Princeton University and New York University’s Stephen F. Cohen, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution Fiona Hill, and Columbia University’s Robert Legvold join CFR’s Stephen Sestanovich to discuss the current state of U.S.-Russia relations, including cooperation on strategic initiatives in Syria, tensions surrounding the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the post–Cold War expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and recent allegations of Russian-sponsored cyberattacks.
SESTANOVICH: I’m Steve Sestanovich. I’m a fellow at the Council. And I want to welcome you to this meeting on the state of Russian-American relations.
Ordinarily a meeting of this kind, on the eve of our presidential election, might require some sort of explanation. (Laughter.) You know, foreign policy doesn’t loom all that large in presidential elections. We know that. And Russia has been looming even less large. But I think this year perhaps no explanation is needed.
This October we’ve had the leadership of the American intelligence community describing Russian involvement in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. Before that we had very different views of Russia and the policy and its leadership expressed by the two candidates. Even before that, we’ve had a strong deterioration of the relationship around issues like Ukraine and Syria. And even before that, even—you know, even two, three years ago, one had to say the relationship was heading downhill.
To discuss this question, we have Bob Legvold, Fiona Hill, and Stephen Cohen. I have to say it’s hard to think of a panel that can do more to illuminate these questions. You’ve got their bios, and so I will leave it at saying that these are three scholars who have contributed enormously to public debate about Russia and Russian-American relations for many years in books, articles, media appearances, and in many other ways, including here at the Council.
Before we start, I should say I don’t need to give you the usual mumbo jumbo about Council rules because we’re on the record. In fact, we’re being live-streamed. So those of you who miss anything, you’ll be able to refer back—
HILL: (Laughs.) Including us? (Laughter.)
SESTANOVICH: —for—to get the exact wording each of our speakers used on any subject for as long as we all shall live.
But I will say please turn off your devices. And we’re not kidding about that. You’ll only be embarrassed if your phone goes off.
We are, as usual, going to begin with 30 minutes of discussion among the panelists, and then 30 minutes of questions from the audience. We have an enormous amount of material to discover—to discuss. So let me encourage concision from everyone.
I want to begin by asking each of our panelists to briefly—and I’m going to be doing this a lot—briefly give us their characterization of the current moment. In a few quick strokes, what are the main features, most important and distinctive features, of the Russian-American relationship right now? How did we get here?
I want to hold off for a few moments the question of prescriptions, but we’re going to turn to that. And I’m sure you’re going to push us on that.
I’m going to turn to Bob Legvold first, for a variety of reasons. He’s right here on my right, but also because he is the author of a very stimulating new book called “Return to Cold War.” And it’s, you know—I don’t even know exactly how one would get a copy of it. But you’ll all want to after hearing Bob, and certainly on my recommendation.
Why don’t we start with Bob, then do Fiona, then Steve; a few quick strokes on where we are now and how we got here.
LEGVOLD: Thank you, Steve. It’s a real pleasure to be with you, and in particular with Fiona and the two Steves.
Where are we? What is the situation? It’s bad. It’s very bad. It grows more so by the day. Contrary to the common view in Washington and in Moscow that, yes, it’s a bad relationship—it could even slide into a new cold war, but we don’t want to go there—in fact, we are there, and we have been there ever since the two sides went over the cliff in the context of the Ukrainian crisis.
I say that not unmindful of the fundamental differences between the situation today and the original Cold War. But my focus is very much on what are the distinctive qualities that are similar between the two periods, five of which that I explore in some detail in the book and won’t take your time at this point for.
But it’s not just a question of using this idea, this concept of cold war, to capture the depth, the scale, and the nature of the collapse in relations at this point, but also something that I think is particularly important; that is, to return to build perspective on what the consequences are. And they come in basically two categories: One, the dangers, which we are focused on.
They start with the notion that, for the first time since the Korean War, our two air forces are operating in the same space on opposite sides. Less noticed is that we are now, with potential consequences, remilitarizing the U.S.-Russia relationship, and simultaneously reconstituting, in a remilitarized way, a central front in Europe and the dangers that flow from that.
But what is not observed are what I call the opportunity costs, the major global challenges that require U.S.-Russia partnership at this point that are not being addressed and will not be addressed in the future. I have seven. Let me list three to give you a sample.
It starts with the notion that we are now in multipolar nuclear world of nine nuclear weapons-possessing states. It is more complex and potentially more dangerous than the original Cold War nuclear era. Secondly, the European security order that leaders promised to build from 1990 forward rather than being progressively achieved, in fact is being torn down at this point. Third, the tectonic geostrategic transformation that’s taking place within Asia-Pacific will be dealt with competitively by the United States and Russia rather than cooperatively. And I would add four others that are equally significant, but I’d shut up after 2 minutes. (Laughter.)
HILL: Well, let me just—
SESTANOVICH: Thank you for keeping the promise.
HILL: Yeah, and I’ll try to do the same thing. I can see the clock right in front of me here. Also, great to be here with such a distinguished audience. I see so many people up here who I know have things to say themselves, so I think we should also be mindful of your time as we make our remarks.
I would just like to actually build on a few of the things that Bob has said. I actually don’t think that we’re back into a global confrontation, just to be very clear. And I don’t think that that’s what you’re suggesting really in the book. But we have managed to whip ourselves—here as well, not just in Moscow—into the kind of frenzy that we haven’t really seen since the 1980s. And looking around the audience here, actually I think some people might not remember the 1980s too well, but I certainly do. And I do know that quite a few of the people in the audience—this was the period when I started to learn Russian against the backdrop of thinking that we were going to end up in a nuclear war.
So I’m thinking back to 1981 to the period of 1983, when we had a full-blown war scare. And it was a real war scare. We now know from declassified documents that it wasn’t just in the West and Western Europe where we had the campaign for nuclear disarmament, but it was also very much very much in the Kremlin and in the Soviet Union as well, where people really felt we were on the brink of a nuclear conflict. Now, we may not be quite on the brink of that but I think, as Bob has very rightfully pointed out, we’re getting ourselves into a military posture now where that is no longer unthinkable, as it has been for the last couple of decades.
