Dr. Hanna Notte is a Senior Non-Resident Scholar with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS). Prior to that, she was a Senior Political Officer with The Shaikh Group, an NGO focused on Track II mediation in the Middle East. She completed her doctorate at Oxford University in 2018 on the topic of Russian foreign policy in the Middle East. Her research interests focus on arms control and security issues involving Russia, the Middle East, their intersection, and implications for the US and Europe. Her contributions have appeared in The Nonproliferation Review, Foreign Policy, and The National Interest, among others.
Prof. Robert Legvold is a Senior Advisor of the University Consortium, is Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus at the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. He is the former Director of Columbia’s Harriman Institute, and former Director of the international commission, ‘The Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative.’ He is a long-time analyst of Soviet and Russian foreign policy and has written extensively on Soviet and Russian foreign policy. In 2016, he published Return to Cold War with Polity. Currently, he is co-Director of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences project, “Meeting the Challenge of the New Nuclear Age.”
Past Experiences: On Conducting Fieldwork in the USSR, Track II Diplomacy, and the Importance of Empathy and Introspection.
Hanna Notte: Looking back to the beginning of your career, you received your first university degrees in the early 1960s, and then your PhD at the Fletcher School in '67. Of course, this was the height of the Cold War. We have the construction of the Berlin Wall starting in 1961, and the Cuban Missile Crisis followed in 1962. Perhaps you could talk a little bit about why you entered the field of Soviet studies, and how real-world events at the time affected you as a scholar, as well as personally, if you wish.
Robert Legvold: Well, the events that you just identified occurred through the critical part of my university training, and they led me directly into the field of Soviet studies. But in fact, when I was a second-year high school student, the 1956 Soviet intervention in Hungary and the Polish uprising were headline issues and had an impact even on a distracted high school student. By the time I was in university, the extended Berlin Crisis began in 1958 and continued through my senior year with the establishment in 1961 of the Berlin Wall.
Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis. I've always regarded it as an extension of the European crisis around Germany. Khrushchev, in my view, was attempting to alter the strategic nuclear balance in order to strengthen his hand for dealing with the one problem that he hadn't been able to crack: the reality of a divided Germany in a divided Europe whose legitimacy the West refused to accept. Driving the West out of Berlin would have been a major strategic victory in his effort to force the West to come to terms with the vulnerable East German edge of the East European glacis. And altering the strategic nuclear balance with the United States would have been key to achieving that goal. Shortly after I finished my dissertation, the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia occurred. I listened to news of the intervention on the radio in Accra, Ghana, where I was doing field research for a book based on my dissertation. Thus, throughout my time in university, the central question, the central issue, the central actor, not just in terms of my interest, but also in terms of US foreign policy, was the Soviet Union.
Today, if I were a graduate student looking ahead toward where I wanted to focus my interest, almost certainly, it would be on China. China is coming to approximate the same place in international politics that the Soviet Union did when I was growing up.
In my case, for most of my life, no issue was more important than the Soviet Union, its foreign policy, and particularly the US-Soviet relationship. I was privileged by what I was interested in because it created career opportunities. By the time I finished graduate school I wanted to pursue an academic career, and I knew that if I had done my work reasonably well, there would be an opportunity for me in a political science department. These days, that's no longer true.
I went to graduate school originally intending to go into the Foreign Service, knowing that the Soviet Union would be central to US foreign policy. I even took and passed the Foreign Service examination. Today, in academia you compete with those who know the Middle East, Africa, Latin America or other major areas of international concern. If there is a country of parallel privilege the Soviet Union used to have, it is China. China specialists have an advantage that their field and opportunities will continue to grow because the centrality of China will grow.
Hanna Notte: That's really great to set the scene. Thank you. Let's talk a little bit about the challenges of entering the field of Soviet studies at the time. From what I understand, you wrote your PhD on Soviet policies towards West African countries. This was the age when you didn't have daily access to the internet, in fact no internet at all yet, not the technological means that my generation has today, to study these kinds of things. So, what were the challenges in actually going about your work, your fieldwork, if you wish? You just mentioned a trip to Ghana that you were on at the end of the 1960s, I believe, so maybe you could talk a little bit about that?
Robert Legvold: Today the deterioration in Russia's relations with the West has for the moment negatively affected the way in which you can do fieldwork within Russia. Still, the kind of access you have, to specialists in Moscow, to the institutes where they work, to journalists, and sometimes even within the foreign ministry, is very different from what existed when I was young.
My first trip to the Soviet Union was in 1965 to work on my dissertation, a comparative study of Soviet policy in six West African countries. I was in the second wave of American graduate students and young professionals going to the Soviet Union: the first wave was in 1958. Then It was very difficult for those early scholars, because everything was closed. When I went, I went with introductions from my faculty, including Marshall Shulman, who had established contacts in Moscow. He provided introductions allowing me meet with some extremely helpful people in the institutes of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, most important of which was IMEMO.
The interviews were useful, but very scripted. Over the years, when I returned, including as part of Track II projects, the conversations became somewhat more open. But a good conversation normally meant leaving the institute and walking in the park.
