Deep Mistrust Driving ‘Tragic, Senseless’ Relations

June 25, 2014

Since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, Washington experts have been unable to agree on whether the latest deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations represents a “new Cold War.” To get an outside perspective, the Center on Global Interests spoke with Dr. Robert Legvold, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science and the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, whose latest article, “Managing the New Cold War,” was recently published in Foreign Affairs magazine.

CGI: In your article, you approved of the term “new Cold War” but cautioned that it should not be used lightly. Why is it the correct term to describe the current state of affairs between the United States and Russia?

Robert Legvold: If one has in mind the potential misuse of the term—and indeed, some people began calling the relationship the “new Cold War” even before the Ukrainian crisis—I think that it’s wrong and even dangerous. One should also keep in mind that there are very fundamental differences between the original Cold War, which was all-encompassing, deep, and enormously impactful on international politics. This will be a different kind of Cold War.

But I believe the term is justified because one needs to capture how serious the deterioration is. If we assume that it’s simply another moment in the ups and downs of Russia’s relations with Europe and the United States, and will pass sooner rather than later, we will misjudge the gravity of this period. In the article, I list five characteristics that I think are very typical of the original Cold War that were not present even a year ago. The first is that we now see one another as adversaries, while for most of the post-Cold War period it was a more ambiguous judgment, with each side seeing the other as neither friend nor foe.

CGI: You’ve argued that part of the reason for this adversarial relationship is President Putin’s rejection of contemporary Western values. What do you see as his values?

RL: For the last couple of years, Putin has been stressing a potential cultural estrangement. This is not the same thing as a political, economic or ideological contest, but a deeper contrast in values that partly invokes the long historic tradition of differences within Russia itself, dating back to the 19th-century division between the Westerners and Slavophiles, and the Eurasianists after that.

I’m not sure that Putin qualifies as a Eurasianist in the traditional sense. But he’s in a very different place now from where he was when he first came to the presidency and stressed, along with the other so-called zapadniki [Westernizers], that Russia is very much a part of Western civilization. Between 2000 and 2003, he talked about bringing Russia into NATO. And even after that, when there were differences over human rights and political practices in Russia, Putin’s position—and even that of [former chief Kremlin ideologist Vladislav] Surkov, who talked about “sovereign democracy”—continued to be a Western, European-oriented notion of democracy. The argument was that Russia would do things its own way and would have its own characteristics, but was still part of European civilization.

This potential cultural estrangement has taken hold more recently. I’m not sure how profound it is, how deep it is, and I certainly don’t think it’s the central driving force in the new Cold War. I think the driving forces are elsewhere, but they will be compounded by this stress on civilizational contrast.

CGI: So, what is the driving force in the current deterioration of relations?

RL: First of all, to be blunt, I think where we are with Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe is not only tragic, it’s senseless. It’s very difficult for me to explain how we got to this point. There is not a deep ideological divide as there was in the early years of the original Cold War. There is not, or should not, be a fundamental animus that’s historically driven. The United States and Russia have not been historic enemies in the way in which some European countries had been over time, and had to find a way of reconciliation. There is no fundamental conflict of interests beyond the fundamental source of the problem now, which is the post-Soviet space and the way it interacts with a changing Europe. But beyond that, around the globe, the logic of cooperation is far more powerful than the logic of rivalry or competition.

But what happened, I think, are two things. At the very core of this deterioration is a deep mistrust. Some of that is legacy from the Cold War that has been reinforced because it gets recapitulated in contemporary events. Russia’s mistrust of the West and of NATO was revitalized in the Kosovo war in 1999. Meanwhile, the Georgian war of 2008 reminded the United States of Czechoslovakia in 1968. So the legacy of mistrust is layered with new sources of mistrust: the Russian interpretation of missile defense in Europe; the American notion that Russia is acting to damage U.S. interests in Syria or Libya; and the Russian notion that the Americans are unilaterally attempting regime change as they see them having done in the color revolutions. I think both sides are wrong in interpreting these events, but it is what has led to this precipitous decline.

