Fear remains a constant in relations between U.S., Russia

in Contributors/Scott Graber/Voices by


For all of my life — which began in August of 1945 — this country has been fearful of Russia. The Berlin Blockade, the Hungarian Revolution and the Cuban Missile Crisis informed my childhood and persuaded me that the Soviet Union represented an existential threat to the United States.

Sure, there were fictional (Russian) characters who were not monsters — I speak of Natasha Rostova, Anna Karenina and, of course, Lara Antipova — who among us can look into Julie Christie’s face and not fall in love all Russian women.

But Russian men, for the most part, were threatening and thug-like. I speak of Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and Marshal Zhukov. They tended to be ugly, often overweight and their generals wore huge, clown-sized military caps.

And for many years we have tried to figure out these people.

The analysis usually starts with geography — the flatland that is the North European Plain — and the fact that this stretch of real property has been historic avenue for invasion. And that these invasions have corroded and contorted the Russian psyche.

“You might think that no one is intent on invading Russia, but that is not how the Russians see it,” writes Tim Marshall author of “Prisoners of Geography.”

“The Poles came across the Northern European Plain in 1605, followed by the Swedes under Charles XII in1708, the French under Napoleon in1812, and the Germans — twice, in both World Wars, in 1914 and 1941.”

Right at the moment the Russians see each of their one-time allies — Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and all the rest joining NATO — the organization founded on keeping the voracious, restive Russian Bear on its huge reservation. And for some years — largely due to an uncertain economy — the Bear has remained on its endless reservation. But now the Bear is restless.

During the Cold War aggressive Soviet submarine deployments were routine. In the 1970s there were hundreds of Soviet submarines prowling the Atlantic, many of them bound for the Eastern Coast of the United States. Kevin Buckley was one of the pilots who waited and watched these submarines.

Kevin, my India Company classmate at The Citadel, wanted to fly airplanes when he graduated. He really didn’t care what kind of airplane. But like most of my generation he believed that the Soviets were a threat. Eventually he found himself piloting a low-flying, four-engine turboprop called a P-3 Orion out of Keflavik Naval Air Station in Iceland.

Now it happened that I also touched-down in Keflavik in those turbulent times. In my case it was an hour in the gift shop, operated by Icelandic Airlines, where I considered a white and blue cable-knit sweater. Eventually I demurred, thinking the sweater overpriced.

About the same moment I was perusing the Icelandic sweater Kevin was “driving” his P-3 to a predetermined point in the GIUK Gap — also known as the Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom Gap — to “prosecute” a Soviet submarine.

“Early detection system (SOSUS) provided invaluable info on Soviet Submarine movement through the GIUK — (there were) thousands of underwater microphones to pick up the harmonics,” he wrote several weeks ago.

“The best weapon against a sub is another sub. We would be prosecuting a Russian sub and then pick up one of our attack boats shadowing him. Our sensor operators were able to identify the type of sub were were tracking, then the tapes were sent to Virginia where they could tell us the hull number.”

“I believe at one time there were 24 P3 squadrons and 300-plus Russians subs. How we ever didn’t blow each other up is beyond me. Perhaps through the Grace of God.”

For the last 25 years, the North Atlantic has been relatively quiet, free of the huge, missile-equipped monsters. But in 2019, 10 black-hulled Russian submarines slipped out of their base in the Russian Arctic and set an underwater course for the North Atlantic.

Deployments such as this one — rare since the fall of the Berlin Wall — remind us that insecurity and paranoia still lurk in the Russian psyche; that the legacy of Ivan the Terrible remains.

And now one understands why Donald Trump — who wanted out of NATO — was more attractive to Vladimir Putin than Hillary Clinton.

Russia’s economy, weakened by its reliance on oil, is less worrisome than China. But it will be unfortunate if our grandchildren are forced to strap themselves into a reconditioned P-3 and return, low and slow, to the GIUK Gap.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.