Already, however, younger academics were quite open, quite helpful, and eager to exchange ideas. That was important because what I depended on as research material was published books and articles in different journals and newspapers. They were all controlled; they were all under censorship. And so, part of what one needed to learn was how to decipher those texts--that is, how to understand where and how writers were expressing their genuine views while operating within what the censors would allow.
The phenomenon that you see recurring in Russia today in many contexts is the tendency to become what Russians call a приспособлец [roughly translated as opportunist]: that is, people who privately think one way, but publicly express themselves and behave in another way, because they know what the traffic will bear. And for a young US academic in the Soviet period, part of the skill was trying to identify, first, the sources where a more candid analysis would likely appear, and then how to read between the lines. The conversations I began having with Soviet counterparts in the 1970s made all this much clearer. A very important transition occurred during the Gorbachev years, because those standard materials that I used were still being published 1985-90, but their nature changed fundamentally. That was the effect of so-called glasnost.
Hanna Notte: We can come back to the flip side of the internet and the abundance of information in a later question. But for the moment, I want to switch gears slightly: you did mention trips to the Soviet Union, for Track II activity. And so, I want to talk a little bit about Track 1.5/II efforts. What are among the important lessons that you have drawn from engagement in such initiatives, and how did Track II during the Cold War differ from initiatives today, if at all? And maybe you can share some anecdotes and provide a particularly memorable experience of a successful Track II?
Robert Legvold: I participated in a number of what might be called Track II activities. The first one that I was involved with was an exchange organized by the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) primarily with IMEMO and the Institute USA and Canada. I was invited as the young member of the US delegation. The leaders on the US side were Marshall Shulman and Richard Pipes from Harvard, accompanied by Herb Levine, the economist from the University of Pennsylvania, and two or three other senior specialists working on the Soviet Union. On the Soviet side, the leaders were Yevgeny Primakov, then director of IMEMO, and Georgy Arbatov, accompanied by several senior fellows from their institutes, including a young Andrei Kokoshin. This was shortly after the October 1973 war when US-Russian relations were battered, notwithstanding the progress in nuclear arms control, and the focus was on each side’s grievances and whether the two groups could come up with constructive steps leading out of the impasse.
The second, very different kind of—not precisely Track II activity—was something I organized several years later when I was directing the Soviet studies program at the Council on Foreign Relations. I thought it would be useful, from an academic point of view, to bring together some of the most prominent US IR theorists—not specialists on the Soviet Union, but prominent IR theorists—to meet with whomever we could identify as counterparts on the Russian side and explore fundamental international issues from our different theoretical perspectives. Up to that point, international relations as an academic discipline was basically illegitimate within Russia, as was political science. Nonetheless, there were people who were very interested in what they thought of as IR theory. One of the leading figures in that respect was a man named Vladimir Gantman at IMEMO. During my individual trips to the Soviet Union, we had come to know one another, become friends, and he recruited other specialists for the initiative. We had three meetings—two in Moscow (January 1983 and June 1986) and one in Sterling Forest, New York (March 1985). The Americans included Stanley Hoffmann, Joe Nye, Bob Keohane, Richard Ullman, Robert Gilpin, and Robert Tucker. On the Soviet side, beyond Gantman, the participants were Georgy Arbatov, Fyodor Burlatsky, Vladimir Lukin, Georgy Shakhnazarov, Vitaly Zhurkin, and Oleg Bykov. The discussions were wide-ranging, covering everything from basic international trends to concepts of nuclear deterrence, the reasons for the failure of détente, and theories on the use of force. In my files I have the reports I prepared after each meeting, which may be of interest to students curious about how people like those involved in the exchanges were thinking about the way the world looked to them before and shortly after Gorbachev arrived in power.
The third kind of exchange came later as a spin-off from the so-called Dartmouth meetings. During the Soviet period beginning in 1960, the Dartmouth meetings, the brainchild of Norman Cousins, were very high level, with figures like Cousins and David Rockefeller in the lead, and on the Russian side, prominent scientists and journalists with access to top leadership. I was basically an observer, more or less watching. But then it spun off after the collapse of the Soviet Union into a more narrowly focused initiative to look at specific aspects of US-Russian relations, including the protracted conflicts within the post-Soviet space. Vitaly Naumkin became the chair on the Russian side and Harold Saunders his counterpart on the US side. The participants were seasoned specialists, well-informed, and collegial. The discussions were constructive and produced specific recommendations that the visiting delegation after the meeting then shared with the deputy foreign minister in the country where the meeting was held. Their reports were cordially received, but there is little evidence that they had much effect on policy. That initiative, by the way, still continues, though I've not been part of their latest efforts.
When you asked me what really worked, what made a big difference, I would point to the Pugwash Conferences that began in the late 1950s. I was not a part of them, so I am judging their impact from the outside. From the beginning this exchange was focused on nuclear issues. The core participants were the senior physicists who had developed each country’s nuclear weapons. It was at a time when government expertise on these issues was nascent, and these exchanges played a major role in shaping the two governments’ approach to nuclear arms control.