I would add that there are also genuine problems with the behavior of both sides. The West, by expanding NATO to Russia’s borders—without meaning to threaten Russia, but without taking into account how it would look to Russia or attempting to make the pursuit of European security more acceptable to Moscow—has in fact created the interaction that we have today. And the Russians, rather than trying to find ways to cooperate with the West to address instability in the post-Soviet space (such as in Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria and Ukraine), have chosen to interpret U.S. behavior as aggressive and anti-Russian, and have chosen to deal with that threat unilaterally rather working with the West. There is a real strategic rivalry that has emerged around the western edges of the former Soviet Union—with Ukraine becoming its centerpiece—but behind it is the warped perception that each side has of the other. I think that is the core problem.

CGI: The West has largely explained the current crisis by the divergence of values with Russia. Meanwhile, the value difference is exactly what Putin has emphasized to build his vision of the new Russia, which he sees not as anti-Western, but as fundamentally non-Western. Can the United States and Europe accept cooperation with Russia without convergence of values?

RL: As a question that arises when one thinks about what kind of a relationship can exist between Russia and the West more broadly, I think that’s a real problem. But it’s far more complex than people make it. A few years ago, when people said we couldn’t have strategic cooperation, let alone partnership, with Russia because the values were too different, they were focused primarily on the issue of democracy and the notion that Russia was becoming illiberal—even anti-democratic or authoritarian. This meant that its political values were fundamentally unacceptable, and we couldn’t have a partnership.

Some Russians began to emerge, like Carnegie’s Dmitri Trenin, who argued that we could have strategic cooperation and even partnership if we based it on common interests rather than on common values. At that time, I also said we didn’t have to have common values to build a partnership and argued that if you continued toward partnership, over time the values would likely converge. But I also said that you couldn’t have real, durable, and relatively comprehensive strategic cooperation with the other side if the values were incompatible. The question now, if we were to frame it in terms of democracy vs. authoritarianism, is: have we have gotten to the point where the differences are so great that they have become incompatible? At that level, we couldn’t have cooperation.

The question of cultural values further complicates matters, with Putin’s leadership arguing that Russia is a culture apart and is no longer a parallel to, or even similar to, the West. I don’t think American policy makers are really focused on this issue. On the U.S. and European side, even though they’ve begun to notice this talk about different cultural values, it’s still the old frame of authoritarianism vs. democracy. The question is whether they’re right in the way they think about Russia. For a long time, I thought there was a fundamental difference between Putin’s Russia and Lukashenka’s Belarus. But for most Americans, there’s no difference at that level of illiberalism within a political system.

On the issue of cultural values, which is more significant to Russians, even there we have confusion. After all, the history of Westernizers, Slavophiles, pan-Slavists and Eurasianists is very complex. And in contemporary Eurasianism, someone like [Aleksandr] Dugin or [Alexander] Prokhanov may have more of a voice in Russia today, but that doesn’t mean Putin shares the same views. Dugin, for example, seems to have a far more aggressive vision of Eurasianism.

Finally, the Eurasian Economic Union—and the Eurasian Union beyond that—needs its own identity and its own value system, just as the European Union has its own set of values. That was Alexander Lukin’s recent argument in Foreign Affairs—Putin is trying to build an identity for the Eurasian Union, and within that, an identity for Russia. Even so, within the Russian leadership and Putin himself there is another complexity: how much of this is deeply felt, and how much is utilitarian or tactical as Putin defends his foreign policy? I don’t know how much of it is conviction and how much is convenience.

CGI: Is the Eurasian project fundamentally a threat to the West?

RL: It doesn’t seem to be a fundamental problem that Russia builds its relations with the BRICS, even though only two or three of those countries could be seen as democratic. You can hardly say Russia has the same value system as China, and yet they’re able to cooperate. I think the area where one has to think about adversarial relations versus cooperation and potential partnership is geopolitical, not cultural or civilizational.

CGI: You wrote about the “collapse” of Russia’s relations with the West. By what criteria should we measure improvements and setbacks in U.S.-Russia relations?

RL: Well, the reset is over. Part of the problem was that success in the reset was defined by benchmarks that were essentially, in the jargon of Washington, “deliverables.” They did achieve the four initial benchmarks between 2008 and 2010, but they failed to create a new set of deliverables. Instead, the reset was overwhelmed by the issues on which the two sides were divided, such as missile defense, Syria, and smaller domestic matters like the Magnitsky List.