And it’s also very much rhetorically based. I’m quite shocked, to be honest, about the way that Russia has loomed in this presidential campaign. It’s not just—you know, I think for those of us who like to work on Russia—this is not our moment in the sun. I think in actual fact, this is a moment of—that should be very sobering and one of reflection about how have we created a situation here in the United States too where Vladimir Putin, in particular, but Russia in general has become the bogeyman and the beast in the machine of our presidential election? I think we ought to have a point of reflection, which I hope we will, on this panel about how that’s happened.
The other point is that if we think more globally about the opportunity costs, as Bob has rightly pointed out we are in a much more complex world than we were before. The old Cold War was a bipolar superpower confrontation. We’re not even in a tri-polar world anymore now. The rise of China greatly complicates things, and this relationship. We each have our own, Russia and the United States, different complex relations with China. That configuration of that relationship is very crucial. But we’re also very much in a multipolar world with a lot of complexity and very difficult relationships, which is what we’re seeing in Syria. And we will not be able to get out of the complications that we see in Syria elsewhere without addressing the relationship with Russia very seriously, which I hope we will manage to do in this panel.
COHEN: Steve gave us two minutes. Let me try to do it in less by just making three un-nuanced points. Yes, of course, we’re in a new Cold War. I’ve been arguing this for more than a decade. Developments since then have amply confirmed it. By whatever name, we’re closer to war with Russia today than we have been since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
But, this is my second point, this Cold War, and I think Bob might agree, is much more dangerous than the first. There are a number of reasons why this is so, but I’ll just mention two. The preceding Cold War had its epicenter in Germany, in Berlin. This Cold War has its epicenter on Russia’s borders, from the Baltics, where NATO is undertaking an unwise military buildup—the first Western massing of military power on Russia’s borders since the Germans invaded in June 1941—down to Ukraine. This is—you can imagine this geopolitical reality and the possibilities for something really bad happening here. The other reason why this is more dangerous is there is absolutely no mainstream debate in this country about the role of American policy—the possible culpable role. We had a very vigorous debate in this country during the preceding Cold War. We have none now. Maybe it’ll begin today.
My third, and this will really be my most contentious point. And I don’t know where Bob and Fiona stand on this. The pivot argument—narrative of our policymakers and our media, by way of explaining the new Cold War, is that Putin is to blame, that he has been from the outset—that would be the year 2000—an aggressive leader. If you Google the expression, “Putin’s aggression,” your computer will blow up. (Laughter.) In my reading of history, and I think as a historian, since 2000 Putin has essentially been a reactive foreign policy leader. It doesn’t matter where you begin—with the abolition of the ABM treaty or Washington’s relentless pushing of NATO toward Georgia and Ukraine, Putin has been a reactive leader, not in this sense an aggressive leader. Now, you might argue his reactions have been lousy and unwise. But reactive he has been. And for me, the evidence is that as we talk today there are three new Cold War fronts, fraught with the possibility of hot war—the Baltics, Ukraine, and Syria. This is unprecedented in American-Russian relations.
SESTANOVICH: Thank you. And especially for your brevity, all three of you. But I want to push you a little bit on this, because I’m struck by the difficulty of understanding what the new Cold War is about from what you’ve described. You’ve described danger, confrontation, risks, and tensions. But I’m struck by the difference between your accounts and what one would normally hear in Washington as a summary of the new situation. And that is that there’s a kind of core disagreement about the nature of international order, that there is a—you know, Putin is seen to be a violator of the rules described as, you know, not acquiring territory by conquest. But even more deeply, he’s seen to be an advocate of a different kind of international structure. And I wonder whether you can say a little bit about whether you think—this was after all, what the Cold War had as a kind of key driving force—whether there’s that kind of conceptual or ideological driver to the conflict now. Or, is it just—or is it something more primal, two forces up against each other?
LEGVOLD: You looking at me?
SESTANOVICH: Anybody can start with this one. Now we’re—
LEGVOLD: Well, in terms of the—in terms of what the original Cold War was, and when you think about this as a Cold War what distinguished it, as I said in the book, that you were kind enough to advertise—I identify five things that I think epitomize the Cold War as a model, that is analytical model, at its height, say from 1948, the Berlin blockade, till shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953. I won’t go through all five, but the first of those was each side then, as now, blames the other side literally wholly for where we are. And it’s not just because of the other side’s behavior. It is because of—in the minds of each side—the essence or the nature of the other side. That’s the way it was when Kennan wrote “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” That’s the way in which the issue is being framed now.
Secondly, on a point that does begin to link to what you’ve said, during that period of time, as now, the issue is not merely that we have conflicts of interest, it is that we have conflicts of purpose. And that was true then, it is true now. And that notion that we have a conflict of purpose means that it’s very hard to imagine that there’s any substantial common ground. Maybe some limited transactions, like the Iran deal, and we’d hope some kind of progress in Syria. But nothing that would transform the relationship.
On the other point of is this really a clash of concepts of world order, I think not. Here I line up in that debate that Foreign Affairs had between Walter Russell Mead and John Ikenberry, I line up with Ikenberry. I don’t think either China or Iran or Russia are determined to overthrow the existing international order. They want to change its rules. They want to change its place within it. But Dmitri Trenin, this very bright Russian, had an interesting formulation on what’s at stake. For the West, particularly the Europeans, our allies and the United States, Putin is a threat to the European order now. He’s determined to undermine the European order. What Trenin said is the Russians’ agenda under Putin is overthrowing the post-Cold War order. And that post-Cold War order was the one in which the United States called the shots, formed the coalitions of the willing, conducted a foreign policy using its military powers it chose. That’s what Trenin would argue is at stake, but not necessarily overturning the world order. It’s overturning U.S. foreign policy.
HILL: I actually agree with that. I think that the essence of this is really about who gets to call the shots in this structure. I think that what Russia is aiming for—and they’re not the only power that is trying to do this—is the ability to violate the rules as they see fit if it’s in their national interest, which is frankly what they think that the United States does.