Reflecting on these different Track II efforts, if I had to point to one individual who made a real difference, it would be Marshall Shulman. He was sufficiently trusted on both sides that he was able to act as a kind of intermediary, a political interpreter who allowed the two sides to engage.
An interesting story from the first SRI meeting that I attended illustrates Shulman’s skills. It occurred shortly after the October '73 crisis in the Middle East. During one session an explosive moment occurred when Richard Pipes said that the Soviet side would have to alter its support for the Egyptians or “Samson [Israel] would pull the temple down.” The discussion came to an abrupt halt. The two delegations were about to imitate the worst behavior of the governments that we were studying. Marshall Shulman, very calmly, in a few sentences and in a very balanced fashioned summarized the positions of the two sides, explained why they were as they were, and what would be necessary if there was to be a way forward. Literally, within half an hour, he put us back on track, and led us forward to what ended up being a very successful meeting. Marshall played that kind of role at every turn in many such exchanges.
This anecdote illustrates elements that have been important to me in the way in which I approach my own work, the elements that, when things are difficult, are most missing: One of them is empathy and the other is introspection.
The first, empathy, doesn't mean sympathy, but rather simply putting yourself in the other side's shoes and trying to understand accurately where they are coming from. There was very little empathy at that point in the 1970s, either at the level of leadership, the policymaking community, politicians, or even, in too many instances, the expert community itself. The same thing is true today. The other quality that I have tried to let guide my work is introspection. Being able to look at your own side’s role in the evolution of a relationship, being able to understand how the two sides have done the dance together seems to me essential if divisions have any chance of being overcome.
Through these exchanges and the person-to-person contact in these different settings, I began to understand that, if my work was to have any worth, the wellspring for it had to be a capacity for empathy and introspection.
Current Issues: Return to Cold War, Appreciating the Stakes, Nuclear Deterrence, Information Warfare, and Prospects for US-Russian Cooperation Today.
Hanna Notte: I think these reflections on empathy and introspection are a perfect segway into a discussion on your book. You argue at the end of "Return to Cold War" that three things would need to happen for the fundamental trajectory of the Russia-West relationship to change: The first is that there needs to emerge on both sides a clearer understanding as to why the relationship matters, what the stakes are. The second - and that would be introspection, I suppose - that both sides need to pause and contemplate their own role in the deterioration of the relationship. And then third, policy on both sides needs to be set in a wider compass. I think you refer to this as "reconciling current imperatives with longer term goals". I'd like to ask you: where do we stand today with regards to these imperatives and did the fundamental characteristics of the relationship, as you described them in your book, change? And if we want to look ahead, do you see the new Biden administration as inclined and capable of addressing those imperatives in their relationship with Russia?
Robert Legvold: I believe that schema with its different elements is as applicable, if not more so, today. But I also believe the likelihood that either the United States and Russia or European governments and Russia will endorse it, let alone embrace it is as unlikely today as it was when I first laid it out.
One of the reasons for my skepticism relates to what has led the two countries to this point. I have called, and continue to call it, a return to Cold War. It is in critical respects fundamentally different from the original Cold War, but in other ways it shares characteristics of the original Cold War, and I describe those in my little 2016 book with that title. One dimension of the problem is particularly important. Part of the explanation for how we got here is the failure to recognize at the leadership level the stakes that each country has in the relationship.
At the outset in the early 1990s there was a rosy assumption that the transition would go smoothly, that Russia had repudiated its Soviet past, that it really wanted to have political and economic systems like those in the Western democracies, and, therefore, that it wanted to be close to or maybe even join the West. And when that notion began to fall apart, we began focusing on all the things that had gone wrong, the dangers that were arising, and the kinds of Russian behavior that we wanted to see changed. We lost sight of what we were losing in the process. We didn't realize that we were not merely failing to make adequate progress in addressing what was becoming a much more complex multipolar nuclear world, but we were even losing some of the existing restraints and protections governing the US-Soviet nuclear relationship during the Cold War. That destructive process accelerated when in 2002 the United States withdrew from the ABM agreement, the same year Russia abandoned the START II agreement banning MIRVed missiles before it could enter into force.
And here we are today, with a nuclear arms control regime that is in shambles. There may be some hope that the Biden administration will agree to extend New START, and the process can resume. But time has been lost and it remains unclear that the two countries fully recognize how imperative it is that they lead if we are going to achieve some level of control over an increasingly complex multipolar nuclear world. This stake has simply gone unrecognized.
The same thing has been true in terms of European security. The watchword coming out of the 1990s was a commitment to create a Euro-Atlantic security community reaching from Vancouver to Vladivostok. There, however, was no real concern as the years passed that we were not making progress toward that goal. With the collapse of the relationship after the Ukrainian crisis, to even talk about a Euro-Atlantic security community is regarded as preposterous. Nobody thinks in those terms today, and yet, that was the putative aspiration from the early 1990s through the first decade of this century—and, whether recognized or not, that remains a critical stake. The opposite has happened: the re-militarization of European security, with all the dangers that are inherent in that.
And there were other areas where Russia and the United States and its European allies should have exercised leadership. Dealing with climate change should have been at the top of the agenda in the 1990s, not simply a secondary issue. So should have been creating stability in the hinterland of the international system, which is Eurasia. Add to that another key stake: managing the rise of China in a way that does not threaten global stability.
