Participants in a conference organized by the Carnegie Moscow Center to mark the historic link-up between Soviet and American soldiers at the Elbe River on April 25, 1945 have used the occasion to call for greater cooperation between Moscow and Washington.

Russian and American soldiers in Torgau, near the Elbe River on April 25, 1945. Photo: Personal Archive of Dmitri Trenin

A group picture depicting soldiers, lining up in a row, posing before the camera and embracing each other, appeared on the screen in a conference hall: Those in the helmets were the Americans, while the men in field caps were the Soviets. The place where they came together on April 25, 1945, is called Torgau, and sits on the Elbe River in Germany. 

While presenting this picture, Director of Carnegie Moscow Center Dmitry Trenin highlighted that the 70th anniversary of the historic meeting between Soviet and American allies in the war against Nazi Germany is a very important event in the context of the current U.S.-Russia confrontation over Ukraine, which some pundits are describing as “a new Cold War.”

He was speaking at a conference organized by the Carnegie Moscow Center on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Elbe River meeting to discuss the experience of Soviet-U.S. alliance during World War II, as well as the issues surrounding cooperation between Washington and Moscow since the end of the Cold War.

“Today’s meeting is very important and, maybe more important than earlier, because the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Great Victory is taking place,” he said during the April 23 conference, which brought together Russian and American high-profile officials, experts, retired militaries and diplomats such as U.S. Ambassador to Moscow John Tefft, former U.S. Ambassador and Director of U.S.-Russia Foundation John Beyrle.

“This is also very important because we are seeing a severe crisis between the U.S. and Russia, which has already thrown back our relations to the level of national and rhetorical hostility that was common in the Cold War,” Trenin added.

He pointed out that the current U.S.-Russia confrontation might be “even more dangerous” than that of the Cold War period because of the increasing unpredictability of both sides’ intentions, as well as the prevailing opinions in some expert circles that Moscow and Washington “are doomed” to be at loggerheads, which “is alarming.” 

Current relations cause for alarm

Likewise, other speakers are alarmed by the current situation. Russian federal politician and former Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, who took the floor at the conference, expressed the same regrets, but focused more on “the positive spirit” of the link-up between Soviet and American soldiers. According to him, such events are emotionally encouraging in their nature, they “have a sort of positive and emotional effect on our souls,” which can help to maintain a positive spirit even in the most difficult times, when there is a lack of understanding between countries.

“Somehow, this helps us to preserve a positive and emotional spirit, which allows us, if not to resolve problems, but to postpone them in the hope of resolving them in the future,” he said. 

Another venerable speaker at the conference, U.S. Ambassador Tefft, echoes Lukin’s view. “The spirit of Torgau is a reminder for all of us of mutual hopes in the midst of grim realities,” he said, remembering how the Soviet and American soldiers shared souvenir dollars and rubles, “smoked cigarettes together and toasted one another with liberated beer.”

With tensions high between the White House and the Kremlin on a number of issues, “it is really valuable to discuss the legacy of Torgau,” because it has “tremendous lasting and symbolic importance,” he said. Regardless of the different political and economic systems of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, “we were still able to collaborate in those years to achieve a greater good, to defeat Nazi Germany,” Tefft added. 

A shining example

Former U.S. Ambassador John Beyrle, whose father Joseph Beyrle fought together with the Red Army against Hitler, agrees. He describes the joint efforts in the war against Hitler as a “great collaboration” that endured all the tests and challenges of that time, when the Allies had to find common ground despite mutual tensions. 

The story of Beyrle’s father offers encouragement for U.S.-Russia bilateral relations. After being captured by German forces and spending about six months in Nazi prison camps, he fled three times from captivity, finally finding shelter in a Soviet tank army. The story of this American soldier with a Soviet gun in a U.S.-produced Sherman tank, who had joined the Red Army to fight against the common enemy, remains today a powerful symbol of bilateral cooperation.

“Thank you to those Soviet warriors, men and women, who hosted my father when he was defenseless, who fed him when he was hungry, who treated him when he was seriously wounded and helped him reach the U.S. Embassy and return to his home country safe and sound,” said Beyrle in excellent Russian.

In particular, he emphasized that few in the U.S. are aware about the exact number of victims among Soviets and Americans during World War II. Likewise, many in Russia underestimate or are even unaware of the 1941-1945 Lend-Lease program, under which the U.S. provided the UK and the Soviet Union with food, oil, provision, vehicles and materials to help them in the fight against Nazi Germany. 