I think this is the essence of what Dmitri Trenin and others have been making the point, that the United States reserves the right for itself, in their view, to have a veto right, just as we have at the United Nations Security Council and where Russia has that enshrined, along with China, as a member of the P5.
So from Russia’s point of view, having a world order on a rules perspective that looks more like the U.N. Security Council is really what would be preferable. And in the case of Europe and the European security order, since the Cold War, as Bob has laid out, Russia—overall this is not just an issue about Putin but the political class at the top of Russia resents deeply that they’re not consulted on any issue that might affect their interests, from Ukraine to the enlargement of NATO, the enlargement of the European Union, and other critical issues.
SESTANOVICH: Steve, you’re the historian here. So let me ask you—
HILL: Actually, I’m a historian as well, just for the record. (Laughter.)
SESTANOVICH: It’s true.
HILL: Just thought I’d point out.
SESTANOVICH: It’s true, but I think—
HILL: I’ll concede. I’ll concede the point.
SESTANOVICH: We’ll still concede that Steve is a long-time professor of history.
A lot of Russians will tell you—and I think this is a perception that has kind of taken hold in the West—is, well, that Putin is driven by a sense of restoring Russia’s historic place in the world. And that means that has an ideological dimension to it. You know, you don’t have to have too many conversations with the Russians to hear about autocracy, orthodoxy, and, you know, nationality.
Give us your sense of how that kind of sense of historical mission, if that’s the right way to put it, plays into the current deterioration of the relationship.
COHEN: Well, I’m not much of a historian.
COHEN: But if I were, I would begin by saying that in the 1990s, which is almost always deleted from the discussion today, under Yeltsin, Russia adopted or pretended to adopt the Western view of everything, including the ideology. And that collapsed for reasons we know. And the reaction, of course, was to fall back on Russian tradition, as many of us warned back in the 1990s.
I see Putin’s mission, as he sees it, is somewhat different and historically. And I would always tell my students this. Remember that this guy almost accidentally became president of Russia, the head of the state—and here’s the point—that had collapsed twice in the 20th century; the state that Russians call smouta (ph), the collapse of the state—anarchy, civil war, deprivation. It happened twice.
I think his mission, if he had one, was that his mandate was not only to rebuild the state in the Russian sense of the word, but to be sure that never happened again. And that included a sense, not as Biden likes to say all the time, a sphere of influence, but of a Russian natural entitled security zone. And, of course, that’s where the trouble began, and remains today, that Russia’s historical security zone had been along its borders.
In my judgment, we violated that assumption on Russia’s part. Now, we can argue they were not entitled to that. Let’s say it. You don’t have any legitimate security interests on your border. Let’s just say it, because that’s been the premise. If we said they did, Ukraine wouldn’t have happened and Georgia wouldn’t have happened. We didn’t accept that premise, which is not just Putin’s.
So that’s where we are. And to go back to your point, I don’t think people really understand. Bob does. I mean, a lot of people do. But a lot of people who say it’s not a cold war don’t understand historically what cold wars have meant as relationships, not just Russia. I mean, Russia and China had a cold war, which became a shooting war. We had a cold war with Russia from 1917 to 1933. We didn’t recognize communist Russia. What could be colder than that? There are different kinds of cold wars.
But it has become ideological now, I would say. And all the business about traditional family values float down in my home state of Kentucky just as well as they do in Russia. I don’t take this too seriously. But, yeah, it’s become ideological too.
SESTANOVICH: I think the view that you’re describing about what Russia’s interests are is not that they have no legitimate security interests on their periphery but that their legitimate security interests were not threatened. And that would be—that’s where we’ll have to get to.
I want to be able to turn for a moment to prescriptions before we open things up to the audience. But we’ve painted a dark picture here. Even so, a new president is going to have to have a memo suggesting what’s feasible to accomplish in improving the situation, what are the necessary elements of a strategy for addressing it, and I’d like you to briefly touch on what you think that memo should say. And you can start in any place you want. If one of you has got the memo ready—
LEGVOLD: I’ve got it.
LEGVOLD: I mean, I think anybody who follows and is informed about events knows the memo to the new president.
Compel Kiev to implement Minsk. It’s not Russia that’s blockading and thwarting Minsk. It’s the Poroshenko government. Get this done or think of something else.
Restore the agreement with Russia in Syria before the Department of Defense attack those Syrian forces, 48 hours before it was supposed to go into implementation; and, a little more difficult, demilitarize NATO expansion back to Berlin. We promised that NATO—well, people laugh, but we promised the Russians that, yeah, we’ve broken our first promise. We were going to expand NATO, but there would be no forward-based Western troops there. They’re now right on Russia’s border. That’s a provocation. Demilitarize. That doesn’t mean in NATO, expel the members, but demilitarize it. We would be living in a much safer and more cooperative world. But we’re not going to get a president with the will or the understanding to do anything like this. Maybe one.
HILL: I wouldn’t—I’m like the old Irish shepherd leaning on a wall here. You can’t get there from, you know, from here. I don’t think we should start with the specific issues like this, to be honest, because we have to, first of all, chart out what we want on a minimal of a relationship with Russia. And it’s in a different context.
I mean, I agree with what, you know, has been said here about the nature of cold wars. But they’re not just in a vacuum. It’s not just us and them in this relationship. This is an incredibly complex world that we’re in. We have China as a major player, which, you know, we’re not really factoring into all of this. And then we’ve got a Europe which is in a considerable amount of disarray here and big questions about the future of our transatlantic relationship and partnership, with Brexit and all of the problems that we’re going to have in the European Union with elections in Germany and France and the rise of the far right, as well as, you know, the whole populist frame of politics that we see here. We have relationships that we have to work out in our own hemisphere in the United States with our neighbors, with India and other rising powers, Brazil, and the future of the Middle East.
So we have to think about what our relationship with Russia looks like in that context. And I think we have to say to ourselves what we want is a minimal acceptable relationship with Russia before we start thinking about specific prescriptions for this. And I think that that’s actually something that I would say to the president. We have to have a huddle with a group of people, look at this in a holistic manner.