So, all of these very large stakes were never and still have not been adequately appreciated, but they remain. We are belatedly recognizing some of them, such as the potentially destabilizing effects from climate change, but they are not yet central to US-Russia relations. In US-Russia relations, we're still focused on everything that bothers us about what Russia is doing and they on their frustrations with us. We're not focused on how we remove the obstacles to cooperation with the Russians in order to deal with the larger set of issues critical to both countries.
I think part of the problem stems from the failure of national leadership on both sides to ever articulate, perhaps because they did not recognize, the stakes that each has in the relationship. As a result, neither side built a constituency for the US-Russia relationship based on its importance. Those in the West who pay attention to the US-Russia relationship care because they see Russia primarily as a threat. But had we recognized the stakes involved, a different and solider base for the relationship could have been created. It wouldn't have been easy. There always would have been disagreements, but that is normal in any relationship as complex as that between the United States and Russia.
When it comes to the question of how to do justice to the stakes each has in the relationship, while at the same time dealing with the immediate challenges facing policymakers, ideally the focus should be on integrating the short- and long-run. Each government should start by considering where it wants the relationship to be seven or eight years from now in each of its key dimensions. Realistic, not pie-in-the-sky aspirations, butfeasible objectives over a workable period of time, not fifty years in the future.
Then when dealing with contemporary problems that have to be dealt with—Ukraine, Syria, election interference—weigh how to deal with those very real issues in a way that addresses the problem but doesn't destroy the objective of getting to where you want to be seven or eight years from now. That's very difficult to do. And I've been told more than once that governments can't do it. Even planning staffs within government don't think in those terms. Their time horizon is next Tuesday or, at the most, the next election. But the academic community doesn't do it either. I think the academic community believes that it's not going to gain traction within the policy world by thinking in these terms. But until we do, in my view, there's very little chance that we're going to make any substantial progress in creating a sustainably constructive US-Russian relationship.
We are—to use still another metaphor—dug into a very deep hole and we're still digging. We don't seem to know how to stop digging. So each new problem—such as the Navalny case--causes us to dig a little deeper. Being realistic, we're not going to be able to turn things around as the result of an epiphany and then in a single stroke. Instead, it will be through small steps. Maybe in the back of their minds, national leaderships loosely sense the larger framework that I've laid out, but they will only get through the current impasse by small steps and by consciously focusing on the potential synergies among them. One small step in the right direction may be positive, but unless you've got something that creates a more cohesive basis for it—a positive synergy—it simply fails at the next moment of tension. Take, for example, the US-Russian deconfliction agreements in Syria. Steps like these don’t gain momentum leading to others because of the broader bleak context of US-Russia relations, and the next irritant that comes along sends the relationship sliding in the other direction.
Hanna Notte: I want to pick up on this notion that we dug ourselves into this hole, and we keep digging, and ask you: What is it in current Russia-West relations that concerns you the most? Can you point to a specific area or issue that you find particularly concerning?
Robert Legvold: In terms of current concern, I'm not somebody whose hair is on fire. I don’t worry that we're suddenly going to be in a new Cuban missile crisis. What I am concerned about are the opportunity costs: the price to be paid for failing to stress the stakes in the relationship and then address the dangers that neglecting them will entail. In short, the failure to protect the future and the world this failure will produce fifteen to twenty years from now.
If I have an immediate concern—although I don't see it as urgent—it is that because of the deterioration in the relationship, we have reached a very different point from where we were ten years ago, with real implosions or explosions now thinkable. For example, the risk of a political-military confrontation escalating across the nuclear threshold can now be imagined around existing conflicts. Ten years ago, you could not imagine such a scenario. You can today. And what accentuates the risk is that defense planners and policymakers on both sides are, indeed, shifting their threat analysis and planning for this.
Admiral Richard, the chief of the American Strategic Command, in February 2021 wrote a piece in the Proceedings of the Naval Institute, in which he argued that we now have to take seriously the prospect of nuclear deterrence failing and of being in a conflict where the use of nuclear weapons could be necessary. It's in this general context that the US side now believes—and I think the Russians too—that we're returned to great power competition, that is, to strategic rivalry among the United States, Russia and China. This assumption underlies the key strategy documents of the Trump administration. It's in the Nuclear Posture Review of 2018, in which the threat analysis differs fundamentally from that of the 2009-2010 Obama Nuclear Posture Review. I believe that we went through the most dangerous period of the Ukrainian crisis between 2014 and 2016, but the danger of a military conflict between Russia and NATO remains and it can be brought to a boil at any moment.
