‘Behavior of world leaders’ darn close to that of Cold War’

Members of a historical re-enactment group dressed as U.S. and Soviet Army soldiers take part in 'Elbe Day' celebrations, in eastern German city of Torgau at the river Elbe, April 25, 2015. (Reuters/Stefanie Loos)
Even though the world survived the Cold War, attitudes today resemble those of the past. The challenge is keeping an honest dialogue going and finding common issues to work on, retired US general officer and former military attache Peter Zwack told RT.

US and Russian diplomats honored World War II veterans together on Friday, marking the 70th anniversary of the “Meeting at the Elbe” at the Arlington National Cemetery. However, this was a rare show of mutual harmony amid the recent political turmoil, which has become heated by developments in Ukraine.

RT spoke to retired US Army Brigadier General and former US Defense Attache to Russia, Peter Zwack, for his perspective of the situation.

READ MORE: Russian, US diplomats honor WWII victory together

RT:Low-key events have been held in America, Germany and in Russia, but you have made it clear in a recent article that perhaps more should have been made of this. Why are you concerned?

Peter Zwack: I just think that the significance of the link up on the Elbe for what it symbolized at the time, is a message that we must keep today, and we must reinforce at a time where we indeed do have significant differences between us. This was a major significant event. Soviet and US forces linked up on the Elbe.

This signified the end of Nazi Germany, which was the most horrific existential threat if you will, of our modern time. We did it then, we had our differences, but we worked though our differences in that period. We need to take those lessons that we learned there and apply them to the very difficult environment we find ourselves in today.

RT:Commemorations were held but what sort of event do you think would be more suitable then?

PZ: I think that ideally – everybody has policies and everything else – but, on the Elbe in Germany, ideally we would have had a good representation, first of all with veterans from both of our countries. This is the 70th anniversary; these guys are 88, 90, 95 years old. There’s not going to be another event for them. So why not do it for the veterans – and then you get some military, ideally so that operational commanders meet each other.

This is important because as we start to lose contact, we need to be able to reach out and talk to each other even if we disagree with each other, and even if sometimes the conversations are not totally satisfying. We need to remember the importance of this time in the past and what this can mean for the future.

RT:Why don’t you think greater efforts were made perhaps to commemorate what happened on the Elbe?

PZ: On all sides the pressures and the issues that are out there had grown to the point where it has become difficult for our leadership to talk to each other. And for good reason, I know that our leaders they want to have straight, frank, honest discussions. They don’t always feel they are getting this. But, we need to continue to get these important people together and do some confidence building and if there are ever real troubles that happen, at least then we have an array of people that know each other and that can work us through these issues.

RT:What sort of dangers would we face if this doesn’t happen? Potentially what are you afraid of?

PZ: First of all, I don’t like to use the “Cold War.” We are not anywhere near that. We have issues and challenges, but we are not in a Cold War and I refuse to take that terminology. Though the behaviors are darn close. I am worried about that with everything that is going on out there in the world: the Russian Federation has a very robust military that is moving around, deploying ships, airplanes, the US is out there, NATO is out there.

Eventually we are going to have an accident, we are going to get an incident, we are going to get something that we had not planned on. And all of a sudden we don’t have a group of leaders that can talk to each other at an operational level.

We are now down to a mechanical hot line, where the people don’t necessarily know each other at that level. We want to make sure that if there is an issue or challenge, that there are leaders that can get on the phone and talk through the crisis as it is happening, so it doesn’t blow into something that is uncontrollable.

RT:We have the Victory Day celebration coming up in a couple of weeks, but Obama, Cameron and Merkel won’t be there. Do you think that is the wrong decision?

PZ: The essence of V-Day is for those veterans and the families that survived the horrors of that war. I want to highlight: it is absolutely mind-blowing that 25 million plus Soviets, [including] Russians died violently in that horrible war, many of whom were civilians. We lost a lot of people too, we lost over half a million, but what the Soviet Union went through was just beyond description.

The problem today is that we have these other things that are going on out there: we have eastern Ukraine, you have Crimea, you have the symbolism of St. George’s ribbon that we have seen linked to the victory of the Borodino [battle], the great victory in the Second World War, now being associated with these modern conflicts, or incursions, or even aggressions that we flat out don’t agree with.

We need to find a way to reconcile this because our leaders are not going to go to parade where there is a lot of massive modern military might, nuclear bombers and launchers. Really, the message of World War II is almost secondary and it is just not appropriate to be there.

I recognize the fact in 2010 we had an American infantry company that marched in Red Square as part of the 65th [anniversary of V-Day]. We need to find a way back to that. We also need to find a way to resolve these issues that are international law and also are aggression that make it impossible for a lot of the major leaders of the world to attend Victory Day. I attended it in 2013 and I wore the [St. George’s] ribbon. In 2014, I did not. And I know that this year we’re not doing this either. I hope we all find a way to a future when we can do this again.

RT:Let’s talk about the future. There are common issues to tackle for many countries around the world, not least Russia and America, like terrorism and the Islamic State. Do you think common issues like these could potentially bring people together?

PZ: Absolutely, if we can get past the baggage of the West for Russia – and as I said the Nazis came out of the West – I get it. That is not the same West. The West is not looking for confrontation or conflict in Russia.

The narrative in Russia sees the West as some type of military threat. The West doesn’t want any part of that. NATO doesn’t want a part of it. NATO is going to protect its allies, absolutely and never doubt that, but out in the world today there are lots of things. Our countries and other allies have a lot in common. We both have a very shared interest in militant Sunni Islam. You have a big problem with insurgencies and we have big problem with it all over the world.

We want to make the Arctic a safe place. We have to work together to manage the resource challenges in the future and the demographics. We have a lot in common. We don’t share a border and we don’t have a history and legacy of being in a big war where we killed each other in large numbers.

We survived the Cold War and we got through it. We had leaders that worked our way through it. We have to find a way through it now za luchsheye budushcheye (for a better future) that I believe is possible between our nations.