This is not a relationship that is just taking place in a European context or a Middle Eastern context. Russia has got relationships with Japan and China in the Asia Pacific. We have to decide what our alliance structure looks like out of there. You know, this is basically across the board that we have to have a look what that relationship looks like in different arenas. And what we want is just the future of this bilateral relationship. So I think we have to start with the big picture and then think about whether these prescriptive issues—
SESTANOVICH: Let me just ask you—
HILL: —fit into that.
SESTANOVICH: —to clarify one point about that, Fiona, because the way you describe that could be understood to mean Russia actually isn’t—doesn’t loom all that large in all of the full universe of foreign-policy problems that a new administration has to address. Are you saying that, or just that it has to be taken in context even while—
HILL: It has to be taken in context. I mean, some of the mistakes that we’ve made in each administration—actually, coming in, in 2000, Condoleezza Rice, in the flagship publication of this great institution, wrote a piece about where Russia was essentially a normal country, Russia doesn’t matter—in 2000, the famous Foreign Affairs piece which kind of put Russia in a box, as if it was irrelevant. Then we started the Obama administration with the idea of a reset, but it was just thinking about our terms, about other issues that we wanted to put that relationship to use for. It wasn’t about Russia. And the nature of that relationship was about dealing with Iran and a whole host of other issues related to nonproliferation. I’m saying, take a long, hard look at this relationship in the larger context, and in the full context—not just through the prism of Ukraine or Syria, because I think that’s why we’re getting into trouble, because we keep looking at it, about why is Russia a problem in this context, rather than what do we want out of this whole relationship. We haven’t done that for a long time.
SESTANOVICH: Bob, your memo—and I’m hoping you can address both questions of what we do first, what’s the—what’s the new administration do, and what’s a realistic alternative relationship that one might be aiming at?
LEGVOLD: Well, I’m afraid my memo would be very negative. It would start by underscoring for the new president what should be obvious to the new president, which has a parallel on the Russian side. And that is, at this stage, major elements in both countries would not, first of all, agree with the analysis that you’ve heard from Cohen, from Hill, from Legvold, and I think you would get from Sestanovich. Their view, most of the media, certainly the vast majority of the Congress, I think this administration—and there’s likely to be continuity between this and the next administration—believe that the basic problem is, as I said at the outset, the essence of the other side.
It’s not in the interaction between the two countries or what the outside world is doing or what is driving the foreign policy agenda of Putin, however—and colleagues, however you see that. It is that this regime needs an external enemy. And therefore, the anti-Americanism. It can’t afford to have democracy approaching its border, and therefore its reaction in Ukraine. And when the sources of legitimacy, the economic successes from around high oil prices disappear, they resort to crude nationalism—Krim nash, Crimea is ours—and the like of that. And the regime is essentially incorrigible. There is very little that we can do on that context or in that circumstance.
And Moscow, it’s not the same, but it’s the equivalent, and even deeper. And therefore, the first question is, how do we begin to break out of that? Presumably, it has to be through a reengagement of some kind. But you’re going to have to deal with all the obstacles to reengagement that I’ve just described, and the attitude that now prevails within this country and within Russia. If you then can begin reengaging, I think you do begin looking for things where you would want to cooperate. Some of them are urgent. As Steve and Fiona have suggested, the risk now that we really could get into trouble militarily.
And therefore—as Fiona and her colleague Steve Pifer at the Brookings Institution have suggested—revisiting the dangerous incidents—sea incidents in 1972 where the dangerous military activity in 1989, strengthening those, making them broadly apply. Dealing with cybersecurity the way in which we have been able to deal with it with the Chinese, because of this larger political impact. But I don’t think we can get to that until we face the fundamental obstacle to where we are right now. And that’s why I call it a new cold war. The issue in both sides is the fault entirely lies on the other side, and it’s in the nature of the other side’s politics and system. And until that changes, there’s very little that we can do. That’s the reality you’ve got to address.
COHEN: And yet, we have a precedent of it being done. The situation was just as spiteful and hateful in 1985 when Reagan and Gorbachev decided to do what they did. So that brings us to the question of leadership.
LEGVOLD: That’s true, Steve, but we didn’t get to 1985 without the ups and downs before that. We’d had détente. We’d had SALT in the 1970s, and failed. And there was a danger that even the ’85 thing could fail, as we saw at various points. So it’s—we haven’t begun going through those phases in where we are right now in the relationship.
HILL: Right, so it’s a long road.
SESTANOVICH: We got to 1985 only through 1981, a new administration that didn’t actually think it could fix the relationship right away, but felt that there needed to be some period of adjustment. How that might compare with today’s period of adjustment maybe will come up in some of the questions. We haven’t talked much—I think we’ve really succeeded in depersonalizing this discussion. Putin has reared his ugly head, but not too much. And we haven’t hardly talked about economics or oil prices.
So now we’re going to turn the floor over to you, and you can have at the panelists in any way that you want. I’ve got a questioner here in back. Why don’t you get—and then we’re going to go over here. Just state your name and affiliation, if you can, and ask a question.
Q: Jamie Rubin. Very brief question.
SESTANOVICH: We can’t even see you Jamie.
SESTANOVICH: I know there’s somebody over there.
Q: I was struck in hearing your discussion of where we are without regarding the invasion of Ukraine as something fundamentally different that changed the minds of even the people like Angela Merkel. Forget all of the Washington people that you disagree with. But Angela Merkel and other Germans, who traditionally have the less-confrontational view changed because of the invasion of Ukraine. And none of you mentioned that as a key moment in where we are. And I think that was the political change. You can argue about why, but that was the moment. Secondly, to not mention that we’ve gotten to the point—I know this is all—we all know this, but the fact that the hacking has occurred inside our system in a moment like this means we’re at another level that I can’t really analogize to the Cold War. Maybe you historians can. We tried to kill Castro, but I don’t remember us putting someone in. So those two issues, why aren’t the fundamentally different than all the things you said, the hacking and the Ukraine.
SESTANOVICH: Really quickly.