A colleague called me the other evening, worried, because he had just seen a broadcast with Margarita Simonyan [editor-in-chief of RT] who, he assumes, has her sources and is often used by the Russian leadership to test reactions. She hinted that, if the Biden administration goes down a road that they fear—whether with new steep sanctions over the Navalny poisoning or over the hacking of US infrastructure—the Russians would be prepared to react dramatically, such as by recognizing the independence of the Donbas separatist territories. According to the most recent polling that's been done by US academics within the separatist occupied portions of Donbas, the largest percentage of the population supports integration with Russia and only a small portion are for independence as such. Such a step by itself wouldn't necessarily produce the level of political-military conflict meeting Admiral Richard’s criterion, but it could quickly reach that point, if the Ukrainian government responded with force. And there are other areas where conflict at this level is possible, such as increased friction between the United States and China over Taiwan, or, although less likely, over the South China Sea. I do worry because we can imagine tragedies, conflicts, including those that are potentially violent, in a way that we couldn't ten years ago.
Hanna Notte: I was going to ask you about the notion of escalation control failings in nuclear deterrence, and you've partially now answered that question. Nonetheless, I do want to ask you about arms control and non-proliferation: We've just had the extension of New START, what else do you believe could be possible in the realm of arms control over the coming four years, through the next term of the Biden administration? And you've addressed this notion of a multipolar nuclear world a few times now in our conversation: how should the US and Russia approach China on this issue? The Trump administration insisted on China being at the table, while Russia resisted the notion that they should be the ones bringing China to the table. How do you deal with that problem set going forward?
Robert Legvold: First of all, to build on my earlier point about Admiral Richard, I'm concerned about the potential failure of nuclear deterrence for three reasons. First, I think the notion of limited nuclear options is flawed. It has been around almost since the beginning of the nuclear era in the 1950s, when the US first contemplated using nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict. The debate then as now was whether you could fight a limited nuclear war that wouldn't turn into the calamity of theatre-wide war or Armageddon itself.
I am of the view that all of the calculations that are built into a strategy for the use of limited nuclear options are unsound. They do not adequately guarantee or even provide reasonable assurance that you can control escalation once there is any use of nuclear weapons. The ideas about the way in which that would work are predicated almost entirely on the way the other side is going to play the game. And almost in every instance a misunderstanding of how the other side will play the game is likely. Escalation control, thus, will likely be lost at the very outset.
The second reason flows from what I've just said: US defense officials embrace the notion of limited nuclear options out of a basic misunderstanding of the other side's commitment to limited nuclear options. Analysts debate whether the Russians really have something called an escalate-to-deescalate doctrine. From the evidence I’ve seen I do not believe that they do—at least, not as it is understood in Washington. Yet, it is now widely accepted within the US defense community that they do, and this explains Russia's approach to nuclear use, in particular, the use of sub-strategic nuclear weapons. In turn, I think Russian defense analysts misunderstand how the United States thinks about limited nuclear options. They appear to believe that the US resort to limited nuclear options will start high on the escalation ladder. The Russian fear is based on what we did in the 1999 Kosovo War. That is, they assume that we would, from the start, launch long-range precision air strikes with conventional weapons capable of performing missions similar to nuclear weapons. We, on the other hand, fear that, because of the modernization of Russian air defenses and its modernized cruise missile force, NATO will not be able to defend its distant eastern front—what is referred to as an “anti-access/area denial” problem (A2/AD). The risk is that given each side’s concerns, depending on who goes first, we start very high on the escalation ladder.
The third concern that I have is regarding the weapon systems that we're building. The fact that the United States would put a low yield warhead on a Trident II D5 missile, when most of those missiles on the submarines that carry them are strategic high-yield weapons, is potentially destabilizing. That is because the Russians won't be able to determine whether it is a low yield weapon slightly smaller than the one dropped on Hiroshima coming at them, or whether it's part of a potential large-scale strategic strike. By making deterrence more credible because the use of the weapons is more plausible, you're also, in fact, making them more usable.
On the dangers from the current impasse in US-Russian relations, I don't subscribe to the very black view that we could easily or quickly get into very serious trouble. Right now, almost everything is on hold. Each side has more or less laid out its basic starting position. The Biden administration's view is: We're prepared to engage and cooperate where we can and where it is in our interests. But otherwise, we will hold Russia to account when its behavior threatens our interests or that of important allies. And the Russians' basic position is: The United States is engulfed in a kind of Russophobia, an anti-Russian policy. And we [Russia] will continue to defend ourselves against that: we're prepared to cooperate and reengage when they're ready to, but they have to show us that they're ready to do so. So, each side, for the moment, is in what I call a "wait and see" posture.
I think there are prospects that things could begin to improve. One of them is in the area that you raised: arms control. The Biden administration is serious about trying to reengage in the process of strategic arms control and so is the Putin leadership. Both sides know that they need to establish constraints in this area, that they can't have an unregulated nuclear arms race. I think what we may end up with is a mixed picture, where few if any agreements are in treaty form, given the difficulty of getting treaties through the US Senate. Much may have to done by executive agreement or even by unilateral action which is then reciprocated. But it is crucial that we are again engaged in constant strategic dialogue over the state of nuclear relations.
That strategic dialogue will also have to be broadened to include China. The Trump administration went about it in madcap fashion saying that Russia has to force China to join the process of US-Russian nuclear arms control. That was and is a non-starter. I think parties in both governments recognize the need to have some kind of engagement with China. But how much of it should be trilateral, how much bilateral Russia-China or US-China, and how much of it multilateral, such as the P5 within the UN is an open question. I think we have scarcely begun to explore the issue. Also, these efforts will have to develop a framework quite different from the one that guided prior strategic arms control treaties. These treaties focused primarily on quantitative limitations on nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles. Now, given both the new technologies, including dual-use hypersonic missiles, and the new war fronts of cyber and space, the two sides are going to have to think of qualitative constraints appropriate to this more complex nuclear environment.
