Into the Unknown

6 june 2017

U.S.-Russian Relations Unhinged

Robert Legvold is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University.

Resume: Russian and U.S. leaders have choices of far greater portent than either appears to realize. Narrow preoccupations, occluded politics, and the ascendance of small-minded thinking on both sides at all levels may be inescapable. If so, the great powers will again sleepwalk through defining moments of history—and pay a price.

Russian and U.S. leaders, as they contemplate what next in the wake of the U.S. presidential election, are not only making their choices as the ground under them churns, the choices they make, whether they realize it or not, will bear directly on how dystopian the coming global order will be.  The context for contemplating the possible direction U.S.-Russian relations may take is clouded not only by the tumult in the world outside, but by the political watershed the United States is now entering. Like the transformation recasting the international setting, the denouement of this passage will not come soon.


While it is a fool’s errand to predict the course of U.S.-Russian relations over even the next year or so, one can contemplate various alternative directions they might take.

Start with the easiest (or safest) prospect, a continuation of the status quo. Perhaps the leadership on both sides will soften their tone, but, because mutual mistrust is so thickly encrusted and the problems that set them at loggerheads defy easy solution, the relationship will inch along, avoiding confrontation, but generating little positive interaction. As now each will regard the other as the source of, not the solution to, its foreign policy problems. Presidents will meet and senior officials will attempt to find areas of common ground, but the product of their efforts will be modest and subject to reversal when things go wrong. And rather than labor over a coherent agenda to guide U.S.-Russian relations, each will focus their attention on other foreign policy priorities viewed as more important, more promising, or more urgent.

Unfortunately, the risk of a sharp deterioration in relations also remains. Were the violence in Ukraine to spin out of control, drawing in Russia and frightening the United States’ European allies, even if the Trump administration wished to stay aloof, it is doubtful that it could. The same would be true of a collision over any other part of the world deemed vital by each side. While this is the usual way analysts envisage a turn to a darker scenario, two other paths seem to me more probable.

The United States and Russia veered into their new Cold War not as a result of a single event, although the Ukrainian crisis finally drove them over the cliff, but through the long, slow accumulation of ever-more acute grievances. Similarly, a downward path would, again, likely be from the cumulative effect of multiple tensions left to fester. Or, alternatively, the descent might occur more as it did in the last part of George W. Bush’s first administration, when key aspects of U.S. foreign policy, such as the rush to war in Iraq, troubled the Russian leadership far more than the American administration’s Russia policy. Were the Trump administration to act recklessly in going to war with Islam, or in dealing with Iran, North Korea, China, or elsewhere, creating an indirect threat to Russia, even if its policy towards Russia remained relatively benign, the damage would be done.

Or, at the other end of possibilities, conceivably the two governments could halt the drift deeper into a hardened adversarial relationship and begin turning in another more positive direction. Progress, however, will not come easy. Standing in the way are not simply the obvious impediments—the deeply layered mistrust built up over the last two decades, the stories each has been telling itself about the other, and the feeling in many quarters on both sides that, as former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns put it in a New York Times op-ed, a “fundamental disconnect [exists] in outlook and about each other’s role in the world,” together with the number of areas where their interests do genuinely conflict.

Less obvious are the trends set in motion over the last three years with the collapse in relations, and that now have a momentum of their own.  First, Russia and the United States have again made the other a defense priority. Each now, as in the original Cold War, treats the other unambiguously as a major military challenge. Even a thaw in the relationship will not change that. Second, while restoring the practical forms of cooperation that had been launched under the U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission’s twenty working groups as well as the working groups under the NATO-Russia Council would seem to be an important and sensible step in any effort to put the relationship back on track, doing so will be hard. A lot of glass has been broken; ties too long severed cannot be easily mended; participants will be leery of investing heavily in collaborations so easily undone.

Third, while President Trump and some around him may bring a fresh eye to the relationship, President Putin and his most trusted advisors have a settled view of U.S. policy—and it is harsh. Their reflex will be to return to it whenever trouble intervenes, as it surely will.