The two sides needed to have developed a strategic vision for the relationship at the beginning of the reset that could have been something simple, like “where do we want this relationship to be 5 years from now?” I would argue that it would have included several things: progress toward creating the Euro-Atlantic security community, which everyone from Yeltsin, to Mitterand, to Chirac, to Bush Senior had said they wanted to create when the Soviet Union came apart; and increased cooperation in the energy area that would protect both consumers and producers, giving predictability of price to the supplier and predictability of supply to the consumer.

They did make progress in reaching the New START agreement, but there is still much to be done. The United States and Russia, with 90 to 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, would need to lead on this issue. They would then need to take the next step and create a multilateral system of arms control to address the dangers surrounding the India-Pakistan relationship and trends in the China program, as well as the potential arms race in U.S.-China relations. There are a number of issues on which the United States and Russia are the two most important countries and could make progress together. The collapse in relations today means the door to doing any of that has been slammed shut.

CGI: Some have argued that Ukraine would not be in the present crisis if it had retained its nuclear weapons after the fall of the Soviet Union. What’s your view on nuclear weapons as a safeguard of state sovereignty?

RL: It’s a psychological argument for those who cling to weapons or would build weapons for that reason, and has nothing to do with sound military strategic thinking. Ukraine may have kept its weapons, but it had no way of firing them—it was essentially a location for storing nuclear weapons as part of a strategic nuclear posture. If they still had the missiles that were part of the Soviet program, it would have done them no good. If Ukraine was still storing Soviet missiles, what effect would it have had on the militant separatists in eastern Ukraine? It would be absolutely irrelevant.

On the other hand, if Iran were to move in that direction, it would create an integral, national, strategic nuclear program. Having those weapons would then prevent any kind of aggression against it, or permit it to commit aggression against other nuclear powers without the prospect of retaliation. When it comes to strategic posturing, what matters is who you’re dealing with. A country with no nuclear weapons, like Saudi Arabia, would think twice before dealing with a country that did have them. But in the instance of Iran vis á vis the United States, it makes no sense—they may have one or two weapons, but we have fifteen-hundred. What kind of insurance policy would that be for Iran in that context?

CGI: It seems the post-Cold War period has been concerned mostly with dismantling the old competing systems, or “building up to zero,” rather than creating new frameworks for positive cooperation. How would you respond to that?

RL: I think there have been processes moving in both directions. Indeed, a number of things that we’ve been doing is dismantling what had been built, primarily in the military-security area. But simultaneously, we moved forward with new things that represented a positive partnership.

During the Obama administration, in 2009, we had the creation of the U.S.-Russia Presidential Commission. And we created the NATO-Russia Council in 2002, which included a joint committee on new security threats that was making real progress on the issue. That has now been stopped.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we’ve experienced periods of increased tensions. But we’ve never had a deterioration that involved the cutting off of all these positive initiatives. That’s what is different about the present downturn, and that’s why I call it a “new Cold War.”

CGI: Do you think a system of Euro-Atlantic security could be reached as long as Russia remains separate form NATO?

RL: First of all, this is the reality: we’re not going to have Euro-Atlantic security. It should have been on the agenda and it wasn’t, so now we aren’t going to make any progress with it. However, what’s driving the crisis now is not merely the existence of NATO or what NATO is doing, but the full set of circumstances around the Ukrainian crisis, including Russian behavior.

In terms of NATO’s future, rather than it evolving and turning into a different kind of organization, we’re going to have even more of the old NATO than we’ve seen before—and no one has done more to bring that about than Russia. For those who wanted the old NATO back, particularly Poland and the Baltic states, the extent to which they succeed will be a credit to Putin.

Robert Legvold is Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University, where he specializes in the international relations of the post-Soviet states. From 1986 to 1992, he was Director of The Harriman Institute at Columbia University. Prior to coming to Columbia, he was Senior Fellow and Director of the Soviet Studies Project at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and served on the faculty of the Department of Political Science at Tufts University. He received his Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts.

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