Relations between the United States and Russia continue to deteriorate, raising the question of how current dynamics between the two countries compare to the Cold War era. World Policy Journal spoke with leading expert on Soviet and Russian foreign policy, Robert Legvold, Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. In his recent book, Return to Cold War, Legvold proposes that the new era of Russia-U.S. relations be understood as a return to Cold-War era politics and examines the consequences of this new phase of confrontation.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: The central argument of your book is that U.S.-Russian relations have returned to a state of cold war. Can you briefly explain how the current situation diverges from the ups and downs that characterized the relationship from the fall of the Soviet Union up until the crisis in Ukraine?
ROBERT LEGVOLD: I argue in the book that in the first roughly 15 years after the end of the Cold War, the relationship had its ups and downs, but the Ukrainian crisis has pushed things over a cliff and produced a qualitative change. As a consequence we’re not going to see any time soon what we had before: good periods and then bad, moments of progress followed by interludes of increased tension, because the relationship is now, basically, adversarial, and the two sides are estranged. I use “Cold War”—granted the fundamental differences with the original Cold War—as a way of trying to capture that qualitative change.
WPJ: The book addresses a number of initially promising efforts to increase cooperation and develop trust that ultimately failed to resolve the underlying problems in U.S.-Russia relations. How can efforts from either side to engage diplomatically be transformed into lasting structural change in the relationship?
RL: That’s something that we never—on either side, Russian or U.S.—resolved, and I think the reason is that throughout that period after the end of the Cold War (the 1990s and into the early years of the first Putin administration) there was a tendency to underestimate, or even to fail to recognize, developments that were potentially deeply corrosive in the relationship. We continually focused on the specific progress we were achieving in some areas—primarily arms control and, to a degree, increased economic cooperation. But simultaneously, at a deeper level, what I call “malignant seeds” had been planted and continued to grow in each subsequent stage. Beginning with the original hopes and genuine progress at the outset in the [George H.W. Bush] administration and then in the Clinton administration, there had been signs that there would be trouble over the role played by the United States and potentially NATO in the former Soviet Union and tension over U.S. and NATO actions in the Balkans. NATO enlargement in the mid-1990s not only added dramatically to the damage, but, as a malignant seed, grew in the years that followed—first, around NATO’s 1999 war in Kosovo; then the Color Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine 2003 and 2004; later missile defense in Europe; and ultimately the Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s actions in that crisis, the event that pushed the relationship over the cliff.
What began as small seeds of discontent (over, for Russia, U.S. and NATO initiatives in the post-Soviet space, and, for the United States, Russia’s aggressive behavior toward its new neighbors, the U.S. and NATO military intervention in the Balkans, and Russia’s wobbly path to democracy) took on more damaging form in each subsequent phase. Russia’s early mistrust of NATO’s Partnership for Peace agreements with Russia’s new neighbors grew far more virulent in the responses to the Color Revolutions a decade later, and poisonously so another decade later in the Ukrainian crisis. Similarly, Russia’s criticism of the war against Milošević’s Serbia in 1999 acquired a far darker cast when after the Iraq and Libyan wars, Russia charged the United States with following a conscious strategy of regime change to serve its selfish interests without regard for those of others. The relationship went over the edge when Russia interpreted U.S. and European actions in Ukraine as directed not merely against Russia’s strategic interests in the region but against the Russian regime itself. And the Russian reaction persuaded the United States and its European allies that Russia was not merely a difficult partner, but now a direct threat to the European security order.
The failure to recognize the seeds when they were small and begin dealing with them rather than assuming that the moments of decline would pass and progress would resume probably contributed as much as anything to the failure to create something that would be more self-sustaining, and would allow progress to become a cumulative process. Nothing illustrates better this fundamental failure than the lack of progress—because of a lack of will—to achieve what U.S., European, and Russian leaders repeatedly said they meant to create from the Charter of Paris for a New Europe in 1990 to the last OSCE Heads of State meeting in Astana in 2010: namely, an inclusive, functioning Euro-Atlantic security community from “Vancouver to Vladivostok.”
WPJ: Even if some critics disagree with your argument that U.S.-Russian relations are again in a Cold War, you also make the point that calling the current status a return to Cold War might make both sides weigh the full consequences of the deterioration of this relationship. What will it take for both countries to recognize the extent of the dangers you present and prioritize this relationship, perhaps changing their approach?