HILL: So thanks, Jamie. I mean, obviously he told us to be very quick here, so we couldn’t cover all of this territory. You’re absolutely right that the annexation of Crimea was a major pivot point. Now, the point is that it actually should not have been, because we’d already had the war with Georgia in 2008. And we’d all had very strong signaling from the Russians and, you know, very specific from President Putin and those around him in 2007 at the Munich Security Conference and at many other junctures after the period of enlargement of both the EU and NATO in 2004 that Russia was extraordinarily unhappy with what was happening, and they were signaling that they wanted to have a halt, a moratorium, let’s get down to discussing this. What really happened in terms of Crimea though is that’s them upping the ante to a major point. And you’re absolutely right, for the Germans in particular, given the post-World War II experience of Germany, that was really a big rupture. We can talk about the implications of this.
As for the hacking, technology has made this—things possible that were not possible during the Cold War. But in the 1980s, we did have dueling CIA and KGB basically operations against each other—Operation RYaN and Operation Able Archer. For those of you who are interested, they’re all actually declassified, all the documents, on the CIA and other websites. We were going at each other in that period as well. And it took, as we’ve said here, some time for us all to pull back from that brink, and to basically finally think about, you know, do we really want to be in this situation?
SESTANOVICH: If I could sharpen Jamie’s question a little bit for Steve and Bob, and then get quick responses. You know, the issue, I think, is whether you can actually make the kind of progress that one might hope for in the relationship without some big breakthrough in addressing the Ukraine issue or, in this case, you know, the allegation of interference in domestic politics. Are those—can we just maneuver around those, as I think some—you know, maybe suggested.
LEGVOLD: No, no. I don’t believe you can maneuver around them, on either side. You are going to have to address them. And they’re not static in either case. And when you think about Ukraine, from my point of view what the Russians did first in Crimea, notwithstanding the manipulated referendum, and what they did in Ukraine, particularly in the summer of 2014 and on, really was a fundamental challenge to understandings of European security that people thought Russia had bought in on. The further problem, however, is the way in which it’s interpreted that drives the new Cold War. I think the prevalent view is that Russia is now a power interested in aggrandizing—
SESTANOVICH: The prevalent Western view, or?
LEGVOLD: the prevalent Western view, that Russia is a power interested in aggrandizing itself, putting the Soviet Union back together again in whatever way it can. The Baltic is therefore imperiled, and other areas are imperiled at the first opportunity. I think that’s probably a mistake in way in which one reads that. So that’s in terms of what you do beyond.
Finally, what do you—can you work your way around it? No, you can’t work your way around it. But let me be harsh, and from my point of view—I think realistic—I think Ukraine’s—eastern Ukraine is now Europe’s most dangerous and latest protracted conflict. One would hope that you keep the lid on the violence, and that’s what they’ve been working on in the contact group in Normandy. But the notion you’re going to get a political settlement, I think is very unrealistic. And because of both sides, not just because of Kiev, as Steve was suggesting. And therefore, we’re going to have to figure out how we deal with the Ukraine. And Russia is going to have to as well. One would hope, as a final word, that what you want is for Russia to achieve as—or to set as its primary objective normalizing relations with Ukraine.
SESTANOVICH: Steve, you’ve said squeeze the Ukrainians to live up to Minsk II. Do you want have anything more to say on this?
COHEN: To Mr. Rubin’s question?
COHEN: Well, Crimea is obviously the elephant in the room and the flashpoint. And it’s all more complicated. The very good British scholar, Richard Sakwa said that we brought all these problems on ourselves, that we’ve caused them. This would mean that we’d have to look at the prehistory of what happened in Crimea. What we know for sure, unless Bob knows differently, that Putin during his years in power showed no interest in reuniting, as he called it, with Crimea, though there were powerful forces in Moscow who clearly—the mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, was pushing for this.
So what happened between a completely disinterested Putin in Crimea and the decision to reunite or annex Crimea? What happened was Western policy in Ukraine. Now, we don’t know today because they keep changing the story. Originally the sanctions regarding Minsk had to do with the—Russia had to help implement Minsk. Now it seems the sanctions have shifted to Russia must give back Crimea. It’s not exactly clear, depending on who’s talking.
HILL: That’s actually not true, no.
COHEN: I’m sorry?
HILL: No, that’s actually not correct.
COHEN: Well, our leaders—
LEGVOLD: That is not correct.
COHEN: Excuse me. It may not be correct, I agree—
COHEN: —but our political leaders have said it.
HILL: They have—they actually have not, but anyway.
LEGVOLD: There are separate sets of sanctions there.
HILL: There’s two sets of sanctions.
COHEN: Well, there are American and European sanctions.
HILL: Yeah, but they’re separate between—
LEGVOLD: No. No.
HILL: —Crimea and then what’s happening in Donbas.
SESTANOVICH: OK, Jim Traub.
Q: Hi. Jim Traub, ForeignPolicy.com and NYU.
I think there’s a sharp disagreement among the three of you, but maybe you were being too polite, so I couldn’t quite tell. So I want to ask a question to see if I’m right about this.
Steve Cohen had said that we know that Russia defines its interests in such-and-such a way. It may be right, it may be wrong, but we have to predicate our policy on the fact that it does.
My sense from the other two of you is that you thought, no, it matters a great deal whether it’s right or not and that the Western response has to be guided in part by the fear that we are failing to defend fundamental interests of the West, whether the Russians are sincere or not. Am I right in thinking so, or no?
LEGVOLD: Well, I speak for myself. No, not entirely. There is a difference between Steve, an old and a dear friend—we’ve been back and forth through email for maybe the last seven or eight years on this kind of thing—and myself.
My view is that we got to where we are today, a dance that we did together. It’s not a question. It’s not a question for me of who’s more responsible. I do believe that we went over the cliff because of what Russia did in Ukraine. Therefore, I have a difference with Steve. He said he wrote about this as a cold war—how many years ago?
COHEN: Ten maybe.
