Robert Legvold, Professor Emeritus of Columbia University, analyzes the impact of a new Cold War between Russia and the West. In a worst-case scenario, it may derail future U.S.-Russia bilateral cooperation in regions extending from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific.  


Eastern Ukraine: more turbulence, more unpredictability, more implications for the world. Photo: Reuters

With Russia and the West seemingly on the brink of confrontation over Eastern Ukraine, Russia Direct sat down with Robert Legvold, Professor Emeritus of Columbia University, to discuss how far Russia and the West might go in their geopolitical face-off over Ukraine.

According to Legvold, cooperation against international terrorism, agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons, collaboration in the Middle East and Afghanistan – all this may fall victim as a result of the increasing confrontation between U.S. and Russia. In addition, Legvold warns against Russia’s closer partnership with China, suggesting that it might lead to a new Cold War that would put both Russia and the U.S. in a more vulnerable position. 

In addition, Legvold explains why U.S. high-profile diplomat John Tefft is a good candidate to be appointed to be an ambassador to Russia.

Russia Direct: With Russia and the United States so focused on the Ukraine crisis, there’s a risk that terrorists or other non-state actors might step up their activity – a risk with grave implications for the world. Is it high time the U.S. and Russia stopped fueling mutual distrust over Ukraine in such turbulent times? How can Russia and the United States find common ground to withstand the growing threat of terrorism amidst the Ukrainian crisis?

Robert Legvold: The difficulty is that the Ukrainian crisis inspires a general deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations. I call it the new Russia-West Cold War. And in that context, all forms of collaboration are now in peril or at risk of being jeopardized. And therefore, it is going to be very difficult to assume that Washington will again reach out to Moscow and say we need to improve cooperation in these areas because the attitude, the mood now, is not to collaborate.

There is a little we are going to do at the moment to improve our joint efforts to deal with terrorism. The real question is how long and how deep this confrontation between Russia and the United States will continue. I don’t anticipate they will collaborate any time soon.

RD: Can U.S.-Russia confrontation in Ukraine affect their bilateral agreement intended to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons and why?

R.L.: The situation in Ukraine has already affected cooperation with Russia because there was supposed to be a joint effort with Russia accompanying a U.S. ship on its way to Syria to neutralize chemical weapons. And as a part of the Russia-NATO Council on cooperation, Russia was supposed to escort that ship; however, as a sign of the confrontation and deterioration in relations, that has been cancelled. So, the ship is doing its mission but Russia is not going be part of it.

So, in the case of Syria, in some practical ways, there was cooperation. The United States and Russia are still determined to make that work and to get rid of chemical weapons in Syria.

Robert Legvold, Professor Emeritus of Political Sciences at the University of Columbia, attending the meeting of the International Discussion Club "Valdai". Photo: RIA Novosti

RD: Can Russia’s policy in Eastern Ukraine provoke the Obama administration to conduct more decisive foreign policy in Syria, for example, to intervene if Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad stays at the helm and the civil war in the country doesn’t stop?

R.L.: No. The United States is not going to attempt to punish Russia in Syria by, for example, becoming militarily involved or escalating its assistance to the opposition within Syria. That makes no sense because in that case, the United States will be punishing Russia in a way that will punish the United States and U.S. policy. That does not make any sense.

The risk in the Syrian context is if there were chances for U.S.-Russia cooperation to help promote political settlement in Syria, the way in which the United States and Russia cooperated in Geneva to deal with chemical weapons. In the present environment, the United States is not likely to collaborate, unfortunately, in order to achieve a political settlement.

RD: Let’s switch to the election in Afghanistan. Why do you think the U.S. and Russia should pay attention to the results of the Afghan presidential campaign? What are the implications of these elections for the world and Russia and the U.S., particularly?

R.L.: Well, in the case of Afghanistan, things become very cloudy, because it’s not clear what we will have in Afghanistan when the Americans or NATO withdraw their forces by the end of the year. There is a hope that this election will create a government that has legitimacy. However, Afghan president [Hamid] Karzai’s government has resisted any kind of agreement that formalizes the ongoing contribution of U.S. and NATO in that area.

And, maybe, the new government will work out some additional cooperative arrangements with NATO and the U.S. as to what the long-term commitment will be. But it’s not clear if these elections will produce a government that is able to stabilize Afghanistan.

The Americans and NATO are largely leaving and, therefore, the future is unpredictable. That’s of great concern to Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan and China. They all will be attempting to do things to protect themselves against the unpredictable nature of the dangers in that region.

R.D.: Most oddly, amidst such instability, Russia’s Defense Ministry continues to express suspicions and concerns about U.S./NATO bases that may remain or be established in Afghanistan under the bilateral security agreement (BSA), so that they can be closer to Russia’s borders.                       

R.L.: Russia has been concerned for some time now given the deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations. Russia believes the U.S. will attempt to maintain bases not only in Afghanistan, but also in Central Asia and elsewhere to create a new containment. In some ways, there is tension and concern on Russia’s part as well as a desire to see the situation stabilize.

On the one hand, Russia doesn’t want permanent U.S. bases in that region. On the other hand, it also wants the U.S. and NATO to be there in order to help stabilize the situation.

In reality, the Americans are not going to create a NATO-like military base in Afghanistan, they may create some facilities that allow them to service these units where they train police and so on and Russia knows that.

