Robert Legvold on the New Cold War, Interview with Columbia University Professor and Leading Russia Scholar

Robert Legvold is a Marshall D Shulman Professor Emeritus at the Columbia University political science department. He is one of the world's leading experts on the foreign policy of post-Soviet states, and a book reviewer formagazine.
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Robert Legvold is a Marshall D Shulman Professor Emeritus at the Columbia University political science department. He is one of the world's leading experts on the foreign policy of post-Soviet states, and a book reviewer for Foreign Affairs magazine. Previously, he served as the director of Soviet studies on the Council of Foreign Relations from 1978-1984, and as the director of the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from 2009-2012. Legvold agreed to sit down for an interview with me in Moscow on September 24, 2015. The transcript of the portion of our interview dealing with his theory of a new Cold War is below:

You have written a great deal about how Russia and the West are embroiled in a new Cold War. What is your exact definition of a new Cold War? And why do you believe Putin's anti-Western tilt warrants this label?

Robert Legvold: First of all I would like to emphasize that my definition for the new Cold War is far from universally accepted in our field. But my forthcoming book makes the argument that it is justified. I think the new Cold War began the moment we went over the cliff, and that happened with the Ukraine crisis. I don't agree with other new Cold War theorists like Edward Lucas and Mark MacKinnon who argue we have been in the new Cold War since Putin came to power. I think that view misunderstands either the Cold War or Russia's relationship with the West. I trace this qualitative shift to be a result of what happened in Ukraine, with the Russian annexation of Crimea and Russia's direct support for separatism in the Donbas. Going over the cliff did not happen suddenly though, it happened as a result of a series of steps that cover most of the post-Cold War period. I see it as a phased process, in which no one, including the leadership of Washington, Moscow and Berlin recognized the phases we were in.

You mention that the new Cold War developed gradually over the post-1991 period. What events in the 1990s precipitated the anti-Western tilt?

Robert Legvold: I think the new Cold War was rooted in policies from the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. It is important to note that Obama's reset was the fourth time the United States has tried to reset relations with Russia. The ups and the downs in the past had elements among the downs that were pushing in this direction. Under Primakov, Russia began to have serious concerns about US policy towards Russia though this was often synthesized with considerable optimism about the future. These problems were there as early as the late Kozyrev era. But the origins of Russia's resistance to America's use of power in a way that undermined Russian interests came with Primakov's depictions of a multipolar world. In 1998, it was not clear to me even when I talked to Primakov, whether he actually believed that the multipolar world was a reality that the Americans simply didn't recognize, or whether it was a hope that he wanted to promote. In the end, Russia's diplomacy with China and India went nowhere, and Russia was not realistically looking at this time to supplant the United States. But the grievances began with NATO enlargement in the mid-1990s. There was another flow against the relationship in 1999 during the Kosovo War, when the Russians took a critical stance against NATO in that context.

Vladimir Putin's presidency began with a thaw in US-Russia relations. Why do you believe that this thaw was not sustainable? And what would you characterize as the breaking point in the US-Russia bilateral relationship?

Robert Legvold: George W. Bush's presidency definitely started with a reversal of previous trends with 9/11, the Crawford ranch NATO-Russia council and the swallowing of the abrogation of the ABM agreement. But that very quickly gave way to tensions, with Russia's opposition to the Iraq War. Russia gained the support of France and Germany on Iraq. The domestic scene in Russia after Beslan began to trouble the Americans, causing Bush to openly display his discontent with Putin. Russia's democratic breakdown featured as an issue in the Slovakia 2005 summit. In 2007, Putin delivered a scathingly critical speech towards the United States, pulling all the complaints and frustrations of the Russians together. And then the war in Georgia sunk the US-Russia relationship to a new low point. Russia's relationship with the West by then was dead in the water and was being dominated by many negative factors. One factor was the missile defense issue in Europe.

Even during the Obama period, there was attempt at a revival, and for a period of the reset, it was working. START II was a highlight as was the creation of a northern distribution network with Afghanistan. The agreement to tighten sanctions on Iran in Resolution 1929 was a benchmark the Obama administration set. The International Security Conference on Fissile Raw Material was also a success.