The threat of ignorance

Speaking at the conference, Beyrle expressed his regret of “how weakly and badly people understand the [importance] of this collaboration.” 

Trenin also admits the fact that “the mutual ignorance about each other is huge. Suspicion against a background of ignorance can lead to a catastrophe,” he said. 

Likewise, Alexei Arbatov, a scholar in residence of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program, highlighted that the contribution of the Allies and, particularly, the opening of a second front in Western Europe during World War II was “a crucial relief” for the Red Army, which saved millions of lives. 

In the same way, Arbatov’s colleague Vladimir Dvorkin from Carnegie Mosow Center’s Nonproliferation Program pointed out that without the American trucks sent to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease agreement, it is unclear how the war would have ended up for the Allies and the Red Army, in particular.   

When asked by a moderator about those skeptics who see the participation of the U.S. in the war as an attempt to contain the Soviet Union in Europe and relegate such a contribution as something insignificant or mercantile, Arbatov described such commentaries as “the re-writing of history,” as the sign of “either ignorance, meanness or cynicism.” Meanwhile, Beyrle said that this gloomy trend is the result of a lack of information. 

The lessons from World War II

At the same time, Arbatov, his Russian and American counterparts focused more on the lessons Russia and the U.S. should take from the experience of World War II.  

The first lesson is that Russia and the U.S. should not sow mischief by using third parties as a proxy against each other, as is currently taking place in Ukraine and the Middle East, where Islamic radicalism and terrorism also poses such a threat. 

After all, as Lukin said earlier, U.S.-Russia differences have been always based on the involvement of third forces, which have been a sort of game changer in Moscow-Washington relations, as in the case of Ukraine. 

“But, on the other hand, we have many concurring schemes and interests,” Lukin added, calling for a more reasonable and rational approach. 

A second lesson is the detrimental effect of ideology, which brought the world to the brink of catastrophe. Lukin pointed out that both Moscow and Washington are responsible for the failure to create a safer world after World War II and the Cold War, a failure that resulted from an “outdated ideology,” obsolete geopolitical models, perennial mutual finger-pointing and an inability to be more flexible. 

“It is easier for us [Russia and the U.S.] to cast around fervently for arguments [accusing each other] than to try to find new approaches to resolve the current problems,” he said, pointing out that previous attempts to reset U.S.-Russia relations had failed whenever undertaken. “If we look around a bit, count until 10 and think that if we can shy away from the old patterns of the zero-sum game and figure out what is to be done in the 21st century, any problems, including the European and Ukrainian crisis, can be resolved.”

Another vital lesson is of the necessity to develop an ability to overcome differences no matter how difficult and challenging it may be. One of the examples of such collaboration was the post-war “partnership” between the Soviet Union and the United States, despite differences in ideology and interest.

“During the Cold War, Moscow and Washington were able to avoid direct conflict during a half century of geopolitical tension,” said Tefft.

It is also vital to be aware of the danger of pegging foreign policy to the domestic policy agenda. As Lukin stressed, “the strongest impulse” for resolving the problem of U.S.-Russia confrontation should come from domestic policy, which according to him should not be allowed to become “a hostage” to the decline in U.S.-Russia relations. 

A final, but key lesson is that personal chemistry between two leaders should not define and shape a country’s foreign policy. There was no love lost between Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, but their mutual dislike didn’t prevent them from close cooperation against Hitler, Arbatov pointed out. 

Likewise, the relations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart Barack Obama should not be a factor that affects the relations between countries, but in reality, as numerous experts point out, this is not the case. Kevin Ryan, director of defense and intelligence projects at Harvard’s Belfer Center, who also took the floor at the conference, admitted that there is there is a lack of trust between the two countries on an official level. 

But he and his Russian peer Dvorkin, try to see a silver lining in the cloud: Despite there are less contacts between Russian and American authorities, there are trust and transparency on personal level among experts, academics and ordinary people. And such a kind of trust existed between the Soviet and American soldiers who 70 years ago became brothers-in-arms during their symbolic meeting at the Elbe River.     

“We have a good tradition,” concluded Trenin. “When we feel bad, we remember history. And now it is useful to call for the spirit of Torgau, at least for the sake of dialogue.”