The tendency is likely to be a focus on what's doable, and, therefore, the negotiators will presumably try to cut the problem into pieces that are workable, and that's fine. But keeping in mind the larger stake of where one would want the nuclear side of the relationship to be seven or eight years from now, while doing justice to the scale and complexity of this new nuclear era, may depend on the thinking done by academics and think-tank analysts. If governments can move forward with even small steps, helped to see this larger perspective by the work done in the larger analytical community, the picture may be more positive than it currently appears.
There are also other areas where cooperation might be possible. For example, salvaging the JCPOA. I think the US side understands that Russia is important if this is be done. The foreign ministers of the E3 and the US are meeting soon to talk about the JCPOA. I hope Blinken and the E3 thoroughly engage Lavrov. But for progress to be achieved, it's going to require a real desire on the part of the Iranian government to make adjustments allowing the process to go forward. Cooperation from the Iranian side will, of course, depend on the evolution of US-Iranian bilateral relations. The United States will have to alter its preconditions before there can be progress, but I think a desire to salvage the JCPOA exists as well as an awareness that to succeed cooperation with Russia will be necessary.
Another area of cooperation may surprisingly end up being climate change. Out of the four most important priorities listed by the Biden administration at the outset, only climate change has a large foreign policy component. You can see the priority that it has reflected in the high-level appointment of a czar for climate change, John Kerry, who now has a senior National Security Council position. Kerry, in one of his first steps in this new role, called Sergei Lavrov to discuss climate change, one former foreign minister to the current foreign minister. They talked about the United States’ return to the Paris Climate accord, areas of cooperation within the Arctic Council, which Russia will chair over the next two years, and the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. Historically, US-Russian leadership has been absolutely critical in the context of the NPT review conferences. If in addition the United States and Russia lead in promoting cooperation to meet the challenge of climate change, this would be a very positive factor in US-Russian relations. Needless to say it would also be important to the international community as a whole. That then may make it a little easier to think about potentially constructive steps in other areas, rather than focusing only on deterring and disrupting Russian actions in eastern Ukraine or elsewhere or on punishing Russia’s attacks on US cyber security.
Indeed, cyber is another area for potential cooperation at the level where it poses the most serious threat. The problem has many dimensions, from Russian efforts to polarize the US population through the manipulation of social media, to hacking the DNC and other accounts, to meddling with voting technology in an attempt to de-legitimize the electoral process itself to threatening other infrastructure. Each of those pieces needs to be dealt with differently. The United States should focus on enhancing its resilience against the first levels of threat. But attempting to de-legitimize an election by corrupting registration lists and electronic poll books crosses a red line. It is the same as the cyber destruction of other critical infrastructure, and rises to the level of a national security threat. Like military threats, national cyber security threats on this scale should be dealt with through negotiation—not by simply resorting to sanctions and the pillory. Agreements will have to address mutual concerns, insist on government responsibility for the actions of rogue actors, not only that of official agencies, and build in adequate verification measures. All this would be part of the agenda for getting to where we want the relationship to be seven or eight years from now. Whether the Biden administration thinks in those terms, I rather doubt.
I’ll finish by saying that if we do begin to make progress in these other major areas—strategic nuclear arms control, JCPOA, and climate change—I think it would create circumstances conducive to making progress on cybersecurity and prevent the red line from being crossed.
Hanna Notte: Let us turn to the issue of "post truth": I mean, that is the term that some people use to characterize the information environment in which we operate today, with a ubiquity of open source information, social media platforms. And unfortunately, it is the case that all too often, when we disagree with Russians on specific policy issues today, whether it's the use of chemical weapons in Syria, or the Russian meddling in the previous US elections, which you already referred to, that there is not just disagreement about substance, about policy, but a fundamental disagreement about objective reality, about what actually happened. And that disagreement is fueled by disinformation. I think it's a concern that the Pentagon, if I'm not mistaken, has increasingly voiced about Russian so-called disinformation in the Middle East and Africa. So there's a war of narratives all too often. How do we deal with that problem, given that these new technologies, social media, different platforms, are simply an inherent part of the reality that we live in today?
Robert Legvold: The problem is one of alternate realities, people living in different universes, and it is now an enormous challenge facing all of our societies, some more than others, but particularly the major players. It affects everything. In the United States, it's not only a problem in US-Russia relations, it engulfs our entire system, distorting the way the society confronts core problems. The alternate universes that exist in the United States may not exist as sharply in Russia, where narratives are more controlled, but it certainly exists between Russia and the West. I don't know what the answer to it is. I'm not sure that we really understand how we got here, and until we understand that, I'm not sure that we can begin finding a way out.