RD: What are the risks and implications for Russia and the U.S. of Russia’s closer collaboration with China? Can Beijing, say, blackmail Moscow and put it in a more vulnerable position?

R.L.: What I call the new Russia-West Cold War is to the advantage of China. The winner in this is China. It increases Chinese room for maneuvering between both the West and Russia. It increase leverage for China in its relations with Russia because now Russia is more dependent on China and that relationship. Russia plays from a weaker hand in its relationship. It doesn’t mean that Russia is weak, but it is weaker than China in this game.

It depends very much how far the U.S.-European-Russian relationship will deteriorate, because if it becomes serious, if there is real rivalry, real antagonism, even the danger of military conflict with the West, then Russia will be inevitably dependent on China, it will turn toward China. Yet the Chinese are not likely to play this game. They are not going to form an alliance with Russia against NATO or the U.S. The Chinese won’t do that.

The risk is that as the tensions are rising, there will be a temptation on Russia’s part to play a China card, which is to emphasize areas of Russian-Chinese competition that is basically anti-Western. There will be  not an alliance, but, for example, when you get votes in the United Nations on issues like the ability to own nuclear weapons in the future, Russia will be very happy to use its relationship with China to oppose Western policy.

I don’t know whether Russia is prepared to be a junior partner, I do notice that in recent statements Russia is condemning U.S./NATO policy, and at the same time, it is praising Chinese policy.      

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (left) enter a hall as they meet in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, on March 22, 2013. Photo: AFP /East News

RD: Can China push Russia to support its claims in the South China Sea?

R.L.: Again, Beijing will have greater leverage. Yet, the Chinese are not likely to put a lot of pressure on Russia in that area. However, if the Russia-West Cold War continues or deepens and the Chinese decide that they want to put pressure on Russia, they will have the leverage.

RD: Let’s talk about the future U.S. ambassador to Moscow. John Tefft, a former Ambassador to Lithuania, Georgia and Ukraine, is reported to be one of the most probable candidates to head the U.S. embassy in Russia. Russia treats him with suspicion and some Russian pundits see Tefft as an expert who can advance Michael McFaul’s theory of color revolutions. To what extent can his appointment fuel tensions between Russia and the United States?

R.L.: I hope it will not. If it does, it will be foolish because if the Russians think that John Tefft is undesirable as an ambassador just because he has been Ambassador to Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan, they will make a very serious mistake. John Tefft is a very professional Foreign Service officer. He is a very balanced. He will be an ambassador like William Burns or John Beyrle. And that’s the kind of ambassador we need. 

So, if Russia does that, like it did with Michael McFaul, this will be a mistake. Moscow treated McFaul as a professor from Stanford who was criticizing Russia for anti-democratic policies rather than treating Russia the way he should.

He was the author, the architect of “reset.” He was the guy in the Obama Administration that made the effort to improve U.S.-Russia relations. But Moscow treated him like Professor McFaul rather than like Michael McFaul from the White House. So, in this case, if they treat Tefft like the Ambassador to Ukraine or Georgia, they make a big mistake.

RD: Russia claims it wanted to restore so-called “historic justice” when it annexed Crimea. Now, more and more Russian pundits are arguing that Moscow seeks to reassess the post-Cold War world order. Do you find this argument well-grounded enough and do we really need to reform the system of international relations?

R.L.: Regarding the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Russia’s claims in respect to Crimea, I understand why Russian leaders, politicians, media and public are excited and happy about the annexation of Crimea, why they believe it’s historically and practically justified. Nobody questions the fact that the majority of Crimean citizens wanted to be incorporated into Russia again.

All of that I understand. But the argument that it was done legally, because they had a referendum, that’s not convincing. First of all, they believe the government in Kiev is illegitimate because it was unconstitutional according to the Ukrainian constitution when they came to power. But that means that the Crimea referendum is unconstitutional both by the Ukrainian constitution and by the Crimea constitution. So, the referendum itself is not legitimate.

But most importantly, there is no question that Crimea was legally part of a sovereign Ukraine. After all, Russia recognized Ukraine as an independent and sovereign country. And indeed, it even promised to guarantee that sovereignty when it signed the Budapest declaration when Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons.

And Crimea was a part of that Ukraine. Russia has now seized that territory. Whatever justification, I said I understand that justification. That’s the first time that a major country has seized the territory of a sovereign country since the World War II, not since the Cold War. So the outside world is concerned. That’s the reason why only 11 countries voted for Russia in the UN and a hundred countries voted against Russia: The rest of the world doesn’t see it as legitimate. And that’s the problem.

RD: What about Russia’s attempt to justify its actions with the Kosovo precedent?

R.L.: Kosovo as a justification doesn’t make sense to me because Russia never accepted the Kosovo justification. Russia’s position was that Kosovo was illegitimate. So, how do you use something that you regard as illegitimate as a way to legitimize what you are doing. So, Kosovo for me doesn’t work.

RD: Experts talk about Crimea as a dangerous precedent for Europe, including Spain, the UK and other countries with disputed territories. What about the rest of the world? Where can the “Crimea Effect” take place? The Middle East? Asia?

R.L.: The parallel to Crimea in international politics is not in the Middle East, it’s in the Far East. It’s the Senkaku Islands. And the Japanese are worrying whether the Chinese want to seize the Senkaku Islands and that, whatever the justification will be – just like in the case of the Russian justification the West wouldn’t do anything.