“U.S.-Russian relations are in a qualitatively different place since the end of the Cold War,” argued Robert Legvold, professor emeritus at Columbia University and director of the Carnegie’s Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative (EASI). Speaking at an event hosted by the Carnegie Moscow Center, Legvold examined the challenges presented by the current political climate in bilateral relations. He argued that this current downturn in relations, which started roughly in March 2014, can be understood as a “new Cold War” and explained that a new long-term strategic vision is needed to guide the two countries through this challenging period. Carnegie’s Dmitri Trenin moderated.

Discussion Highlights

  • A New Cold War: While policymakers should be careful not to revert to creating Cold War-esque policies, there is a need to adopt the Russian practice of “calling things by their name,” Legvold said. As the recent developments in U.S.-Russian relations harken back to the early stages of the Cold War in the 1950s, it is appropriate to call this period a new Cold War, he argued. He outlined some of the similarities, including:
    • The fact that each side believes that the other side is, by its nature, entirely responsible for the situation at hand, as during the worsening of relations after the end of World War II.
    • A fundamental misreading of Vladimir Putin’s labeling of the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” which, like Khrushchev’s “we will bury you,” has come to be critical to interpreting Russian politics.
    • As a result, Legvold concluded, both sides have once again adopted a fundamental belief that nothing will change until something basic changes on the other side, and therefore anything short of a recalculation would do little to ameliorate the situation.
  • Missed Opportunities: Both sides have begun treating the current state of affairs as “the new normal,” Legvold said. They are allowing the roadblock issue of Ukraine to shape policy, which leads both Moscow and Washington to ignore or avoid necessary cooperation on global issues such as nuclear proliferation or the Arctic. While waiting for, or even actively pursuing, a fundamental change on the other side, both the United States and Russia have come to treat their relationship as transactional, where attempts to cooperate are on very limited issues such as the recent Iran deal. Legvold stressed that as during the Cold War, rules of the game are being developed on the basis of crisis management as they arise. However, he cautioned that this is a risky practice that encourages missed opportunities and makes integrating short-term policy into long-term vision impossible.
  • A New Strategic Vision: Despite the current political improbability, a new long-term vision for the U.S.-Russia relationship is desperately needed, Legvold said. He offered four main points that should be highlighted in such a strategic vision:
    1. the creation of an inclusive and whole Euro-Atlantic security initiative from Lisbon to Vladivostok;
    2. stable change and mutual security around the Eurasian landmass, especially in light of an increasingly powerful China;
    3. the creation of a nuclear policy that recognizes newly emerging dangers;
    4. a joint retreat from the current remilitarization of the Eastern European front.
  • Imponderables: Legvold concluded that it would’ve been impossible in 1995 to perfectly predict the changes leading the U.S-Russian relationship to where it is today. There are too many variables to predict the long-term development of the relationship. He described these variables as “imponderables.” These imponderables would have made it impossible to predict, in 1975, how the bilateral relationship would look in 1995. Legvold outlined some of the current imponderables that inhibit predictions, like the long-term nature of the Islamic State; the future global role of China and how the United States will respond to that role; and how continuity and discontinuity in China, Russia, and the EU will shape the global future.
  • Russia Matters: Although some argue that Russia is no longer a global power, Legvold argued that Russia’s location, straddling Eurasia, means the country will always play a central role in the region and beyond. Legvold said that he believes the current mistrust between the United States and Russia is a surface crust that can, and must, be scrapped off, for the sake of the mutual interest both countries share in securing a safe and stable future in Eurasia and globally.

Robert Legvold

Robert Legvold is professor emeritus at Columbia University and director of the Carnegie’s Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative (EASI).

Dmitri Trenin

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, also chairs the research council and the Foreign and Security Policy Program.