Ask This General

Brigadier General Peter B. Zwack {Ret.}

By Peter B. Zwack – – Thursday, April 2, 2015

Seventy years ago this April 25, American and Soviet military met as wartime allies against Nazi Germany in the closing days of World War II in an obscure and now long-forgotten place on the Elbe River called Torgau.

This was a truly special embrace of men in arms in a terribly costly but just war against the most hideous existential threat the modern world had ever known. It brought about a bond between wartime allies that shortly thereafter was lost and abandoned in the Cold War.

It looks increasingly likely that we will not mutually commemorate the 70th anniversary of that symbolic event, which is now less than month away. If we pull back and reflect for a moment, is this what both sides really want? Clearly today’s sour political environment makes it hard to imagine the current active duty military leaders of the United States and the Russian Federation standing together in commemoration with the few remaining veterans of that heady 1945 moment.

Failure to do anything, however, at least with low-key delegations, would be more than a disservice to the memory of the defeat of Nazi Germany. It would also mean missing out in a seriously needed opportunity for the U.S. and Russian militaries to publicly meet in a timely, positive occasion and begin to ameliorate the increasingly sharp and dangerous edges that have emerged in our relations. As significant as the Second World War is in our national consciousness, it looms even larger in the Russian consciousness.

This is not based on naive nostalgia or sentimentality. I personally continue to be appalled by the Vladimir Putin regime’s reckless, predatory behavior. Regardless, there is a pressing need to develop and rebuild direct confidence-building venues between our nuclear-tipped militaries across different strategic and operational levels. Reminiscent of the Cold War, warplanes and ships are increasingly challenging territorial boundaries, risking serious accidents or incidents. The laws of probability dictate that things may go badly wrong, even if that is not the explicit intention of either side. In this warp-speed, cyber-enabled world, inadvertent brinksmanship could lead to a horrific 1914 style “how did we get here” scenario. Near-zero contact between our active militaries, especially now, is just plain dangerous. Even frustrating, unsatisfactory discussions in content and message are better than none at all.

I frankly don’t know if either side politically could countenance even a modest initiative, such as having former World War II comrades-in-arms meet April 25 on the Elbe. I know it certainly won’t be possible during the highly politicized and exceedingly martial and triumphal May 9 VE Day celebrations in Moscow. My instinct is that most European nations, including potential host country Germany, would support such a Torgau proposal. especially if focused on introspectively commemorating and not triumphantly celebrating. Some allies and partners with World War II links could also be invited, as well as some of the former Soviet states. The main emphasis, however, should be Russia and the United States, whose soldiers shook hands together on that fateful, promising day 70 years ago.

Some will surely say that proposing any joint Russia-U.S. commemoration such as Torgau during this geopolitically contentious period would cast the United States and the West as appeasing supplicants and imply acquiescence to Russia’s continuing malign actions in Ukraine. I respectfully disagree. Participating in such a symbolic, commemorative event would not infer any easing of sanctions on Russia, or if the political decision is made, delay increased defensive support to hard-pressed and outgunned Ukraine. Reassurance for nervous, deserving regional allies must continue with defense-oriented exercises, such as Atlantic Resolve.

There will be almost no World War II veterans left from any side to meet for a 75th or 80th commemoration. Even with so little time left to organize, we should modestly commemorate the U.S.-Soviet link-up at Torgau for them and the memory of their peers. Ideally, military leaders from Russia and the United States should be present. However, as a minimum, our nations should provide the funding, travel and medics to help volunteering veterans, some barely ambulatory, to attend such a defining event in Germany. Time is short.

We should also do this to assure future generations that we did all we could to ease the world back from a deceptively dangerous spiral that potentially poses an existential threat to us all.

• Peter B. Zwack, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general, served in Moscow from 2012 to 2014 as the U.S. senior defense official and attache to the Russian Federation.