RL: I’m not sure, because at the moment both in Russia and in the United States among national leadership, politicians, elites, the media, and much of the expert community, there is a preoccupation with the challenge posed by the other side, instead of with the condition of the relationship. There is very little will to step back and think about what it means for relations between the United States to be in the disrepair that they are in. That lack of will is partially reinforced by the domestic political context in both countries. I’m not optimistic that will soon change. At no level in either country are people ready to move beyond their narrow, near-term, self-regarding perspectives and weigh the price we will pay over the longer run if the relationship remains as ravaged as it is. That I fear will not change as a result of the U.S. presidential election nor will it in the present environment in Russia.
True, in some quarters in both countries frail voices may begin underscoring what is being lost: the failure to address the growing dangers and complexities of what is now a multipolar nuclear world over which we are losing control; the neglected global issues where U.S.-Russia partnership and, hopefully, U.S.-Russia-Chinese cooperation are critical, such as in dealing with climate change and managing the resource conflicts likely to follow, ensuring that the development of the Arctic is peaceful and cooperative; and a host of other issues. One can hope that leaders, policymakers, and key political elements in both countries will begin embracing this larger perspective and acting on it, but it is difficult to see it happening soon. In the original Cold War that only came about as the result of major crises, such as that over Cuba in 1962. One would surely hope that won’t be the case this time.
WPJ: Something you brought up a number of times in the book was the potential need for a figure like Mikhail Gorbachev who would take a major first step, and then for the other side to reciprocate that step, in order to jumpstart an improvement in relations now that they have deteriorated to this extent. Do you think that smaller steps would also move the relationship forward, or has the relationship gotten too bad for that to be helpful?
RL: First of all, it’s unusual in history for a figure like Gorbachev to come along and make the kind of difference that he did. But I do believe that if one or the other side starts the process because somebody says, “Well, let’s see if we can begin changing things. Let’s try to take a small step to test the possibility of moving in a different direction,” it would make a difference. But it’s going to require other more basic changes before small steps can be undertaken with any hope of having an effect. By focusing exclusively on the challenge the other side poses, the needed introspection on both sides becomes impossible. By introspection I mean an awareness of what the interaction between the two sides has produced. Before any step to test the possibility of moving in another direction has a chance, each will have to be willing to take a look at how the two together, through acts of both omission and commission, got to this point. Only then are they likely to realize that only together can they get out of the morass they are in with all of its large, long-term costs.
What was very important in the Gorbachev period is not merely that he said we need to change the enemy image that the United States and the West have of Russia, but as well the stereotypes that we have of the West. That happened after he took into account the way Margaret Thatcher had talked to him about the fear that the Soviet Union generated in the West—the uncertainty, the anxieties produced by Russia’s actions in Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, etc.. Not until either the Putin government or whoever will occupy the White House steps back and says, “How do we think about mutual security rather than simply our own national security in this context?” will even small steps be possible. But if it’s done in that spirit, then small steps—provided they are quickly reciprocated by the other side—could help. Both sides need to recognize that the cost we’re paying for where we’re going now is too high—even though each must also address the immediate problems of Ukraine, Syria, and the imperiled INF treaty— This requires a fundamental change in working perspectives on both sides, and I stress on both sides.
WPJ: Another theme that comes up in the book is the importance of trust, not only between individual leaders, but also between nations. What is the role of actors outside the political leadership of each country, such as media, business, and intellectual figures, in helping or hindering improvement in the bilateral relationship?
RL: Unfortunately, one of the reasons why the situation today does resemble the original Cold War (and in the book I list an additional five ways in which I think it does parallel the Cold War, notwithstanding all the fundamental differences) is the extent to which the hostility and anger on both sides is not simply a matter of a single leader or leadership group. The hostility has suffused society at large, led by the media and including important parts of the expert community, as well as politicians. Virtually all segments of society that are politically relevant to this issue are inside this new Cold War and waging it, rather than standing outside and thinking of ways to work our way out of it. As I said, I’m skeptical about how soon that can change. It happens, as the evolution of the original Cold War showed, in stages. Then it began when leaders struggled through crises like Berlin in the 1950s and, particularly, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and later the wars in the Middle East. All of these instances caused leaders to step back and think about where they were headed. But it also required a fair amount of reflection on the part of key elements in society, including analysts within think tanks and within universities, newspaper columnists, and other writers that began changing, if you will, the marketplace of ideas. Different attitudes began to emerge, though admittedly in a fragmentary and random fashion. The results of this began to mature in the early 1970s when the Nixon administration and the Brezhnev leadership engaged in détente. Even though that failed at the time, it represented a very considerable change in thinking on both sides, change that returned in still more mature form in the last stages of the Cold War.