In the case of the US-Russia relationship or Russia's relations with the West in general, the fact that we don't agree on objective reality, we don't agree on the facts, is not new. We saw it many times during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union had one explanation for what had happened and who was responsible, and the United States and NATO partners had a very different explanation. The link to the problem of alternate universes is the issue of disinformation and the extent to which governments take an instrumental approach to disinformation as part information warfare. Information warfare is designed to exploit the fact that there are competing or alternate universes. Almost certainly the intensity of its use is a function of the state of the relationship. Better relations are likely to reduce the temptation to resort to a high volume of disinformation
Moreover, exploiting disinformation is a two-edged sword, and pointing out its negative effects on the user may be one way to respond. For example, when the issue of Russian interference in the US presidential election arose during and after the 2016 US presidential election, I was in Russia on a couple of occasions. It came up at the 2017 Primakov Readings conference, where I tried, probably without much success, to make this point. I said: “Look, even if you genuinely believe that the Russians had nothing to do with this, and the issue is being ginned up because of American politics, with the Democratic Party using it to rally its base; or, alternatively, if you recognize that Russian meddling occurred, but you believe the drama around it is America’s problem, not Russia’s, at a minimum, think about the effects and what it's doing to the relationship. This is not just a US problem, even if that's the way you want to phrase it, it is a US-Russia problem, and we together need to think about how we address it.” It was for the Russian side to consider disinformation and its effects in all its dimensions. As during the Cold War, when we focus on the issues around which disinformation is formed, expose the disinformation addressed to target audiences on both sides, and work to elevate the level of discourse around the issues involved, the malign effects of these campaigns can be mitigated.
Hanna Notte: I want to come to Europe at the end of our conversation. Now, there are issues that will clearly have to be dealt with initially in a bilateral fashion between the United States and Russia. But where do you see the room for, or indeed an indispensable role for, the Europeans? And how can the US square the circle between, on the one hand, reassuring the European partners in NATO, while also re-engaging Russia on risk reduction, arms control, without exacerbating fears on either side, either among the Europeans or in Moscow?
Robert Legvold: Quickly on the last question, because it's more specific: I don't think that's so difficult. The hawkish elements on the US side would argue that we have to be able to demonstrate to our European allies that our deterrence posture really guarantees that the Russians wouldn't dare to do anything. My answer would be somewhat different. I think reassurance also has to do with reassuring Europeans that we aren't going to posture ourselves and then act in a way that unnecessarily endangers them. Take as an example the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty. Obviously Europeans do not feel more secure as a result. Nor do I think Europeans are reassured by US thinking about limited nuclear options in a crisis over the Baltics or Belarus. They know where limited nuclear options are going to be exercised: it won't be US-Russian Armageddon. It will be Europe that is destroyed. So, if we can achieve arms control, even if it's an informal moratorium on deploying intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe, I think that reinforces reassurance. And, if the United States and Russia together with China look as though they're beginning to address what is now basically an uncontrolled multipolar nuclear world, the Europeans along with everyone else will feel more secure.
More generally in terms of Europe's place in the international setting, I think we are moving beyond the framework for US-European relations dominant since 1945, and Trump accelerated the process. That framework, called the "transatlantic partnership", with NATO and the EU and its predecessors as its key institutions, existed in order to cope with the challenges of a bipolar world. It evolved, whether through the Gaullist challenge in the 1960s, or Europe's shifting priorities as it moved forward with its own integration projects, or the United States growing impatience with Europe’s deficient economic commitment to the NATO alliance. The transatlantic partnership and, therefore, the place of Europe in the East-West relationship began changing in important ways during the last phases of a bipolar Cold War. When that whole context was upended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the shell of the framework remained. That is, we still thought about transatlantic relations as critical in US and European foreign policies. Trump, however, shattered that, saying: no, that's not the transatlantic relationship I have in mind. What I have in mind is the United States first and, if necessary, alone. And the Europeans, if they don't do what we want them to do, that's their problem. Where transatlantic relations are after Trump is not clear even if it seems evident that neither governments nor publics want to be where Trump was leading.
We live in a world that is fractured and multipolar to the extent that there are concentrated areas around key countries, some of which act as a kind of a magnetic field drawing in neighboring states, even if those magnetic fields may be weakening. In fact, the weakening of those magnetic fields, if that be the case, is significant. I think that the magnetic fields around China, around India, even around the United States no longer have the force they initially appeared to have. Multipolarity, it seems to me, is changing, and an important part of this change is the increasingly more complex mosaic in what we used to call the West and that now includes the broader, albeit shrinking, set of democratic societies. That includes Japan, India and so on. But how cohesive can a grouping this diverse be? How is it to be mobilized in pursuit of common foreign policy ends—including opposition to authoritarian competitors. It's not going to be a world in which the democratic societies led by the United States can define what the international community will be, and then assume that everybody else will buy in or be forced in. It's a question of how democracies and autocracies find a way to live together within this larger mosaic without blowing everything up.