LEGVOLD: Ten years ago. I didn’t believe that earlier period was a cold war any more than I believed for the opposite reason Ed Lucas, who in 2007 said it’s a new cold war. He thought it was a new cold war because he blamed it all on Putin. Steve is inclined to lay primary responsibility on the United States. The difference between the two of us—and he knows from our many conversations—I think it’s a dance that we did together.
So it’s not a question of whether I’m saying that the responsibility is only on the Russian side. I think it is in the context of Ukraine. But if you look at the 20 years, both through commission and omission, we did this together.
HILL: Can I just add something to this as well, because, look, I think that we were kind of very much asleep at the wheel. And I know this from my own practical experience of spending some time in government around the war with Georgia. We should have seen all of this coming. There was plenty of signs of it. There was plenty of signaling.
There were plenty of analysts who weren’t very well aware that we were getting ourselves into a confrontational relationship in the run-up to the war in Georgia. And we basically had an assumption, although there was a large assumption out there in, you know, the political class, that the Russians had made some kind of decision back in the 1990s that they were all OK with what was happening in the post-Cold War security architecture, which actually was not the case.
There was not the capacity to do anything about fundamental disagreements that they had on Yugoslavia or any other issue from the 1990s onwards. That capacity changed dramatically in the early 2000s after Vladimir Putin came into power. And they made it very clear, and we ignored it. And we kept on going on with policy prescriptions that we’d had a time when Russia was in a very different place.
There were actually always contingency plans to retake Crimea in some circles, dating back to the early 1990s. Myself and others worked on this in the early 1990s. They came back into being when there was a feeling in Moscow that things were most definitively not going in their direction, and they wanted to put a hold on this.
But we should have been much more mindful, probably a good 10 years ago, of the way that the trajectory was changing and their views were changing, but the capacity was changing inside of Russia and that Vladimir Putin was not Boris Yeltsin and was going to make different decisions about how he was going to react to things that he didn’t like. And that’s where I think that we certainly went wrong.
SESTANOVICH: Steve, do you want to add something to this, or should we—
COHEN: Go ahead. It’ll probably come up again.
SESTANOVICH: I wouldn’t be surprised.
COHEN: I want to give you your time back.
SESTANOVICH: Here on the aisle and then in the middle. So we’ve got two microphones and then—yeah. Yeah, go ahead.
Q: Thank you. Thank you, Stephen.
The attitude both here and in Europe is mostly it doesn’t matter whether dovish or hawkish people. It’s like if only we had done this—been more engaging with Putin, or if only we’d been more aggressive. It’s all—but the loser is always us, and we are losing track of what the subjectivity of Putin is as a leader.
So my question is, what do you think he’ll do in the future, since if we mention Nemtsov—it hasn’t been named in this conversation—or Crimea coming up in this conversation, or the leaks in the campaign, these are all subjective aggressive steps that he took. So what do you think Putin will do on his own? Thank you.
HILL: Well, this is the question or the response that I was getting to with the idea of capacity. Leadership does matter, leadership style, and the methods and instruments that somebody is willing to use. And this is where, again, there was a miscalculation about Putin being like his predecessors like Boris Yeltsin—
SESTANOVICH: Fiona, give me something different—
HILL: —Putin and the people around him.
SESTANOVICH: —from the balance-of-power chain—
HILL: I do. No, it’s the methods and instruments that they’re willing to use. So—
SESTANOVICH: —but that they have—
HILL: And that they have.
HILL: Look, Yeltsin also had capabilities to fight dirty and to do things that—you know, the kinds of things that we’re seeing today; perhaps not in cyber or other areas. But he didn’t want to use those instruments or he didn’t feel that he had the capacity to use them. I think, you know, one could debate. But I think that that was just not his style. It certainly was not Dmitri Medvedev’s style when he was the president in the tandem period.
Putin and the people, some of the people around him, are willing to take steps and to use methods that others would not countenance. And I think that that’s what we’re seeing here. And that’s not a subjective judgment. It’s just a statement of fact that it’s the nature of the leadership and the nature of the person that we’re dealing with.
SESTANOVICH: I knew we’d get to personality.
COHEN: Well, it’s not a matter of fact. It’s a matter of interpretation. I mean, we—historians—you say you’re a historian—disagree about a lot of leaders.
HILL: Well, I think the annexation of Crimea is a fact. It depends on how we interpret it.
COHEN: Well, you went on to say they’re capable of doing anything.
HILL: Well, they have done quite a few things.
COHEN: Well, that’s your interpretation.
HILL: It’s actually a fact—just to be clear.
COHEN: Well, I mean, we’ve only got a few minutes. And it would really be good to have a session just on Putin as leaders, because you and I—
HILL: Oh, I totally agree.
COHEN: —you and I have a—
HILL: Get away from just—
COHEN: —radically different interpretation of Putin as a leader. And there’s not time for it. But if we do facts, then you remember that Putin helped the United States in its first war in Afghanistan more than any NATO country.
COHEN: Saved a lot of American lives. He came to power wanting to be what Yeltsin—
HILL: Let’s not be too exclusive.
COHEN: —Yeltsin never achieved, a real partner of the United States. And then he gave up hope on that. So the facts are and the interpretation began to change over the years.
The real difference, I think—not the real difference, but—and I address this to Bob to see if he agrees—between this cold war and the preceding one—we agree we have now two to talk about—is that there was nothing like this sustained decade-long vilification of Putin as a person that now stands between granting Russia any legitimacy about most anything and a president who might want to begin what Reagan began.
Putin has been so vilified, often without any basis in logic or fact. We didn’t have that with the communist leaders. I mean, forget Stalin—after Stalin. I mean, Brezhnev had been turned into kind of an affable dolt here, and anybody could deal with, and he and Nixon were buddies. Clinton tried that unwisely with Yeltsin. We don’t need a friend in the Kremlin. This is an American conceit. We need a partner in the Kremlin.
HILL: Could I just clarify here, because—
COHEN: Well, let me—that was a comment. Let—
HILL: Yeah, just another thing, because, look, it’s not about personality or the person, because I don’t—I agree completely we should not demonize Putin, or any leader, for that matter. It’s the methods that, as a leader, he is willing to use.