So, with these limitations in mind, what might the two governments do? What should they do? On the first count, they already have begun retreating from the steady barrage of shrill rhetoric hurled at the other side, and signaled their desire to get back to a more normal and businesslike relationship. Notwithstanding the U.S. side’s return to sharper language, if this spirit prevails when they engage one another, particularly when the two presidents meet, some of the ice will begin melting.  Finding subjects to talk about should not be difficult. The trick will be finding ways to talk about them that lifts the conversation out of its current rut.

That may be easiest around the Syrian nexus. Controlling the wild mix of warring parties in the Syrian civil war will not be easy and achieving a political settlement may be impossible, but there is a basis for political progress in Syria that Washington and Moscow can both live with: this would be a secular minority Alewite regime (with or without Bashar al-Assad) that is striving for some meaningful accommodation with the Sunni majority population. Even without a major diplomatic breakthrough, if the violence in Syria can be contained and if the U.S. and Russian militaries will temporarily risk trusting the other side, the two should be able to achieve at least a loose coordination of their military efforts against the Islamic State (banned in Russia – Ed.).

Beyond that, however, movement on the three other issues blocking the way forward will require more fundamental adjustments. The three obstacles are Ukraine, cyber hacking, and the fate of the INF treaty. Each will need to be addressed. None can simply be set aside or worked around. To do so, however, both governments will need, first, to suspend, at least momentarily, their worst assumptions about the other side, and, second, pause and rethink where their real interests lie in each case.

In the Ukrainian case, despite Trump’s apparent readiness to walk away from the problem, reality will not accommodate him. The constant risk of escalating violence and the undiminished threat perceptions of allies will, as key members of his administration already understand, force him to make progress on Ukraine a part of any effort to find common ground with Moscow on other issues. That will not be on the basis of the full implementation of the Minsk II agreement. The half of the agreement pointing to a political settlement is a dead end. It will not happen. Hence, progress will have to be achieved on other grounds, beginning with the other half of Minsk II—that is, securing a stable and predictable peace in Donbass.  In short, only if the United States and Russia reframe their priorities in the Ukrainian case, can they achieve progress, and only if they achieve something that all sides see as progress, can the U.S.-Russian relationship move forward.

The same is true of the problem surrounding the issue of cyber hacking. That is, the United States, Russia, and major European countries need to rethink the noisy, vindictive way they are currently handling, which has become a heavy weight on the relationship, and, quietly, in bilateral and multilateral contexts, begin negotiating where the lines are that must not be crossed. As they go about their so-called cyber “skirmishing”—that is, collecting whatever information they can by snooping in the computer systems of friends and foes—surely one such forbidden line will be the overt manipulation of stolen material to influence electoral outcomes and by extension clandestine collaborations with participants in those elections.

The third looming hazard, Russia’s asserted violation of the 1987 INF treaty, may be the least amenable to solution. And, unless a solution is found, the consequences will reach much beyond this specific agreement. With the operational deployment of the SS-8, Russia’s new ground-launched cruise missile, Russia, from Washington’s point of view, is now in formal violation of the treaty.  What the United States will do in response is not clear. But if, as the mounting evidence suggests, the Russian military, with some support on the part of political leadership, value the weapon system more than the treaty, there may be no available solution.  In that case, whether the Trump administration lives with the violation and responds with countermeasures or abandons the treaty, the fate of the INF agreement seems sure to guarantee that further steps in strategic nuclear arms control will have little chance with the U.S. Congress.

If the two governments make an effort to improve relations, they can do so even if the nuclear arms control process stalls. But no improvement can advance far or survive the inevitable tests to come, if the tensions over Ukraine, Syria, and cyber hacking are left unabated. Progress in these cases, however, will simply open the door that is now closed; it will not ensure that the two countries, in Trump’s phrase, “get along,” or, more importantly, that they develop a working relationship.

