I learned Russian at the Defense Language Institute during the last decade of the Cold War. With two exceptions, my teachers were native speakers, men and women who either fled the Soviet Union or were allowed to emigrate for one reason or another. In general, they were demanding, professional, patient, kind, and always interesting, exactly what good teachers should be. One lesson from our mutual interaction was the age-old realization that getting to know someone as an individual works to erode preconceived notions about them as a group. After leaving the Institute, especially during three years in Berlin when I helped keep tabs on the Red Army, I never forgot the fondness I had for the Russians I'd met and worked with in Monterey. As is often the case, most of us in the intelligence line of work realized that ordinary Americans and Russians would probably get along quite well given the chance to do so by the leadership of the two countries. Many of us also believed, in a pollyanna sort of way, that the development of lasting ties between ordinary Russians and Americans might provide a way out of the global conflict that had been ongoing since the end of World War II. That was the early 1980s.
Fast forward to early 2017. The rapprochement that appears to be on the horizon between Russia and the United States is being carried on at an elite level, a level that has no use for or interest in broad-based cultural understanding and exchange. While any easing of tension between two geopolitically important nations is normally cause for optimism, this current version seems aimed not so much at bringing the two countries and their people closer together as serving the economic and political aspirations of no more than a handful of men. Frankly, I don't believe for a minute that our soon-to-be president is seeking close ties with Putin to mount a successful challenge to ISIS in Syria. Nor do I believe that close cooperation between elites in the two countries will, or is meant to, create an impetus for meaningful democratic reform in Russia's autocratic state. Trump's search for opportunity in Russia is, I believe, focused on amassing personal wealth. Putin's quest for American ambivalence about Russia's irredentism is a search for personal power and acclaim. They both seem to believe that the other holds the key to achieving their personal goals without regard for the general interests of the people in whose name they claim to lead. What's occurring, if I'm right, has nothing to do with leadership, and everything to do with different versions of greed.