As American and Soviet forces converged in Germany in the final days of WWII, soldiers from both armies met at the river Elbe near Torgau. That historic meeting of wartime comrades, united in the face of common threats, is the inspiration for the creation of a unique organization, the “Elbe Group.”
This posed photo symbolic of the Americans meeting the Russians was one of the two most famous photographs of WWII.
In today’s international environment, there remain many common threats facing the United States and Russia. But while media analysis generally highlights areas of disagreement and potential hostility, it remains the case that there are undeniably many areas in which cooperation between the two countries can produce solutions to otherwise intractable problems. Russia’s recent help in resolving the issue of Syria’s chemical weapons is only one example. What is often missing is open and frank communication and most importantly—trust.
The purpose of the Elbe Group is to maintain an open and continuous channel of communication on sensitive issues of US-Russian relations and to build trust in order to achieve solutions to common problems.
The members of the Elbe Group are senior retired military and intelligence flag officers, all of whom continue to have connections back into their governments. It is an unprecedented gathering of three and four star veterans from the U.S and Russian military, CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, Federal Security Service and GRU (Russia’s military intelligence branch).
Pragmatic and Productive
The idea for the Elbe Group emerged from two facts. First, the relationship between the U.S. and Russian militaries has been consistently one of the most pragmatic and productive relationships between the two countries, even during the Cold War. Second, relations between retiree groups have proven to be more open and frank than those between official government groups for many obvious political reasons. The Elbe Group leverages these two advantages; building on the traditional bond between veterans and the freedom of expression that non-governmental actors enjoy.
The first Elbe Group meeting took place October 2010 in Istanbul to consider ways to improve cooperation and develop joint operational measures to track and combat potential acts of nuclear terror. As a result of that meeting, a Joint US-Russia Threat Assessment of Nuclear Terrorism was published in May 2011—the first such assessment ever. This joint assessment, published in English and Russian, made clear in an unclassified booklet the very real danger that dedicated terrorists could obtain or make a nuclear device. “The US-Russia Joint Threat Assessment on Nuclear Terrorism,” co-authored by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute for US and Canadian Studies, remains today the only joint assessment on this threat; classified or unclassified, governmental or non-governmental. While the group continues to work on the nuclear terrorism issue, it has also authored joint statements and articles on nuclear security, missile defense, strategic stability, and held smaller seminars on Afghanistan and Iran.
Subsequent meetings have been held in Portugal, Cyprus, and Jerusalem: all places chosen because their visa requirements are not as burdensome as American and Russian requirements. (Some American members cannot get visas to Russia and vice versa.) Despite the official visa policies, both governments informally encourage the group to tackle some of the hardest problems. At the request of senior U.S. administration officials, the group has explored issues including missile defense and strategic deterrence, providing feedback through its members. On the Russian side, members have reported their assessments back to administration officials, improving understanding of American positions on sensitive topics. Both American and Russian members are recognized as patriots by their respective countries. They often disagree with one another as might be expected, but there is nothing they will not discuss.
Participants in the Elbe Group
- Gen. of the Army Anatoliy S. Kulikov, former Minister of Interior Affairs;
- Gen. of the Army Valentin V. Korabelnikov, former Head of Military Intelligence;
- Ambassador Anatoliy E. Safonov, former Acting Head of FSB;
- Gen. Col. Viktor I. Esin, former Chief of Staff, Strategic Rocket Forces;
- Gen. Col. Fedor I. Ladygin, former Head of Military Intelligence;
- Gen. Col. Vladimir V. Verkhovtsev, former Head of 12th GUMO Nuclear Directorate;
- Gen. Col. Vladimir Z. Dvorkin, former Head of Fourth Central Research Institute;
- Gen. Major Pavel S. Zolotarev, former Defense Council of Russian Federation
- Col. Vladimir Y. Goltsov, former Ministry of Interior and MinAtom;
- Gen. John Abizaid USA (ret.), former Commander Central Command;
- Gen. Eugene Habiger USAF (ret.), former Commander in Chief of Strategic Command;
- Lt. Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck USA (ret.), former Superintendent U.S. Military Academy;
- Lt. Gen. Michael Maples USA (ret.), former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency;
- Robert Dannenberg, former Chief of Operations for Counterterrorism, CIA;
- Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at DOE;
- Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan USA (ret), former Defense Attaché to Moscow.
The Elbe Group is unique in its composition and focus but it is not alone in the effort to find common ground between our two countries. As General Anatoliy Safonov, former Acting Head of the FSB, said, “There are more things uniting our two countries than dividing them today.” This belief has encouraged meetings between former diplomats, scientists, veterans, and other professionals who, although they recognize the differences between our countries, nevertheless find many common goals and values. The success of the Elbe Group in meeting, debating issues, and finding common ground, proves that our two countries have come a long way from the Cold War days: an important reality to remember as we think about what we can do today and what will be possible tomorrow.
Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan, USA (Ret.) is Director of Defense and Intelligence Projects at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is a former Defense Attache to Russia and is the organizer of the Elbe Group.