In 1986, Nicholas Daniloff spent two weeks in a Soviet Union jail called Lefortovo. While he was there, he thought about what it meant to be an American and what it stands for.
He thought about the importance of separated branches of government and the freedom of information. He thought about what his father, who was born in Russia and immigrated to Massachusetts in 1917, told him about the country.
“Never go to Russia, my son,” he said. “Because if you do, you’ll get arrested and your American passport won’t do you any good.”
The American journalist, who had been working for the U.S. News and World Report in Moscow, was arrested for espionage and was interrogated for six hours a day for two weeks. As Daniloff sat in a cell, he waited as former President Ronald Reagan worked in Washington, D.C., to negotiate his release.
When he was released, Daniloff found out that he had been used as a bargaining chip so that a Soviet spy could return to his country. Daniloff lived in the country for 10 years and became the dean emeritus of the Northeastern University School of Journalism when he returned to the states.
“Why is it when the Russian people have much in common with the American people, we can’t get along better?” Daniloff said during a Royal Johnson forum on Thursday. “And when will we get to the stage where we’ll have a much better relationship?”
His experience is one example of the tense relationship between Russia and the United States. American citizen Paul Whelan is currently being held in Lefortovo on espionage charges, and called on President Donald Trump to work on releasing him.
If his release is in the works, no one knows.
On Tuesday, two Russian experts, Daniloff and Matthew Rojansky, visited Billings to speak about the relationship between the United States and Russia, explaining the past, the current risks and opportunities, and the possibilities for the future.
Rojansky, the director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute in Washington D.C., described the importance of transparency and dialogue between the two countries. While Russia is no longer comparable to the Soviet Union, it is still the world’s second largest supplier of conventional weapons and are a swing vote on the United Nations Security Council and hold veto power.
Russia is also a stakeholder in environmental resources, being a major supplier of natural gas and holding claim to Lake Baikal, which contains 20% of the world’s unfrozen fresh water.
The country has more than 145 million consumers and is the 12th largest in the world market. Russians like to buy American products, Rojansky said.
With all of this in mind, Rojansky explained that Russia and the United States have been in a “tit-for-tat” punishment conflict for years involving sanctions and canceling visas. Struggles have prolonged since the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
In one of the latest conflicts between the U.S. and Russia, a report was released Thursday from the Senate Intelligence committee that concluded all 50 states were targeted in 2016 by Russian interference, and the vulnerabilities remained ahead of the 2018 election. Voting machines with outdated software make them vulnerable.
There is a distinct difference between today’s conflict and the Cold War, Rojansky said.
He explained that the U.S. has been the world’s unquestioned superpower for a quarter of a century, and that it’s known for telling other countries what to do.
Rojansky said that when the U.S. undermines relationships with countries by applying sanctions and other punishments, it affects the countries’ foundation to cooperate in the future.
Russia, for example, will go to China and build a relationship instead.
“Now who has the leverage? It’s China,” he said. “So the idea that we can use valuable commodities like a visa to travel to the United States as leverage to get the Russian leadership to change its policy on Ukraine, ends up punishing ordinary Russian people who over the long term are the best hope for the kind of Russia that we would like to see.”
More incentives and dialogue between the two countries is needed to keep growing conflicts at bay. Russians and Americans are similar in the fact that they want the same freedoms and rights, he said, and neither wants a war.
“This is the resonant thought that keeps me up at night,” Rojansky said. “It is that we are not in fact locked in a struggle between two equally matched superpowers. In fact, we are in a massive power imbalance between two rivals in a conflict, and that’s a dangerous and unstable situation.”