LEGVOLD: Thank you.
HILL: It’s where—it’s his arsenal of tools that he uses as a leader. That’s the issue.
SESTANOVICH: Bob, do you want to add one sentence here?
LEGVOLD: Could I have three? (Laughter.)
SESTANOVICH: Two. (Laughter.)
LEGVOLD: I was in Moscow week before last. And at the session, the first deputy foreign minister, Nyarkov (ph), made a presentation. He said this is not a new Cold War. He said it’s worse. And others have said the same thing. And they say it’s worse for three reasons—the point that Steve was making earlier. There’s no mutual respect in this relationship at this point.
LEGVOLD: Secondly, whatever rules we worked out, and usually as a result of crises like the Cuban missile crisis, are no longer there. We don’t know what the rules are at the moment. And third, on both sides, there’s no strategic vision.
Which brings us back to your question—that is, what’s going to drive Putin’s next move? I think it’ll be events. I think it’s not within a context of any coherent design, and he’ll behave in whatever way, probably consistently with the behavior that Fiona has described. But it will be event-driven, and therefore we ought to be—we ought to be thinking not about controlling pre-conceived Putin behavior. We ought to be thinking about the way in which we work on the events that will shape him.
SESTANOVICH: Thank you.
HILL: That’s a good point.
SESTANOVICH: Here. And let me just remind questioners that it would be good to introduce yourselves. And then down here.
Q: Hi. Tim Frye, Columbia University.
One thing we haven’t talked much about is domestic politics in Russia and the economic situation. I was at a meeting earlier this morning where the pro-sanctions side was making the argument that—you know, that this will—economic pressure, the declining oil prices, and the sanctions will increase incentives for the Russian government to come to the table in Ukraine and perhaps even in Syria, whereas other people argue that the sanctions are just reinforcing the image of the U.S. as uninterested in cooperation. I’d like to hear the panel’s views on the likelihood of economic sanctions and declining economic situation in Russia yielding either cooperation on Ukraine or more confrontation.
SESTANOVICH: Or, at a minimum, just more caution.
HILL: Yeah, I think that those things actually can go together, Tim, because I think they’re absolutely right the continuation of the sanctions is making people in Moscow think that this—look, this is never going to get out of it, because they do have the perception that Steve laid out, that this is—no matter what they do, these sanctions will never get lifted. They’re definitely having an impact on the economy. There’s a real risk for Russia of having a long-term recession that the sanctions contribute to. We’ve seen that in the ways that they’re trying to get out of the sanctions, but without perhaps changing the facts on the ground in Ukraine.
I think really it gets to the point that Bob has just made, which I think actually squares the circle of everything we’re talking about here. We have to—we have to create a whole different set of incentives, a whole different picture for why it is, then, that we might want to change this state of affairs. We have to give kind of a sense that we actually want to do something else with this relationship than get into this back and forth about who’s wrong, who’s right. Because I deeply believe that Putin is delving into this bag of dirty tricks because he thinks that it’s essential to protect his own interests, to basically get back at the United States for things that he perceives that we are doing. I think the reason that he didn’t use them before is because he didn’t see the necessity of using them before.
I actually completely agree with Steve that there was a turning point, and he flipped with that turning point with Georgia and a whole host of other things that have followed from there. And so we have to change the picture. We have to figure out where this relationship can go, at least at a minimal level, to get us out of this really destructive tit-for-tat kind of behavior that we’re in now.
SESTANOVICH: Direct comments on the question of the economy and sanctions.
LEGVOLD: Well, Tim, you know as well as we do that the sanctions are indeed inflicting pain. Putin says so. He says so publicly. He did in the Bloomberg interview. He did in the last public statement.
But the separate issue—
SESTANOVICH: And has said he expects them to stay in place.
LEGVOLD: And he expects them to stay in place.
But the other issue—the other criterion we ought to apply, are they achieving our objective, which is an adjustment of his behavior, changing his behavior? And there’s no indication they have or that it will, because their attitude in Moscow still is we can tough it out. That hasn’t changed, even though the pain continues to increase. So that’s the first point.
The second point is we’re not going to be able to maintain this unified position on sanctions into 2017 and beyond if the lid remains on in Ukraine and something worse within Syria doesn’t happen. If we are where we are now, we’re not going to be able to continue the sanctions in 2017.
SESTANOVICH: Quickly, Steve.
COHEN: What’s the question? I lost the thread. (Laughter.)
LEGVOLD: How do you feel about sanctions?
SESTANOVICH: Economic issues constraining Putin.
COHEN: I mean, everything we do is to Putin, constraining Putin. There’s a political class. There’s an economic class in Moscow. Bob summarized their thinking.
If we talk about the sanctions, Biden has told us that five European states want to the end the sanctions. Sanctions are dividing Europe. This is part of the collapse of what people were referring to earlier—I never knew what it meant—world order. During most of my life, the world’s been in disorder. (Laughter.) But what we know is, for sure—and it’s not original to me—that what we call the world order that most of us—I may be the oldest, but we grew up with—is disintegrating everywhere around the world. We’re in a new era.
And the problem, from my point of view, is that the—Washington continues to think that it can be the architect and the indispensable leader of this new world order. The fact that it cannot will lead to more frustration in Washington and more unwise policy. And Russia will be in the forefront of this new world order, whether we like it or not, or whether we like Putin or not. This is the reality that we live in.
SESTANOVICH: Good. Next question.
Q: Roger Hertog.
I’d like to ask you a question, Professor Sestanovich. You’ve done a really good job so far deflecting all of this—(laughter)—but a couple of years ago you wrote a terrific book on the varying theories of leadership of American presidents, minimalist and maximalist. If you were updating those chapters—you did part of those chapters through the Obama years—what would those chapters say about—I think you refer to him in a minimalist sense, the Obama years—as it relates to our relationship with Russia?
SESTANOVICH: I don’t want to steal from the panel, but I could—
Q: But you can. But you can. (Laughter.)
