At a recent symposium hosted by Tufts University, two leading Russia experts – Robert Legvold and Dmitri Trenin – discussed the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship and what it will take to solve the Ukrainian crisis.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, flanked by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, and Federal Security Service Chief Alexander Bortnikov, right, in Sevastopol, Crimea on May 9, 2014. The incorporation of Crimea to Russia fueled debates about the start of the new cold war between Russia and the U.S. Photo: AP

There is little chance for moving U.S.-Russia relations forward out of the current crisis due to fundamental differences in how both nations view the world, say Robert Legvold of Columbia University and Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie Moscow. The only way out is to start expert dialogue between the two countries to help decision makers from Moscow and Washington come up with a mutually agreeable solution.

Robert Legvold of Columbia UniversityThe discussion between Legvold and Trenin was a centerpiece of the four-day EPIIC (Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship) Symposium “Russia in the 21 century” last week. Organized by the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts University, with the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the conference attracted leading Russia experts to discuss topics related to Moscows role in the modern world order and the future of Russia-U.S. relations.

Here is an abridged version of the Legvold-Trenin dialogue at the EPIIC Symposium.

Is this a new Cold War?

Robert Legvold: I am somebody who’s arguing — not to the entire pleasure of my professional colleagues, people in government whether in Moscow or here — that we are indeed in a new Cold War.

There are features of what is happening now in the relationship that does have close resemblance to the early phases of the original Cold War.

Why I have started thinking in these terms was because Dmitri Trenin in March of 2014 wrote a piece that was called "Welcome to Cold War II.”

Within a few months he changed his mind. He said the Cold War was not the right comparison. While the original Cold War for the most part remained cold, it’s not entirely clear that this one will.

So, Dmitri, where do you stand today?

Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie MoscowDmitri Trenin: I stand by what you’ve just described. I believe that historical analogies could be useful but only to an extent.

It was important last March to sound alarm bells that Crimea and Ukraine were not just temporary transient phenomena, that there was something very serious happening just in front of our eyes.

The Cold War analogy in those days was an appropriate one. But the deeper you look into that, the more this analogy becomes unhelpful.

We are in confrontation. The bad thing about this confrontation is that it’s held very much on the Russian side. I don’t think that the U.S. believes that this is a confrontation with Russia. For a lot of people, Russia is a threat but not a big one. As [U.S. President Barack] Obama said, something between Ebola and ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria].

The stakes are very different for Washington and Moscow. This injects a very important aspect of asymmetry into the situation.

So, I am deeply worried and concerned. I think this confrontation could be more dangerous; it could get out of hand. It could push us in a direction that people do not anticipate. Because during the Cold War there was a feeling shared by everyone that it was dead serious.

If it’s not a new Cold War, then what is it?

R.L.: From my point of view, the relationship has gone over the cliff.

There is something that has changed in the last year.

Throughout much of the post-Cold War period, there was a tendency on both sides to operate with a "useful ambiguity." That is, we didn’t know whether the other side was friend or foe.

Now there is a symmetry, Dmitri. Each country has defined the other side as an adversary. This is determining our policies more than anything else in the past and will affect the way in which we redesign NATO to deal with Russia as a threat.

The reason why I use the phrase “Cold War” is because only with that notion can you begin to convey the consequences of what’s happening.

The tendency in the U.S. is to start with an assumption that this is utterly unequal: Russia doesn’t matter to us in the way we may matter to them.

But the consequences of having gotten to this point are not merely the dangers around Ukraine but around instability in Central Europe as a whole. It is the unpredictable region suddenly again.

D.T.: One other distinction between the situation today and the Cold War is that, as seen from this part of the world, no compromise is possible.

In the Cold War you could compromise with [Soviet leaders Joseph] Stalin,  [Leonid] Brezhnev, and [Nikita] Khrushchev. Compromising with [Russia President Vladimir] Putin is somehow not acceptable.

So, I am pretty pessimistic on where we are.

This is clearly more than just about Ukraine. It’s about two fundamental things.

The thing fundamental for the U.S. is that Russia is challenging U.S. leadership, essentially the world order that the U.S. leads. No major things can go unpunished if they go against the grain of the people here. The fundamental thing for Russia is the ability to move around without any constraints and do what the Russian leadership thinks is important for the Russian national interest.

How did Russia and the US get to the current crisis?

D.T.:  We’ve been badly served by the idea — a very popular one in both countries — that the U.S., as seen from Russia, is in a deep decline and that Russia, as seen from the U.S., has been in decline for the past 25 years and will continue to be in decline.

This misinforms us and pushes us along a pretty narrow and dangerous road.

R.L.: Frankly, it doesn’t make any sense that the U.S.-Russian relationship is where it is today.

I was at a meeting and one of the participants said to me: “So, are you going to go and try to make sense out of senseless?” And that’s essentially what’s involved.

How did we go over the cliff in our relationship? I am prepared to place primary responsibility for the final push over the cliff to the decision to annex Crimea for two reasons.

It’s the first time a major power has literally seized the territory of a sovereign country since World War II. Secondly, in 1994 when Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons and signed the Budapest memorandum, the commitment in the U.S., Great Britain, and Russia was to guarantee Ukrainian sovereignty. And now we are trying to control the Iranian nuclear program and part of the deal is security assurance.

But we didn’t get here only because of what happened between November-December of 2014 and February of 2015 in Ukraine.

Whatever the nature of the regime in Russia, whatever you think of its motivations, we got here by the things we did and we didn’t do for 20 years. Because we didn’t understand what the stakes are.

D.T.: I would agree with you that the conflict in Ukraine is a result of 20 plus years of failures.

The best way to make sure that the there is no longer a confrontation between two powers is to integrate the power that found itself a difficult situation into a wider system that it would feel comfortable with.

This was done to France a couple of years after the Napoleonic wars and to West Germany after the Second World War. That was not done to Germany after the First World War.

For a number of reasons people didn’t think that Russia was worth spending too much money, capital, energy to make it a solid partner within an integrated system.

The integrated system that the Russians wanted was supposed to be a security system.

One good reason was that people were not sure that Russia would play by the rules if integrated into this system.

Whatever we can say about alliances that the U.S. leads, whatever you think about Russia it has never so far recognized a leader to itself in the outside world.

That’s where I see a fundamental problem.

I thought that we got here because we failed to integrate Russia. But then I’m asking this question: “Was it possible to integrate Russia on the terms that would have been acceptable for the U.S.?” And the answer that I have is: “Unlikely.”

How can we get out of the current crisis?

D.T.:  I don’t know whether we can even talk about a way forward now.

I think the best we can hope for is that the more dangerous path will not be taken.

We have to make every effort to make sure that the pretty shaky cease-fire in eastern Ukraine today stays, that it’s solidifies over time, that the conflict doesn’t escalate, enlarge or become a real large-scale war.

R.L.: In terms of Dmitri’s pessimism, I think in the near term the likelihood of either side backing down from its current position and taking significant steps to move off the road we are on is very unlikely.

Not the least because in the U.S. the pressure in the media and Congress is in the other direction even if the administration was willing to go in a more constructive direction.

I am not optimistic at the moment either. But I do think it is time in these circumstances when universities and research organizations need to begin doing something.

How do we go in another direction? You can’t begin doing it unless we think that it’s urgent. Unless we think that the stakes are high.

It’s not just about the Russia-U.S. relationship. It is going to affect others.