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Deteriorating U.S.-Russia relationship sparks memories of strong Seattle ties built in late '80s

As the Soviet Union was dying and Russia re-emerging back in the late 1980s, the Seattle area was fashioning perhaps the closest ties of any city in America to that one-time Cold War foe.

Now those who were among the visionary leaders in Seattle who understood the value to their area of détente with a former enemy express disappointment and concern about the obvious deterioration of relations between Russia and the United States and its European allies over current events.

But there's more of a sense of sympathy than likely in other regions for the Russian leadership in the current situation, albeit disappointment that the post-Cold War ties that they helped engender are being undone.

And regardless of other thoughts on the souring relationship, most would agree with Carol Vipperman, who created the Foundation for Russian American Economic Cooperation (FRAEC) in April of 1989, even before the Soviet Union's death rattle had become its demise:"I never in my life thought we would be where we are today."

Referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Vipperman said in an interview "he's always been threatened by the kind of opposition that is scattered across Russia, and what's happening now, beginning with the end of free elections for governors of the states, is an indication of his long desire to have control."

Derek Norberg, executive director of the Council for U.S.-Russian Relations, says "the State Department and White House paint a rather clean picture of 'white hats and black hats' in the Ukraine crisis, when in fact the hats are far more grey on both sides and fault in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine (and the degree to which it escalated) lies on all sides."

This is why achieving a lasting cease fire and peace is so difficult," said Norberg, who spent a number of years with Vipperman's organization,"There are parties on both sides whose interests are served by perpetuating the conflict."

"The policies on both sides (US and Russian) are suffering for it.  In my experience, working with the Russians closely is always more productive than is isolating them. For unclear reasons, we are pursuing a policy of isolating the Russians rather than engaging them, Norberg said.

Bob Walsh, who has been the Seattle link to virtually every initiative designed to enhance relations between the U.S. and Russia since the late 1980s, agrees relations are "going down the tube," but is more sympathetic to the Russian actions that have stirred the ire of the U.S. and its allies.

Referring to Putin's decision, in the face of bitter international opposition, to retake Crimea as a part of Russia," Walsh said "I have no problem with that. Ninety percent of the people there wanted to go back to Russia and most citizens of Crimea are happy that they are again part of Russia."

Walsh has not only remain involved with Russia and its citizens, including putting two Russian students through Seattle University, he is now engaged in as-yet unannounced campaign to create a memorial display at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma to the long relationship between the two nations that he helped foster.

Given the current issues straining ties between the two nations, it may be worth reflecting on the role this region took in helping build relations between the two leading nations as the Cold War came to an end and trust needed to be built to replace hostility.

Perhaps the most visible of those initiatives was the 1990 Goodwill Games, which brought the attention of the world to the Olympic-like athletic games between Russia and the United States.

I asked Walsh to recall for me how those came about and he explained that Ted Turner had been unhappy with the boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Olympics and "wanted to bring people together so he went to see Mikhail Gorbachev and got him to agree to do the Goodwill Games in Russia in 1986."

"Turner called me and asked if we could do a similar event in Seattle in 1990," Walsh recalled. "Frankly we expressed the most interest and I don't recall other cities wanting it."

"Don't forget we were still in the middle of the Cold War and President Reagan had just referred to the Soviet Union as the 'Evil Empire,'" Walsh said. "Mayor Wes Uhlman had already begun a sister city relationship and it seemed we were more open to relations with people in other parts of the world."

Walsh went on to build relationships beyond Russia, creating strong personal ties in Georgia, where he guided the first western investment in the capital of Tiblisi, "all Seattle money with which we built two Marriott Hotels and changed the face of the city."

The focus on opening doors and creating relationships was broad based in the Seattle area, extending to everything from airline connections to Junior Achievement.

Alaska Airlines tied the Seattle area (and the state of Alaska) to the Russian Far East in the '90 as only regular air service can do. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union had been completed in December of 1991, the Seattle-based carrier had launched what would become service to five cities in the far eastern part of Russia with flights that helped thaw relations between the U.S. and the Russian Far East region

The Seattle-based carrier, which said it made money on the Russia runs until the economic downturn in Russia in the late '90s prompted Alaska to discontinue service, even instituted a program of allowing Americans who held multiple-entry visas to city hop within Russia on Alaska Airlines.

In 1993, to facilitate trans-Pacific tourism and trade, Russia opened a consulate in Seattle and the United States opened a consulate in Vladivostok, to which Alaska began year-round flights in 1994.

In fact, Alaska Airlines' ties to what was then the Soviet Union began in 1971 with charter service to Siberia, the outcome of more than three years of what were described as "secret negotiations" between Alaska and Soviet authorities that a reluctant U.S. State Department, once learning of the agreement, gave permission for more than two dozen flights in 1970, '71 and '72.

And Seattle's Junior Achievement board members were instrumental in establishing JA in Russia. That was 1991, as part of a Rotary International program initiated Washington's then Secretary of State Ralph Munro, when several Rotarians went to Moscow and a JA student from Seattle was invited to speak before the Presidium.

"We also had JA USA kids compete with Russian JA kids in the management and economic simulation exercise simulation where the Russian students won," recalls David Moore, JA president for Washington."

"It was obvious that there was higher level of interest in private enterprise among the Russian students," he added, of what has become the second largest JA program in the world.

Focusing solely on the economic cost, and economic ties were clearly the impetus for the initial post-Cold War overtures from leaders in this area, Norberg observed: "Compromising long-term and hard won U.S. business interests in Russia over the principals of Ukraine's sovereignty fails the fundamental test of economic pragmatism. "

"Economically, our policy is doing U.S. businesses a real disservice," he said. "The opportunities lost for the U.S., EU, Russian and global economies are hard to estimate, but are significant.

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