One part of that, which the Biden administration is pushing—although not a new idea—is to convene the democracies at summits, in order to form a democratic community of nations that will balance against authoritarian challengers. I don't like the phrasing of it. I hope that the way in which Biden will form it is: “We're pulling the democratic societies together, including India and Japan, to address our internal challenges. How do we re-energize democratic societies and draw them together to deal with the economic effects of the pandemic and their other internal disabilities?” I hope that will be Biden´s agenda, not “how do we mobilize the democratic societies to face down the autocracies?”. If that's the exercise, what piece other than the United States in this democratic concatenation is most important? It's not Japan. It's not even India. It is Europe.
Message to the Younger Generation
Hanna Notte: Given all the complexities and challenges we have discussed, for the younger generation that is studying this relationship, or is even entering policymaking: How should one keep looking for motivation to continue, considering the fact that we keep going from frustration to frustration?
Robert Legvold: For me, it's obvious. A piece that Tom Graham and I recently published in Politico calls for the US government to manage policy towards China and Russia in tandem. That is, we ought to think about US-Russia and US-China policy in ways that are reinforcing, in part because the challenge that the two countries pose for us are in many ways reinforcing. And if we put policy in separate silos, we will not have an optimal policy for either bilateral relationship. This doesn't mean that every issue can be dealt with in a trilateral fashion. Most of the key issues will still be addressed bilaterally, but the framework ought to be increasingly trilateral. We ended that piece with a quotation from Zbigniew Brzezinski who said, in his last published piece, that there must be cooperation between the three most militarily powerful countries, the United States, Russia and China, if there's going to be global stability in the 21st century. And unless we begin to change the nature of the US-Russia relationship--and the European-Russian relationship—there is no significant chance for global stability in the 21st century, particularly if it's accompanied by a mismanaged US-China relationship.
Those of you, and those who come after you, who are studying Russia will now increasingly have to include the China dimension. And you'll have to be thinking about it in its many different dimensions—whether in terms of developments in the post-Soviet space or instability in key regions surrounding the post-Soviet space, the evolution of China’s Belt and Road project, questions of global energy security, and managing a nuclear world in which China will have a growing role.
Among current trends, one of the more unfortunate ones is the notion afield in the United States and, to a degree, in Europe as well is that Russia no longer matters because it's weak, that it's simply a nuisance. Tom Friedman had a column recently entitled "Vladimir Putin Has Become America’s Ex-Boyfriend from Hell", in which he dismissed Russia as anything other than an annoyance that ought to be dealt with condescendingly and at arm’s length. Those of this view argue that we can and must maintain an absolute hard line toward Russia, because Russia is sufficiently weak, and although troublesome, we don't have to spend a lot of time or energy thinking about ways in which we should try to change that relationship. It's the job of your generation, and those who come after, and maybe some who are older and still around, to continually struggle to reverse these attitudes and encourage a sensitivity to what the real stakes are.
It comes down to this single notion: if your generation and the generation of your children are going to live in a stable world, it will be because people like you, and those who came after, fostered greater wisdom on the part of policymakers by helping them to understand the larger stakes. Russia will remain central to those larger stakes.
Hanna Notte: I'll come to our last question, which has more to do with the University Consortium's mission set. And it brings me back to where our conversation started, to the notions of empathy and introspection, you introduced. You have been an academic and taught students throughout your lifetime. Have you found students' ability to empathize and also to exercise introspection to have changed? What either encourages or worries you about the new generation of scholars that studies Russia, engages with Russia, that approaches issues of pressing international concern? That is the first part of the question. And I'll add the second part straight away, which is, in hindsight, what advice do you wish you had been given when you were starting your career in this field of Soviet and Russia studies, a piece of advice that you think might still be valid for our generation?
Robert Legvold: On the first question, I do not doubt the capacity of your generation and those students who are now in the University Consortium for empathy and for introspection. The capacity is there. And when a path to it and an example of it is provided by their instructors and mentors, they embrace and exhibit it quite readily. The problem is their starting point, which is a function of where Russia-West relations are now. Their views are understandably shaped by the current environment, by what political leaders, the media, even in some cases their instructors have taught them. And therefore, they start from the narratives prevailing in their societies, maybe their university, maybe within what they see as their broader intellectual circles.
I think their instructors and mentors need to show them how to step outside of these narratives. They are, in many ways, simply micro products of what the relationship itself is. And if they're going to have a role in changing it, then one has to nurture their capacity for introspection and empathy.
On the question of what advice I wish that I had received when at an early age, I don’t have much of an answer, because I can’t think of any that might fundamentally have changed things for me. What has mattered most to me over my professional life, whether in interactions with individual students or in the classroom, when writing, collaborating with colleagues, or attending conferences, including contemporary Zoom meetings, has always been the example of Marshall Shulman. What he showed me in so many different contexts: what I learned from his role in the Truman administration, what I saw him do in the Carter administration, what he contributed to a Cold War History Project that I chaired in the 1990s exploring the failure of détente during his time in the Carter administration. Who he was as an academic, as a teacher, as a counsellor, and as a friend. And the example of Marshall toward the end of his life, listening to his reflections, and witnessing the remarkable patience and balanced perspective that he brought to all that he had witnessed and been a part of. So, no, it was not advice that I received, but Marshall Shulman’s example that was instrumental.
Hanna Notte: That's a perfect ending. Thank you so much for this very rich and long discussion.