SESTANOVICH: I’ll give you—I’ll give you a quick answer. I think the period of the Obama presidency has been one—a typical retrenchment after a stalemated, unsuccessful war. And the issue that rises always is, does that end? What kind of uptick in American activism do you get? And with what kind of residual constraints imposed by the recollection of the past disaster?
And I’ll give you an example. Ronald Reagan is thought of today as a, you know, very activist president. He reasserted American power. But he was highly constrained by the—by the Vietnam syndrome. So he was a maximalist president, in my terms, who was very, very conscious of the importance of not getting into another war that would bring down his policy.
I would think that a next president is probably going to combine those same attributes; that is, a sense that you need to restore a little bit more activism in order to get—to achieve American objectives, but with, you know, the idea of some involvement that would lead to war as a really fundamental constraint.
One last question here on the—on the aisle.
Q: Bob, you said—I’m Bill Luers.
SESTANOVICH: Good. There we go. Thank you, Bill.
Q: Bill Luers, Columbia University.
You said that it would be tough, the memo would be tough. But I’m not clear at what point does the toughness lead to some type of an effort to reach common ground and look for common solutions to some of these vast problems we’ve talked about. And specifically, what would that tough memorandum say about opening a no-fly zone in Syria, which could result in direct U.S.-Russian air conflict? Would your toughness mean you would have to have a lot of confrontations before you reach the point where you can go for a détente?
LEGVOLD: Well, I think there’s no question that at this stage any chance of beginning to move in a different direction has to be two tracks. It has to both be one of engagement and deterrence, back to ideas that go to the European side of things as far back as Harmel in 1967. And therefore, the question of where the toughness shows up—and it’s—there are three different levels of it.
In the case of Ukraine, I’ve been arguing for something that many people who would often agree with me on other accounts will fundamentally disagree, and that is I’ve not been a big fan of dealing with the Russian challenge in Ukraine, which I believe is military, asymmetrically with sanctions. I’ve believed from the beginning—and in the beginning it was much more dangerous than it is these days—our primary objective should be creating a defensible Ukraine, a Ukraine that can deter Russia itself from whatever it’s doing. And Russia, at this point, is preparing primarily for the Ukrainian front; it’s not preparing for Baltic or more in the Caucasus at this stage.
When it comes to something like INF, where if the Russians go ahead and deploy this weapon which we see—this ground-launched cruise missile which we see in violation, then I think we do have to be firm in that context. And, as you may know, they have now called a meeting of the Special Verification Commission in order to try to sort this out. But we have to stand our ground on that kind of thing.
When it comes to your specific case, you’ve seen how Hillary Clinton has struggled with her own idea of a no-fly zone. She was pressed on that in this last debate and she said: Well, we wouldn’t do this casually, where we sort of had not prepared it. I think by that she means what she did when she first raised it, this is something that we’re going to have to talk to the Russians about and make sure that they understand that this isn’t a no-fly zone where we’re going to be fighting air forces, Soviet and U.S. But if you can work that out, if the Russians would agree to a no-fly zone in order to give relief to these people, I certainly would do that. As far as the Russian military role, then I think the kind of cooperation that we’ve done with the deconfliction agreement, I think that’s absolutely essential.
SESTANOVICH: Last words, Fiona and Steve, because we’re—
HILL: Yeah, just something to add to this. When it comes to Syria and Ukraine both, it’s also not just a two-way street. The Ukrainian negotiations now are being done in close coordination with Germany and France, which are actually in the lead of the format of negotiating with Minsk. So we have to, then, factor in very strongly about how the messages are being sent and what kind of picture is being put forward with the partners.
And it’s actually the same in Syria. One of the ways to change the calculus about Russia, and even our own calculus in Syria is to make sure we’re on the same page with all of the others who are involved in this. And if the Jordanians, the Lebanese, and many others are also putting pressure on Russia to start to think about a no-fly zone—and so, a refuge, in fact, for refugees, a kind of humanitarian space—that would really make a big difference. And we actually, you know, need to work on that diplomacy as well. It’s not just in this confrontational military space for us. So I just think my message on this is we have to do a lot more homework on this.
LEGVOLD: Steve, I know you’re going wind up now, but let me have the last word.
SESTANOVICH: No, I’m going to let Steve have the last word, but you can have the next-to-last if you’re quick enough.
LEGVOLD: OK. All right. Well, it is simply, as an easy piece of advice, a joke that I’m swiping from Andrey Kortunov, who is the executive director of the Russian International Affairs Council. This last week, he was addressing it to his own government. I would address it to both governments. But it’s the guy who says: My neighbors are absolutely crazy. In the middle of the night they start banging on the walls, the radiators, the ceiling. Luckily, it’s not a problem for me, because at that hour I’m playing my accordion. (Laughter.)
SESTANOVICH: Steve, can you top that?
COHEN: I can’t top it, but I can bottom it. (Laughter.)
SESTANOVICH: I thought you might be able to.
COHEN: I began by being the dark cloud in the room, and I’ll end by being the dark cloud in the room. And what I say is addressed only to the Americans in the room. For me, the most desultory recent development was the Clinton administration’s decision to Kremlin-bait Trump for saying that he thought it would be a good idea to cooperate with Putin and Russia. I add to that, I am not now nor have I ever been a Trump supporter. But I have always been a supporter of détente. And what the Clinton administration has done—
SESTANOVICH: You’re talking about the Clinton campaign.
HILL: He’s already got the election over with. (Laughter.) Foresight.
COHEN: What has come out of the Clinton campaign, and it comes every day to my computer, it’s McCarthyism. It’s something—I’m old enough to remember the way it affected my professors. It is going to make, no matter who is president, any rational discourse about Russia in this country so much more difficult. And it grieves me that the publications that I have relied on all my life, and the columnists I relied on all my life, are on board with this. They say it’s OK. It is not OK. It is bad for all of us. And it needs to stop now, or we will never get out of this new and worse Cold War culture.
SESTANOVICH: I want to thank our panelists. (Applause.) And even those of you who are bolting for the door, I want to thank the entire audience for its excellent questions.