, soon afterward things got tough. Harrison Salisbury was in Moscow for The New York Times in 1949. Writing about a diplomatic spat between the two former allies, he used a phrase so new it appeared in quotes, "Cold War."
So it stayed for most of the rest of the century. The wartime alliance was soon just a memory. A nuclear arms race meant that the continent where American and Soviet troops had once shaken hands as brothers in arms became a front in an ideological confrontation between communism and capitalism.
That confrontation came to overshadow the achievements of the "implausible trio." Clinton knew this, of course. Speaking to an audience at Moscow State University, the president acknowledged that "because our alliance with you was shattered at the war's end by the onset of the Cold War, Americans never fully appreciated, until yesterday, the true extent of your sacrifice and its contribution to our common victory." For his Russian audience, Clinton's words put right a longstanding wrong. No longer would credit be shared only with those, like the United Kingdom, who had remained allies after the war. After decades of Cold War confrontation, Russia was given due recognition for its role in the defeat of Hitler.
Clinton's choice of venue was no accident. He chose to address the younger generation of Russians, presumably hoping to spur a new, warmer era. He was not alone. World leaders, including those of many former Cold War foes, flocked to Moscow to share Russia's celebrations. It was a time of rapidly improving relations. The U.S. and Russia had ended decades of nuclear saber rattling. There was real hope they would now be friends.
But that friendship was not to be. Relations since have soured over NATO's eastward expansion and Russia's actions in Ukraine.
With questions of Russian influence (especially suggestions that the Kremlin may have tried to help Trump get elected) in U.S. politics now a constant source of speculation, intrigue and inquiry, any interaction between Trump and Putin is scrutinized. Even the pair's V-E Day statement is controversial. Members of the political and intelligence establishment have suggested that it was a Russian initiative, the implication being that Trump is following Putin's lead.
Trump has at least been spared the diplomatic dilemma of deciding whether to attend the parade that had been planned for Red Square on Saturday. Because of the coronavirus, travel is difficult and the parade is postponed. But the decision whether to stay away from the celebrations may still lie ahead — September is being discussed as a possible date for a rescheduled event. To stay away would be to offend Putin; to go would be interpreted by critics as ignoring persistent allegations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election.
Then there's Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea — the cause of extensive Western sanctions — and its military support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Fifteen thousand troops were supposed to take part in the parade. At least some of them would surely have served in at least one of those campaigns.
"The 'Spirit of the Elbe' is an example of how our countries can put aside differences," begins the final paragraph of the presidents' joint statement. But in reality, the past 75-odd years have shown how difficult it is for countries to do exactly that. And there seems little chance that an improvement in relations between Washington and Moscow will follow once today's world gets back to something approaching normal.