Russian, US citizens try to keep up dialogue as governments go silent

No two nations on earth possess the global influence and nuclear capability to destroy the planet as the United States and Russia.

So it was shocking about a month ago to hear a senior U.S. State Department official report that communications between the countries have eroded to virtual nonexistence.

The occasion was a Washington, D.C. briefing for a delegation of American citizens headed to Moscow to spend a week with our Russian counterparts doing something our governments largely don't do -- talk to each other.

We were gathered under the auspices of the Dartmouth Conference, launched in 1960 at New Hampshire's Dartmouth University as a nongovernmental effort to consider ideas to strengthen the relationship between the world's two superpowers.

The conference convened nearly annually through the Cuban missile crisis, the Moscow Olympics boycott, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the Cold War, but this year was the first full-fledged session since 1990.

Our 23-member delegation included former President Bill Clinton's ambassador to Russia; former top State and Defense department officials; industry, medical and religious leaders and journalists. I was honored to be invited after working mostly in the Russian Far East under two Alaska governors and the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The Ohio-based Kettering Foundation, which promotes international democracy-building, underwrites American participation.


The 20-member Russian delegation was equally diverse: former senior government officials, an Oscar-winning film director and a high-ranking priest in the Russian Orthodox Church.

From Moscow, we took a slow four-hour bus ride to the 11th century town of Suzdal, one of Russia's most picturesque communities dotted with scores of centuries-old onion-domed churches and monasteries. Despite the idyllic setting, it didn't take long for the fireworks over Russia's "invasion" of the Ukraine and the West's imposition of sanctions in retaliation shadowed the conference like a storm cloud over the Russian steppe. Moscow contends the Ukraine has been a Russian affiliate since Catherine the Great, with up to 8 million Ukrainians killed fighting Nazis alongside the Soviet Army in what Russia calls the Great Patriotic War.

The West focuses on last year's overthrow of the Moscow-backed president and has dangled Ukrainian membership in the European Union -- and perhaps even NATO -- as prizes for closer ties to Europe and the U.S. To the average citizen of Russia, which has been subject to foreign invasion for 1,000 years, the prospect of stationing Western troops in the Ukraine would be like North Korea lining up along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Instead of trying to resolve that standoff, we focused on areas where the U.S. and Russia have common goals: arms control and disarmament, combatting Middle East-grown terrorism and advancing exchanges of average citizens.

Both sides expressed frustration with the suspension of a U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, established in 2009 during the "reset" in relations. The commission set up 20 areas of cooperation from cybersecurity to sports exchanges, but America put all activities on ice over Ukraine.

I pitched Alaska's successful era of citizen diplomacy with our Russian Far East neighbors, which produced two decades of business development, cultural and scientific exchanges and even dozens of marriages across the Bering Strait.

Alaska melted the "ice curtain" in the mid-1980s in the thick of the Cold War. I argued that's possible again today, even with today's heightened tensions and mistrust between Washington and Moscow.

In fact, both Americans and Russians agreed the Arctic holds great potential for cooperation. More than 40 percent of the Arctic is Russian territory, 40 percent of the Arctic's population is Russian and Russia leads the world in Arctic development and transportation.

U.S. assumption of chairmanship of the international Arctic Council presents a perfect opportunity to reopen cooperation with Russia. Such cooperation could help us better understand how climate change is affecting the Arctic and open the region to new transportation and development opportunities.

Controversial Russian Arctic explorer Artur Chilingarov put it well at a Norwegian conference earlier this year: "In the Arctic, there are no problems that cannot be solved on the basis of mutual understanding and constructive dialogue."

David Ramseur is a visiting scholar in public policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute for Social and Economic Research and is researching a book on Alaska-Russian relations.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

David Ramseur

David Ramseur is a former aide to two Alaska governors and Sen. Mark Begich, and the author of “Melting the Ice Curtain: The Extraordinary Story of Citizen Diplomacy on the Russia-Alaska Frontier.”