For all the anti-Russian fervor in congress and on cable news, an important ceremony recently occurred in Moscow. On July 3, just prior to the first meeting between President Trump and President Putin, a statue was unveiled of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Attending the ceremony were various Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, but no representatives from the U.S. Embassy—although they had been invited. All the Russian TV channels, the BBC, the VOA, and others covered the event.
President Gorbachev could not attend the ceremony, but he released a statement correctly pointing out that “this project looks not just to the past but also to the future.” Gorbachev believed that improving U.S.-Russia relations would be difficult, but he believed that the only way to succeed was “a dialogue based on mutual respect.”
The statue was created by world renowned sculptor Alexander Bourganov. Among the speakers at the dedication was retired U.S. Army Col. Charles Heberle, President of Rotary International, an organization with 80 Rotary clubs in Russian cities. Heberle commented:
Times were very different during the 1980s, from what we are celebrating today. I had a very different and unique job. It gave me a clear perspective of the extreme dangers we all faced then which these two men successfully stopped. For seven years I was a watch chief in the Pentagon operations center for the nuclear war exercises. These exercises were highly realistic and deadly serious. When the fate of your country is at stake there is no margin for error. Just let me say from personal experience that the world in those days was a hair’s breadth away from the death of about half the human race. And the decisions that would lead to such a catastrophic event had to be made under extreme stress and made very quickly—not a safe situation in which to make clear decisions no matter how much you practice it.
These two great men saw the need to back down from this extremely dangerous situation. They deserve this recognition and I hope we will put up a similar statue in Washington, DC. The world owes them both a great debt. Since then for various reasons things have gotten off track and we find ourselves spiraling back into the same situation. This is crazy. None of these various reasons is any excuse to go back to those extremely dangerous times. We all must now move forward together to achieve the great work these men started.
Heberle further explained that Rotary International organizes “all types of exchanges between our two peoples to increase our understanding of each other at the people to people level…. We must do everything in our power to increase our mutual understanding and avoid going back to the past.”
Heberle concluded, “But, as the Russian saying goes, ‘It cannot be done alone.’ We need to work together. I call on all organizations of the civilized world to join us in this effort. Peace is a verb. It must be worked at. Please—let’s make peace together.”
The idea of a Reagan-Gorbachev statue in Moscow came about when I visited relatives and friends in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2016. In Moscow I saw a group of about a dozen old communists marching with pictures of Lenin and Stalin on Red Square. As they were walking by me, I said in Russian, “Don’t forget that the communists killed 100 million people!” One of the old communists gave me a dirty look, but said nothing and kept walking.
Clearly Russia has changed over the past few decades. It has not changed as fast as any us would like, but, if it keeps progressing, it will eventually become a free country. This change could happen much faster if the United States and Russia were able to improve their relations.
This will require more stakeholders in the relationship. Chinese-American relations are proof that former enemies can still build commerce and direct contacts. Partly because of positive U.S. influences, China is now freer, prosperous and no longer the tyranny that it was under Mao.
In Russia, the country is not free enough, nor does its government have a proper rule of law and restraint on executive power. Washington should focus on people-to-people programs and trade to help continue this process. Officials should also recognize that Russia has legitimate security concerns since the Clinton Administration pushed NATO up to its borders.
The main reason it is easier for members of Congress to condemn Russia is because bilateral trade between the U.S. and Russia was only $20.3 billion dollars in 2016; with China it was $578 billion. At $20 billion, US-Russia trade today is where U.S.-China trade was in 1990. In 2011, U.S,-Russia trade peaked at $42.9 billion. Sanctions and lower oil prices have cut trade in half over the last five years.
In 2016, I spoke with my friend Edward Lozansky, a former dissident who now lives in Moscow and Washington. We agreed that there should be a statue of Reagan and Gorbachev in Moscow in the hope that U.S. and Russian relations could be improved. As President of the American University of Moscow, Edward is very well connected in Moscow. Mainly through his efforts in both the United States and Russia, the project moved forward, including with help from Reagan’s former Attorney General Ed Meese and from Jon Utley’s Freda Utley Foundation, which was a donor towards the statue.
Nobody has determined that hacking into emails changed the outcome of the election or that there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. What we do know is that Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons. There is no military solution to resolving our differences with Russia. The U.S. can only push Russian into a corner with stringent economic sanctions that Europeans also oppose.
Too many Republicans only remember Ronald Reagan’s first term when he doubled the defense budget and called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire.” They forget that Reagan’s foreign policy of “Peace Through Strength” was only a means to an end—negotiations and peace. Washington is incredibly stronger militarily than Moscow. Russia’s only real defense is its nuclear weapons. We should use our strength for constructive engagement, rather than pushing Russia to extremes, including trying to bring Ukraine into NATO. Most Americans do not support Washington’s “deep state,” which seems to want more military confrontations. Indeed, Trump won the election partly because of his promise to moderate conflict with Russia.
As Reagan and Gorbachev made peace, this statue will hopefully remind Washington and Moscow that they must also find ways to work together.
Robert Zapesochny works in biotech and worked in Wisconsin in the campaign of President Trump. His writings have appeared in the Washington Times, The American Spectator, and The American Conservative.