Sherbin: Did John Kerry just defrost the new Cold War?

Jan Sherbin

How American-Russian relations have turned around in just a few days. On May 9, President Barack Obama was notably absent at Moscow’s Victory Day events marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, in which the United States and Soviet Union fought as Allies. This lent an air of permanence to the frosty U.S.-Russia relationship resulting from the Ukraine crisis. Only three days later, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Russia, and the frost began to thaw.

What accounts for the turnaround? A simple gesture may have played an important role. Kerry placed a wreath on Sochi’s World War II memorial as children stood in a field of markers where more than 4,000 Soviet war dead are buried. Kerry said this experience, shared with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, served as “a very powerful reminder of the sacrifices that we shared to bring about a safer world, and of what our nations can accomplish when our peoples are working together towards the same goal.”

Taking a few moments to understand an adversary’s concerns can melt hearts on both sides and lead to reconciliation. Following the war memorial visit, Kerry and Lavrov put in a full day of talks, then announced their enthusiasm for improving U.S.-Russia relations.

Americans who wish to invest a few minutes right now in understanding Russia’s soft spot for its war history can consider that World War II in the Soviet Union had a human dimension unknown in the United States: The Soviet Union lost 90 times the number of Americans killed in the war. Twenty seven million people killed, half of them civilians. They lost so many men — wounded, captured or killed — that they sent nearly a million women onto the battlefields. Ninety thousand towns and villages destroyed, leaving a homeless population of 25 million.

World War II hits a nerve with Russians rather as 9/11 does with Americans.

Yes, Vladimir Putin threw a finely choreographed military parade on Victory Day featuring goose-stepping troops and his latest mighty hardware. But more important to ordinary Russians was the personal experience of visiting a war memorial, laying a flower and pausing to reflect on family lost in the war. Or stopping elderly, be-medaled veterans on the street and thanking them for their service. Even Putin carried a photo of his father in this popular groundswell.

Thank you, John Kerry, for showing the Russians that you understand their tragedy. May this be the breakthrough that thaws the new Cold War.

Jan Sherbin is a co-owner of Glasnost Communications, a Cincinnati firm that facilitates communication between Americans and people in the former Soviet Union.