Ultimately, you had pressures within the Soviet Union that led Gorbachev to introduce fundamental changes. It’s possible that the difficulties Russia going through today—economic and otherwise—may at some point produce a shift in outlook and, as a result, a different approach to relations with the West on the part of President Putin or a successor leadership. Or, it may be that American priorities in foreign policy—unless the lid blows off in Ukraine—may allow the West to begin moving in another direction. In that case, what I’m describing as an outcome that until this point has been negatively driven by events can be positively driven by events. What I’m unsure of is what the perils may be before the movement in the marketplace of ideas begins opening this path—what crisis and wreckage may yet lie ahead.
WPJ: You point to former Soviet states’ mistrust of Russia as the primary obstacle to improved relations with the West. What realistic steps can Russia take to begin to change this perception? Is there a way for the U.S. to facilitate an easing of these tensions, or will Russia need to unilaterally make the first move?
RL: It’s unlikely that Russia—which, frankly, is in the weaker position, even though tactically it has been active and it is seen as being very assertive—will take the initiative. It’s also unlikely in the present context that there will be much readiness on the U.S. side to try a new “reset.” But were an initiative to be taken on the U.S. side, the important first step would be to move away from a policy focused on isolating the Putin regime—albeit not the country—and instead to reengage in a serious way on the fundamental issues dividing us, not just in highly isolated instances of limited cooperation dealing with the Syrian war and the Islamic State or diplomatic contacts to press for the implementation of the Minsk II agreement in Ukraine. I think the engagement needs to be broader than that; we need to get at the root of what it is that divides the two countries and what has led us to this point. I call that “strategic dialogue.” Were the United States to begin moving in that direction and then, provided the Russians reciprocated with, say, steps helping to ease the crisis in Ukraine—not just in Donbass, but more broadly politically and economically in Ukraine—or were U.S.-Russian cooperation to grow in Syria, then the United States could and should reciprocate by moving away from sanctions, the heart of a policy of isolating Russia. Were the United States to reenergize the NATO-Russia Council and to reinvigorate the U.S.-Russia binational presidential commission with its 20 working groups, then step by step—provided the Russians wanted a more constructive relationship and were prepared to be more constructive—we would begin moving in a different direction. That’s the way I would see a positive way forward unfolding. But, as I have emphasized, there has to be reciprocity each step of the way.
WPJ: You suggest a mutual interest in defeating the so-called Islamic State as a potential starting point for improving relations between Russia and the U.S. Have the events and negotiations of the past several months changed that calculus at all, or indicated any change in the relationship?
RL: I continue to believe that if there is a logical or a natural basis for cooperation, even in this period of very deteriorated relations—it is in what I call “the duel linked wars”: the Syrian civil war and the war against the Islamic State. Making progress on the first war, the Syrian civil war, is a prerequisite for significant cooperation in waging the war against the Islamic State. At some level, we have begun cooperation in both wars, both in the diplomacy around Syria as a result of [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov and [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry putting in place the process that’s now underway in the proximity talks in Geneva. We are, if not formally coordinating our military activity against the Islamic State, then acting at times in parallel. That’s happening today as the Syrian military backed by Russian air power and the opposition forces supported by the United States and others are closing in on Raqqa, the so-called “capital” of the Islamic State. But I don’t think this cooperation will become effective and on a larger scale until each side is satisfied that the other is, in fact, doing as much as it can to move things along.
Recently, the Obama administration has been persuaded that the Russians have not done everything they committed themselves to in the Feb. 12 agreement in terms of restraining attacks on the moderate opposition that we support, allowing humanitarian assistance to reach the many places where it’s needed, or putting sufficient pressure on the Assad regime to permit the proximity talks and make progress in Geneva. As a result, there has been a harsher back-and-forth between Moscow and Washington on that score, and both continue to be suspicious about the other side’s military activity and approach to the struggle against the Islamic State. So even though cooperation has begun, until there is more evidence that satisfies each side that the other is acting in good faith, I don’t think we’re going to get the results that we might hope for. But this remains the primary candidate for making progress on an issue that matters at a time when relations are as bad as they are.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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