For that to happen, the two sides will have to engage at a deeper level. They will need to find some way to get at the underlying sources of the trouble—some way to face directly the wellsprings of mistrust, the mismatch in narratives, the basis for their grievances, and the limited hopes they have. This would best be done in a formal, sustained, well-focused strategic dialogue between senior officials who have the full confidence of their national leaders. Alas, there is little evidence that the leadership on both sides has either the will or the capacity to do this. So, if the two sides manage to ease tensions and do some business together, their détente will be a limited and fragile affair. It might include an expanded agreement to regulate military operations risking dangerous air and sea incidents along the European coast, something both sides say they favor. It could include reviving some of the working groups under the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission. There may be efforts to intensify economic cooperation outside the areas affected by the sanctions regime or the sanctions regime may be softened in a limited and tentative fashion. Perhaps encouraged by the Europeans, NATO and Russia may toy with trying new confidence-building measures (CBMs) or constraining military exercises where NATO and Russian forces meet in Central Europe.

In short, the watchword of this positive but limited turn will be “averting confrontation” or “skillfully managing” rather than hoping to “permanently resolve” the basic tensions dividing the two countries.  This is as ambitious as most commentators in both countries, including the most constructive, dare be. It falls short—far short of what should be the calculations driving the U.S. and Russian policies.


If the world is stumbling into an unknown, but potentially dangerous future, and, if the country with the greatest capacity for good or ill also faces an uncertain road ahead, foreign policy, whether Russian or U.S., should not be trifling, should not be fixed on narrow near-term preoccupations. Start with the United States. It cannot be in the long-term U.S. interest to see the liberal international order for which it has labored and sacrificed over more than seven decades crumble into disarray.  It cannot be in its interest to see the norm of open markets and unimpeded trade and investment collapse; the ideal of preserving states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity—even when honored in the breach—cast aside; or the notion of counting on international institutions, rather than unilateral fiat, to keep the peace discredited, even if it has itself more than once abused it. Hence, it remains in the U.S. interest to play an active role in defending and strengthening that order.

Trump’s slogan of “America first,” if it has any meaning, pushes in the opposite direction. It is the liberal international order’s antithesis. If it prevails within the White House—or even if it competes with other more traditional views urged by others in the administration—it will spell a period of a turbulent U.S. foreign policy marked by incoherent aims and unpredictable actions.

Because of the Trump administration’s disheveled sense of direction, compounded by the deeper political upheaval seizing the country, the United States will not soon produce a foreign policy in equilibrium, let alone one adequate to the choices it needs to make. Before it loom two profound challenges—neither of which, in present political circumstances, is it capable of addressing. Both of which have immense implications for the U.S.-Russian relationship.

In the first instance, no longer can the United States be the system’s ultimate arbiter and guarantor. No longer can it impose its standards, worthy as they may be, on whomever it thinks necessary and by whatever means it chooses. And no longer can it operate with a broad understanding of what constitutes the liberal international order, including the intrusive promotion of human rights, a normative basis for determining the legitimacy of sovereign states, and a selective norm for justifying the use of force.  Instead, if the United States is to contribute effectively to saving an order that has served it well, it will have to learn to lead in partnership with others, to co-manage, not preside over the system, to modify rules and give voice to rising powers that feel disenfranchised by the system as currently structured, and to accept curbs on when and how it uses its power as well as who and what gives it license to act.

Embedded at the heart of what it will take to recast the U.S. role to save a liberal international order is a new strategic imperative. Although not framed in these terms, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Paul Wasserman have wisely urged President Trump “to recognize that the ideal long-term solution is one in which the three militarily dominant powers—the United States, China and Russia—work together to support global stability.” A modified and more equitable liberal international order cannot be achieved, unless the United States, China, and Russia work together. On the three great issues that threaten to undermine any international order—liberal or otherwise—the rising threat of nuclear catastrophe in an increasingly dangerous multipolar nuclear world; the chaos from conflicts generated by climate change; and the prospect of turbulent change in and around the Eurasian core,  cooperation (or not) among these three will be decisive.

