Sailors from the U.S., Russia, France and the United Kingdom at a wreath laying ceremony during the 2012 FRUKUS Exercise
Sailors from the U.S., Russia, France and the United Kingdom at a wreath laying ceremony during the 2012 FRUKUS Exercise // .S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Stephen Oleksiak

U.S.-Russian Cultural Relations Are on Ice, Too

It’s called FRUKUS, an acronym that only the military could come up with. It is an annual multinational training exercise at sea involving the France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Until now.

FRUKUS was created in 2003 as part of the growing military-military relationship between Russia and the West. As recently as last summer, the four nations were doing joint sea exercises like boarding drills, damage control training, and in-port games including sporting events and cultural activities. “The partnerships, cooperation, and friendships forged during this exercise are critical to the promotion of peace in the region,” says a July 2013 press release by the U.S. Navy.

How quickly things change. Today, against the backdrop of Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Kiev to announce more support for Ukrainians and harsher sanctions against Russia, the once-promising U.S.-Russia military-to-military relationship has entered rough seas.

Mil-to-mil relations, as they are called, are important elements of any bilateral relationship. For the past decade, American and Russian defense experts have expanded ties, including maritime security and humanitarian responses to natural disasters. In 2012 the first contingent of Russian soldiers visited Fort Carson, Colo., to jump with U.S. soldiers out of parachutes, and practice firing weapons and responding to military medical emergencies.

The Pentagon is now halting all military engagement with Russia, which means military meetings, port visits and join exercises are replaced by tit-for-tat blames games and finger pointing.  Lost in the fog of friction will be all those pictures of U.S. troops training with Russians and memories of days when American taxpayers footed the bill for U.S. aid to pre-Putin’s Soviet Union. (It is worth recalling that in the period between 1941 and 1945 the U.S. sent $11.3 billion worth of war supplies to the Soviet people under the Lend-Lease Act. And for 20 years, until the closure of USAID’s Moscow office in 2012, America provided $2.7 billion for civil society building and health care.)

Defense relationships often have a cultural component and that, too, has begun to wane as the Ukrainian crisis heats up with more violence on the ground. A small but symbolic sign of cultural coldness is the decision to scrap a U.S.-Russian theatrical event, aptly named, “The Russians Are Coming! A Festival of Radical New Theater from Moscow.” The major festival of contemporary Russian arts, with as many as 90 Russian actors and directors, was due to take place in Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theater in October.

The Russians may be coming — but not in the way any of us had hoped.

Bridges were built and joint programs planned and implemented. Those of us who have worked in government know how relationships take years to create and days to crack. There will be enormous work to steady the ships in both countries in what one hopes will be calmer waters ahead. Yes, we have to deal with the immediate crisis and use sanctions and diplomatic pressure to support Ukraine and to deter further Russian moves. At the same time, we can’t lose sight of what was once accomplished and now stands to be lost on both defense and culture as would-be partners now practice against each other, not with each other.

Tara D. Sonenshine is former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and a Distinguished Fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.