It was the proverbial elephant in the room.
We had spent the morning around a big table in quiet, careful conversation, American and Russian “citizen diplomats” bemoaning the sorry state of our countries’ relations. But the M-word – meddling – hadn’t come up.
Meddling, that is, by the Russian government in last year’s US presidential election, according to an explosive report issued in January by the US intelligence community. And meddling that, it now appears, was more widespread than previously imagined, amid growing evidence that Russian trolls and automated bots used social media to promote Donald Trump and exploit divisions within American society.
Such meddling continues to this day, warn experts on digital manipulation.
And so, after a break for tea and rolls, the moment arrived. We in the US delegation of the Dartmouth Conference, a 57-year-old dialogue initiative aimed at brainstorming solutions to the deep challenges in US-Russian relations, went there. We dropped the M-word.
This issue of meddling, the Russians were told, had soured American attitudes toward Russia, and tied President Trump’s hands in his stated goal of improving US-Russian relations.
The response of one Russian delegate was telling: The Americans have presented no evidence, and those who believe the meddling story are just blindly following the US media. In other words, it's “fake news.”
“UFOs are also of interest to the American press,” the Russian said. “This is simply not a topic of bilateral relations. It is a domestic US issue.”
Other Russians painted their country as a victim of “Russo-phobia.” One called it laughable that a country as powerful as the US could be vulnerable to such election interference.
After that initial flash of tension, we essentially let the subject go. We had to agree to disagree, and retreat to our parallel universes. And really, there is so much more to US-Russian relations than this latest turn downward, which has led to expulsions of diplomatic personnel and the seizure of diplomatic properties on both sides.
So we stayed at the table, ready to keep talking about the serious matters at hand: arms control, Syria, Iran, North Korea. After two and a half days of dialogue, held late last month, the two delegations drafted specific policy recommendations for their governments. Joint medical endeavors are already taking place, and a dialogue of religious figures is in the works. The overarching point was clear: The US and Russia need to engage, at all levels, on the range of issues.
Later, in a meeting with the US delegation at the Russian Foreign Ministry, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov expressed hope that relations had reached bottom, and that constructive dialogue could proceed.
“For the moment,” Mr. Ryabkov said, “I believe what we need most is to put an end to this cycle of tit-for-tat actions, this cycle of deterioration in our relationship, to stabilize it, and then to use some time in order to find solutions of at least some of the issues before us.”
A history of meeting and talking
Russians and Americans have a storied history of meeting and talking, even at the depths of the cold war. At Zavidovo, the Foreign Ministry-run retreat where we met, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev once hosted Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s top foreign policy adviser. Mr. Brezhnev shot a wild boar for Dr. Kissinger, much to Kissinger’s discomfort. (He ended up donating the mounted head of “Boris the boar” to the Kennan Institute in Washington, where it hangs on the wall.)
The Brezhnev-Kissinger hunting trip took place in 1973 during the era of detente, when US-Soviet relations were relatively relaxed. Today, veteran diplomats on both sides say the bilateral relationship is the worst they’ve ever seen in their careers. And they can’t guarantee it won’t sink even further.
In our meeting at the Foreign Ministry, Ryabkov quotes Polish poet Stanislaw Jerzy Lec to make his point: “When we reach the bottom, we believe this is the end, but then someone knocks from beneath.”
The Americans laugh ruefully. Still Ryabkov, who meets regularly with US Undersecretary of State Tom Shannon to address “irritants” in the bilateral relationship, describes himself as “very hopeful” about US-Russian relations – and “very comfortable in keeping our business going” with Mr. Shannon.
Shannon is “a very knowledgeable person, highly professional, which helps because you, at all times, know where you’ll find him,” Ryabkov told me and another US delegate in an interview. He spoke in fluent English.
After our interview, conducted in front of the US delegation, Ryabkov turned the tables and posed questions to the Americans. The off-the-record dialogue that ensued with the citizen diplomats – some of them former senior US government officials – demonstrated what the Dartmouth process is all about: listening.
"It was a perfect example of sustained dialogue," which involves "listening deeply enough to be changed by what we hear,” says the Rev. Mark Farr, president of the Sustained Dialogue Institute in Washington and a Dartmouth delegate.
This is not to suggest that the conversation changed anybody’s views. The change, says Reverend Farr, occurs at the level of connection between participants – and a willingness to work together toward a mutually agreeable solution.
Ryabkov insists that any personal chemistry with Shannon is beside the point. But the human dimension of diplomacy – both official and unofficial – cannot be denied. It is what drives the Ohio-based Kettering Foundation to help organize Dartmouth dialogues, as part of its study of nongovernmental diplomacy.
At Zavidovo, the human aspect came through in all the shared meals, walks in the woods, and an excursion down the Volga River, which included a visit to a 14th-century Russian Orthodox church.
An interfaith dialogue
One American delegate, John Unger, seemed particularly taken by the ancient church and its trove of icons. His interest was understandable: He’s the pastor for three congregations in Harpers Ferry, W.V. – Lutheran, Episcopal, and United Methodist.
On the eve of our return to the US, a package arrived for Reverend Unger: an icon from Kazan, Russia, depicting the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus – a gift to Unger’s churches from another Dartmouth delegate, the Russian Orthodox leader of Kazan and Tatarstan.
Unger and other religious leaders, including a leading Russian Muslim cleric, are working to pull together an interfaith dialogue in Kazan next year. Terrorism, hate groups, and drugs are matters of deep concern in both countries.
“I feel as if this icon is a window into Kazan,” Unger says. “Maybe it’s their connection to us, transporting us from one culture to another and our struggle that’s common to humanity.”