If order rather than disorder is to prevail in coming years, global governance will likely depend on a honeycomb of disparate collaborations: a G-10 or G-12 of the world’s largest economies to ensure global economic growth and stability; cooperation between the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and NATO to deal with instability in the Northern Tier; the six-party talks to address North Korean nuclear weapons (like the five-party effort in the Iranian case); bilateral and multilateral formats to constrain the most destabilizing developments among nuclear-weapons possessing states; and a restructured UN Security Council to manage explosive regional conflicts. If this honeycomb of mechanisms is to have coherence and a cumulative effect, it will only be because the United States, China, and Russia are collaborating, not competing. The same will be true of a second dimension required for a stable liberal international order: dueling integration projects, such as the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union as well as competing trade regimes, such as the follow-on to the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will have to be reconciled. This will not happen if China and the United States or Russia and the West led by the United States remain at odds.

If in the penumbra of a vague but potentially fraught international future and a convulsive domestic passage, the United States faces historic choices (whether its leaders realize it or not), the same is true of Russia. Sergei Karaganov has also argued that “the world’s three largest powers—the ‘big troika’—must come together to create the conditions for a peaceful transition to a new, more stable world order.” His urging rests on the assumption that a “more stable world order” should be based on enlarging the field of cooperation among a widening circle of major powers, eventually leading to a “concert of powers,” the starting point for which should be collaboration among the United States, China, and Russia. This is not terribly different from the international order that Dmitri Trenin envisages in his new book, Should We Fear Russia?—“a transcontinental/transoceanic system,” based on a “rough equilibrium among the great powers,” in which the United States, China, and Russia “are essentially satisfied that their security is not threatened by one or both of the other two great powers,” a system tolerant of “political-ideological pluralism” and dependent on “mutual respect.”

Only if Russia does its part, however, does any of this have a chance—and China too. This is where the larger issues at stake intrude; where the price paid for the new U.S.-Russian Cold War surfaces; and where the low expectations and lethargy that dominate the mood in Moscow and Washington exert their destructive pull. Addressing in any way adequate to the grave challenges that Russia and the United States will face over the next two decades has two prerequisites. The first requirement is that each side discipline the casual assumptions that it has allowed to misdirect its policy towards the other. The second, longer-term and more substantial requirement is that each develop a strategic vision for how the U.S.-Russian relationship is to fit into the international order that it wishes to see emerge.


On the first score, each needs to step back from the narrative currently driving policy. The United States can legitimately object to much in Russian behavior, but assuming, as senior Obama administration officials did, that the things to which it objects are because “the Russians have moved into an offensive posture that threatens the very international order,” and that it is determined “to encourage the ‘breakup’ of the European Union, destabilize NATO, and unnerve” the United States, overdrawn as it is, this both deepens the new Cold War and encourages the wrong foreign policy responses. Similarly, Russia is not alone in criticizing U.S. policy in Iraq, Syria, and even Ukraine, but to assume, as Russia’s leadership does, that all of this is a consciously malevolent policy intended ultimately to undermine Russia’s national security and destroy its current political leadership  guarantees an inflamed and largely counterproductive Russian response.

Second, the common assumption on both sides that the value divide between the two countries makes anything other than limited and sporadic cooperation impossible is not merely crippling, but inverted in its logic. Historically, few common enterprises—take for example the Coal and Steel Community in Europe, or NATO in the early stages, or the forerunners to the World Trade Organization—would ever have been launched, if common values had been the prerequisite for cooperation. More often, compatible, if not always common values are the slow, hard-earned product of cooperation.

Finally, the second critical requirement. Sketching the outlines of a modified liberal international order is the easy part—for, notwithstanding their objections to the status quo and the United States’ overweening role in it, neither China nor Russia wishes to overthrow a better version of it or have an alternative to it. Harder is designing a strategic vision leading there, along with an agenda and strategy that are mutually acceptable and politically feasible.

