Old Friends? How U.S.-Russian Relations in the 1860’s provide a framework for rapprochement today


The United States and Russia are strategic rivals and global adversaries. This sentiment has been so often repeated, in both countries, that it has become cliché. Beginning with Cold War competition for global supremacy and continuing with recent clashes over global flash points from Syria to Ukraine, the common narrative posits that the United States and Russia are adversaries with divergent interests and little space for policy compromise, or so the story goes.

However, is this narrative accurate? Are the United States and Russia implacable adversaries locked in a perpetual zero sum struggle; or, as will be argued here, does a more comprehensive analysis of U.S.-Russian relations evidence past collaboration that could serve as a blueprint for future cooperation. Contrary to the popular narrative, the diplomatic history of the United States and Russia provides a number of rich examples of U.S.-Russian cooperation, not out of sentimentality, but out of a realization that each nation’s national interests could be served through collaboration. One of the best examples of this real politick is the appearance of the Russian Baltic Fleet in New York City harbor in the autumn of 1863, during the darkest days of the U.S. Civil War.

The Great White Fleet and the Civil War

On September 24, 1863, the Russian Baltic Fleet, led by its flag ship the Alexander Nevskii, arrived in New York City harbor to significant celebration. The sailors of the fleet were feted with balls in New York City and Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked that the fleet’s appearance proved “[Russia] was our friend when the world was our foe.” How did such a seemingly strange event come about?

Throughout most of the 19th century, U.S. relations with Russia were better than with the two “traditional” allies, the United Kingdom and France. Despite substantial historical, cultural and political connections to the United Kingdom and France, by the outbreak of the Civil War the U.S. relationship with both nations was poor. Both nations sought to increase their power in the Americas and the growing might of the United States frustrated those ambitions.

Accordingly, during 1863, both the United Kingdom and France were considering intervening on the side of the Confederacy; reasoning that a divided United States would be more pliable to their desires. The United Kingdom sent military attaches to observe the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and was constructing two powerful ironclads, called Laird Rams, to break the Union’s blockade of the South. The U.S. ambassador warned the British government that delivery of those ships to the rebels would constitute an act of war.

While the U.S. Civil War raged, Russia also confronted its own insurrection. In January 1863, the Poles rebelled, hoping to create their own state. The United Kingdom and France tacitly supported the Polish rebellion. Russia mobilized its armed forces to crush the rebellion but feared French and British intervention.

At this critical moment, the Tsar remembered Russia’s erstwhile friend, the United States. Since independence from the United Kingdom, Russia and the United States had enjoyed warm relations. Russia had refused to provide troops to the United Kingdom to suppress the U.S. revolution, mediated between the United States and United Kingdom to end the War of 1812 and became the first nation given most favored U.S. trading status. The United States had also supported Russia in the Crimean War against the United Kingdom, France and Austria.

Recognizing that the United States and Russia were both facing armed insurrections and both insurrections were potentially supported by the same coalition of the United Kingdom and France, Czar Alexander II devised a bold plan to send the Russian Baltic Fleet on an American “tour.” This strategy had both a practical and political component. By sending the fleet to the United States, he ensured that if war did come, the British navy could not bottle up his fleet in the Baltic Sea and his fleet would be in a position to harass British commerce. Politically, sailing the Russian Baltic Fleet to the United States would be a strong show of support for the Union; cementing U.S.-Russian relations and signaling to Britain and France that intervention in Poland could bring war with the United States.

The Tsar’s bold strategy paid off. The Russian Baltic Fleet was met with huge enthusiasm in San Francisco, Boston and New York and provided important political support for the United States on the world stage. The fleet’s arrival sent an unmistakable message to the Untied Kingdom and France that intervention in either Poland or the U.S. South could lead to a global war. The U.S. government quickly seized on the presence of the Russian fleet, increasing its pressure on the United Kingdom not to send the two ironclads to the South. Ultimately, the United Kingdom, not wanting to risk a war with the United States and Russia, backed down. The United Kingdom did not send the ironclads and choose to remain neutral in both the U.S. Civil War and the Polish rebellion.

Gideon Wells, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, appropriately summed up the general feeling of Americans towards the Russian action when he exclaimed “God bless the Russians!”

Learning From The Past: Policy Prescriptions For U.S.-Russian Cooperation

Sentimentality should not be the basis for foreign policy. Today, the United States and Russia are separated by wide ideological chasms. The United States criticizes Russia’s backsliding on democratic reforms and human rights, along with its interventionist policies toward its neighbors. Russia sees the United States as a hegemon without a check, who carelessly intervenes in the internal affairs of other nations and has brought the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to its doorstep. At the root of all this mistrust is the simple fact that both the United States and Russia see themselves as exceptional nations, with a strong sense of purpose and national pride.

As a prerequisite to cooperation, ideological posturing and nationalistic pride most be tempered by sober assessment of national interests. The example of the Russian Baltic Fleet’s Civil War excursion illustrates that the United States and Russia often have more to gain from working together. Then, as now, the United States and Russia face common adversaries, including: Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, failed states in the Middle East and Central Asia and a rising and assertive China. Then, as now, clever cooperation by both nations is critical to advancing each nation’s national interests.

Just as Tsar Alexander II’s shrewd use of the Baltic Fleet helped deter British and French aggression in Poland and the U.S. South, benefiting both the United States and Russia, adroit maneuvering by the United States and Russia today could help resolve two of the most difficult foreign policy challenges, Syria and Ukraine. If Russia reconsidered its commitment to Syria’s President Bashar-al-Assad, suspended military and economic support for him and worked with the United States to construct a mutually agreeable transition plan to remove Mr. Assad from power and replace him with a government of national unity; the United States could play a constructive role in ensuring that Russia is not sidelined on the issue that it seems to care most deeply about, the inclusion of Ukraine within the European community.   The consequence of refusal to cooperate will be continued short-term struggle resulting in the exacerbation of both conflicts.

In short, while today’s geopolitical struggles will not be solved by one bold maneuver of a fleet, the Russian Baltic Fleet’s U.S. excursion reminds us that clever cooperation between the United States and Russia has enormous potential to solve geopolitical problems.

Image Source: Voltairenet.org

Matthew Fontana is an attorney at Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney. He is an avid follower of U.S.-Russian relations and a student of Russian history.


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