The failure to make serious progress on missile defense was the first sign of trouble though, as this was a major priority at the Lisbon-NATO summit, which Medvedev attended. In Libya, the Russians were upset about regime change but abstained from the mission for reasons of principle. I would argue that by 2011-12, with the anti-Americanism coming out of the presidential elections, hostilities had boiled over. Putin in 2012 told Obama in a telephone conversation that the problems were simply a consequence of electoral politics. But it turned out to be much more than electorally motivated, and Obama did not accept Putin's argument as an adequate explanation. Everything that has characterized the current Russia-US tensions was in place before Ukraine. Iraq is where it got moving and Ukraine just pushed it over.

Anti-Western sentiments have been a regular feature of Russian public opinion since the 1990s, though support for these views have varied considerably over time. To what extent do you think Putin's anti-Western foreign policy is a response to public opinion in Russia?

Robert Legvold: In August, a survey was conducted asking Russians if they believed that the United States was pursuing a strategy to weaken Russia and turn it into a source of raw materials for the West. 86% of Russians said yes, 44% said definitely or entirely agreed with the statement and only 7% disagreed. In 1998, 75% said yes and 15% said no, so the idea that the United States is operating against Russian interests to stifle and undercut Russia has featured prominently for a long time.

You mention that you regard the Ukraine crisis as the point in which the West and Russia indisputably entered a new Cold War. There is a considerable debate on whether the Russian annexation of Crimea was a planned operation dating back up to 20 years or a knee-jerk reaction to Yanukovych's fall. Where do you stand on this issue, and what do you think was the primary motivating factor behind Russian aggression in Ukraine?

Robert Legvold: I do not think that the Crimea annexation was the implementation of a pre-conceived plan that was in place and they simply seized the opportunity to execute it. I think it was event-driven; the contingencies for it (little green men, Black Sea fleet, etc.) have been in place for a long time. There was political pressure pointing in this direction. Yuri Luzhkov's rhetoric as Mayor of Moscow during election campaigns and other Russian politicians attest to this. The decision of February 21, 2014, came after violence the night before and negotiations of a deal with Poland, France and Germany for Yanukovych to hold elections by December and restore the 2004 constitution. When that deal failed and Yanukovych fled, the chaos in the Rada created an interim government. Moscow saw this interim government as not unjustifiably anti-Russian in its outlook. Russia did not realistically fear that Ukraine would join NATO, as Ukraine would not be accepted, but the interim government intended to push Ukraine as close to NATO as possible without being a member. Putin and his coterie of allies were vacillating, and Putin eventually decided to secure Russia's position in Crimea. The justification was that an anti-Russian government in Kiev would push the Russian fleet out of Sevastopol, and destroy Russia's position in the Black Sea.

The decision to move the referendum up and to annex Crimea was a separate decision that was not just about the Black Sea fleet. It was about Russia trying to put serious spokes in the wheels of whatever happened in Ukraine.

Then I think they made a further mistake, the Novorossiya project. That first features in the official rhetoric in the March 18, 2014 speech by Putin justifying the annexation. The Novorossiya project was sparked by restlessness in Eastern Ukraine that occurred in reaction to events in Kiev. Maybe there would be a problem for the Russian diaspora in the Eastern provinces that needed to be stirred up.

By April, Russia was trying to change calls for more representation for Ukraine's eastern provinces into separatist movements and began supporting those who wanted to organize separatism. It was a bad decision to support separatism, as Russia thought it would get more support than the rump portions of Donetsk and Luhansk. That resulted in a war; Kiev responded very early in a clumsy but militarily harsh way. The Russians were involved militarily in open conflict and it became clear that unless it escalated into something much more serious than the Russians would tolerate, it would result in a ceasefire. Effectively a ragged stalemate like Minsk II, which was good from their point of view. And last May, even the separatists regarded the Novorossiya project as unrealistic.

The Russians have conceded that the territory they hold now is as far as they will go in Ukraine for now. So I have described an account of Russian involvement in Ukraine that is event-driven; its not implementing a plan, but the events driving them are not random or an extemporaneous reaction to Maidan. They are driven by strategic calculations, about the fear of an anti-Russian government in Kiev and concerns about events in Ukraine were part of a much larger US strategy promoting regime change in many places. US regime change efforts would spread across the region, and to Russia itself, according to this theory. Russia saw Maidan as part of a much larger geopolitical game, that did not just focus on Ukraine's international orientation but had profound impacts for the regime in Russia itself.

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