In Return to Cold War I have tried to do that for the U.S.-Russian component.  Its five parts reflect the vast stakes the two countries have in the relationship, but are failing to act on, a failure that bears directly on, as said earlier, how dystopian the emerging international order will be. They begin with the need for the U.S. and Russian leadership to bring greater stability to a new and increasingly dangerous multipolar nuclear world. The perils present during the original Cold War remain—namely, an occurrence of a nuclear accident (of which there were many), an accidental use of a nuclear weapon, an inadvertent escalation to nuclear war, and a war consciously fought with nuclear weapons. Unrecognized—or, at least, unacknowledged—by either side, the destabilizing effects of technological advances as the United States, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan modernize their nuclear forces; the stunningly disruptive potential of cyber weapons incorporated into nuclear deterrence; the geometric complexity from the asymmetries among nine nuclear powers; and the disparity in the way the nine conceive the role of these weapons make this threat all too real.  They also underscore how urgent it is for the United States and Russia to refocus their attention on the way nuclear trends are slipping from their control and to combine their efforts—and equally important those of China—to prevent this new nuclear era from ending in tragedy.

The stakes are roughly as high in four other realms. How seriously have Russian and U.S. leaders paused and reflected on the perverse irony that having contributed to the dismantling of the Cold War’s massive military faceoff in the center of Europe, they are again restoring it farther east? Washington and Moscow have a choice to make. They can out of the inertia of their currently narrowly defined priorities carry on, eying the military steps taken by the other side, beefing up their and their allies’ response, focusing on the likely range of contingencies for which their forces would be used, and girding themselves for that moment.  Or, provided impediments, such as the Ukrainian imbroglio, are reduced (even if not eliminated), they can concentrate their attention on reversing the course, pulling back militarily, and focusing on steps enhancing mutual security. The stake over the next twenty years is a Europe that adds to the global map one more arena of instability and military competition or that introduces an enclave of stability whose resources and leadership can lead in addressing the twenty first century’s global security challenges.

By extension, the Arctic, the world’s next new great oil and gas frontier and until now the beneficiary of basic cooperation among the five littoral states, is wobbling in the direction of increased military activity on all sides, including military exercises that go beyond protecting legal claims and sea passages. If this region, rather than remaining a sanctuary apart from the military confrontation in Europe, becomes its extension, and cooperation among the five erodes, the damage to both European security and to the struggle to contain the environmental damage from climate change will be large. Here too the stakes are large: Do the United States and Russia wish to lead in making the politically virgin territory of the Arctic a building block and a prototype for a more stable Euro-Atlantic security system or are they content to let events take whatever course they may, including a descent deeper into a Cold War?

Add to these first three concerns a fourth:  trouble in and around the Eurasian core (essentially the former Soviet Union) and the concentric circle surrounding it led to the current U.S.-Russian Cold War, and it will be decisive in determining how disrupted the broader international setting will be in the years ahead. No other three countries have a larger stake in how that turns out than the United States, Russia, and China. Again, they can continue to let matters drift as in the past, responding in a tardy and ad hoc fashion to each new rupture of the peace, or they can make a conscious effort to achieve a modus vivendi built around compatible and, where possible, coordinated policies anchored on promoting stable change and mutual security in and around this Eurasian core. How they choose, beginning now, will produce two very different international futures twenty-five years from now.

Finally, if as thoughtful U.S. and Russian voices have argued, the critical strategic underpinning for a stable future international order is collaborative U.S.-Chinese-Russian leadership, leaders in all three capitals will have to reorient their policies in fundamental ways. The bilateral framework so thoroughly dominant in how each approaches the other two powers will have to give way to a trilateral framework. Progress in dealing with any major problem requires a three-way interaction.  Second, a constructive three-way interaction will come about only if all three governments make it a priority. Third, making it a priority will require what they have not managed to this point—i.e., a willingness to resist the temptation to approach issues, tensions, and conflicts of interests dividing the other two countries in ways designed to disadvantage the country it most wants to disadvantage. If approached as a strategic contest, as it is now, “the troika” will become a dangerous centrifuge of great power rivalry and a fundamental threat to global peace and stability.

Thus, at a moment when the future of the international order and its most important member grows cloudy, Russian and U.S. leaders have choices to make. They are choices of far greater portent than either appears to realize. They may be choices that political realities in both countries preclude. Narrow preoccupations, occluded politics, and the ascendance of small-minded thinking on both sides at all levels may be inescapable.  If so, it will not be the first time in history that the great powers sleepwalked through its defining moments—and paid the price.

This article is a shortened version of the paper written for the Valdai International Discussion Club. The original copy is available at:

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