The Fourth of July is a great day for all Americans. The nation won its great victory 241 years ago. Those days America was not alone in its fight. Russia under Catherine the Great offered significant support of the American Revolution through trade and diplomacy. Without formally taking sides, Russia refused Britain’s requests for military assistance. Direct trade between Russia and the American colonies was a violation of Britain’s Navigation Acts, which only allowed the colonies to trade with Britain, but Russia never stopped sending its ships to colonial ports.
In March 1780, Russia released a «Declaration of Armed Neutrality», setting out its international stance on the American Revolution. The document mainly focused on allowing neutral vessels to travel freely to any Russian port without being searched or harassed by the Navigation Acts. It significantly hampered Britain’s efforts to strangle the colonies through naval blockade. American freedom fighters were sent a clear message that Russia was on their side.
In 1775 and 1779, Britain asked Russia to send troops to America to aid its forces there. Those requests were rejected. In 1781, Britain attempted to gain Russia’s assistance by offering it the island of Minorca. This time Russia was not asked to send troops but rather convince France to exit the war and force the American rebels to fight alone. This offer was also declined.
Russia insisted on peace talks and, thus, indirectly helped the Americans win the Revolution and gain independence. Its eventual desire was to act as a mediator. Empress Catherine believed that an independent America would meet Russian business interests.
In October 1780, a proposal to launch peace talks was sent by the empress to each of the European powers involved in the conflict. The discussions started in Vienna with Austria and Russia acting as co-mediators. The Russia-offered guidelines included a multi-year armistice between the countries and a requirement that there be negotiations between Britain and their European enemies, as well as between Britain and America. The effort fell through due to British and French intransigence – the British would not accept the idea of America’s independence and the French would not accept anything short of it. But Russia tried and it did what it could to stop the bloodshed and save lives.
By the time of its independence, the United States had already built a robust foundation of trade, diplomacy, and friendship with Russia. In 1801, Levett Harris was appointed by Thomas Jefferson as the first American Consul-General to Russia. On November 5 (October 24 according to Old Style) 1809, John Quincy Adams, the would-be US President and Secretary of State, presented his credentials as the first US Ambassador to the Emperor Alexander I. The event marked the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and the United States.
Emperor Alexander I helped mediate a peace between the US and the UK to end the War of 1812. In 1832, Russia became the first nation to have «most favored nation» trading status with the United States. The United States alone stood by Russia in 1854 and 1855 during the Crimean War.
After the Revolution, the liberal-minded Tsar Alexander I corresponded with Thomas Jefferson and expressed his «great esteem» for America. He believed it was right to take a page out of the book of American Revolution while preparing plans to reform Russia. Several participants in the 1825 Decembrist Revolt in St. Petersburg, Russia, were also influenced by America’s model.
In 1861, Russia alerted Abraham Lincoln to the plans of Napoleon III, who was already scheming to promote a joint UK-France-Russia intervention to support the Confederacy. The dangerous possibility that Britain and France would recognize and aid the Confederacy was real during the Civil War – the development of events Russia contributed to prevent. On October 29, 1862 a meeting of Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Gorchakov with US chargé d’affaires Bayard Taylor took place in St. Petersburg. Russia made a formal pledge to never move against the United States, and to oppose any attempt by other powers to do so.
Russia demonstrated its unconditional support to the Union during the American Civil War. Both American President Abraham Lincoln and Russian Tsar Alexander II were emancipators. Russian Tsar Alexander II issued his Emancipation Proclamation on March 3, 1861, after the American Civil War began; Abraham Lincoln issued his own Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.
In the fall of 1862, Britain and France proposed to Russia to join them in helping the Confederate States of America. In response, Tsar Alexander II told the British and French representatives that, «I will not co-operate in such action… I shall accept the recognition of the independence of the Confederate States by France and Great Britain as a casus belli for Russia. And, in order that the governments of France and Great Britain may understand that this is no idle threat, I will send a Pacific fleet to San Francisco and an Atlantic fleet to New York».
The Imperial Russian Navy sent two navy squadrons to America. Many saw it as an intervention on behalf of the Union. On September 24, 1863 the Russian Baltic fleet began to arrive in New York harbor. On October 12, the same year, the Russian Far East fleet began to arrive in San Francisco. The squadrons stayed in American waters for about seven months. The Russian officers were feted, with their pictures taken by the famous New York photographer Matthew Brady.
In his historic study, Benjamin Platt Thomas wrote that «In the first two years of the war, when its outcome was still highly uncertain, the attitude of Russia was a potent factor in preventing Great Britain and France from adopting a policy of aggressive intervention». «God bless the Russians!» exclaimed Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to express the general attitude. Russia believed the Union served as a counterbalance to the British Empire. Those were the days of the US-Russian entente cordiale.
During the World War I Russia and the United States were allies. After the 1917 revolution the United States refused to recognize the Soviet government. In 1918-1920 American troops took part in a foreign intervention supporting the White Army. The diplomatic ties were restored on November 16, 1933.
Nazi Germany launched an offensive against the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Only a few months later, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor to usher the United States into World War II. Washington and Moscow became allies. The American Lend-Lease program was a significant contribution into the Soviet Union’s war effort. The historic meeting of Soviet and American soldiers on the Elbe River in Germany on April 25, 1945 signaled a high point in American-Soviet relations prior to the onset of the Cold War.
But even in the heat of the Cold War, cooperation never stopped. The Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) was signed in 1963. In 1967, the US and the USSR signed the Outer Space Treaty, prohibiting militarization of the outer space. Despite the wide differences dividing the two great powers, the détente policy was fruitful enough leading to three major arms control agreements: SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks), the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972, and the Helsinki Accords in 1975. These documents laid a solid foundation for keeping the world away from the abyss of potential war. No matter how strange it sounds – it was exactly during the Cold War that most of the fundamental agreements and treaties governing the modern international system were signed and enforced.
The sweeping Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) of 1987 was a milestone agreement to ban an entire category of nuclear weapons as the Cold War started to fade away.
Today, the relationship is at a low ebb again. Much has been said about it. Opinions differ about exactly how bad the situation is, who is to be blamed for the failures, but the hope for better times is not dead. This particular article is not devoted to the things that divide us but rather to what unites the two great nations.
With arms control in doldrums, the Middle East on fire, the crisis in Ukraine unresolved, NATO reinforcements coming to Europe, the controversy over the ballistic missile defense (BMD) appearing insurmountable, the validity of the INF Treaty in question and President Trump’s efforts to improve the relationship stalled by Congress and the media, as well as a host of other issues to complicate the relationship, the relations are definitely on the wrong track. The time is right to turn the tide.
The expected resumption of dialogue between Moscow and Washington at the top level during the G20 Summit (July 7-8) is regarded by many as an opportunity to halt the current slide towards confrontation. The things that divide us cannot serve as an excuse for not trying to work together on the issues of common interest. When the Ukrainian crisis broke out in 2014 to abruptly deteriorate the relations, Russia and the US were cooperating to make progress on Iran’s nuclear program. As a result, the 2015 agreement was reached. The Syrian chemical weapons arsenal was eliminated in 2013 as a result of joint efforts. Russia and the US are parties to the UN-brokered peace talks on Syria. With ups and downs in the relations, the two great nations have a long history of fruitful cooperation. In a few days, their leaders will have a historic chance to jumpstart the process.