Professor Robert Legvold

The New Russia-West Cold War Has Started

In our inaugural post, the Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus at Columbia University discusses the current situation between Russia and the Ukraine.

Interview by Nick Antoine

Q. How would you summarize the current relationship between Russia and Ukraine?

A. Well, the relationship between Russia and Ukraine is particularly tense, strained and dangerous. The history is longstanding. Ukraine had been incorporated into what became Imperial Russia in the 17th Century. It was a critical part of Imperial Russian history and then later the second most important portion of the Soviet Union. Moreover, their relationship is also based on a deep sense of cultural linguistic identity. And so, given that close identity, since the breakup of the Soviet Union the orientation of Ukraine has been important to every Russian leader.

In recent years, Russia has felt that a large part of western Ukraine has been leaning towards the European Union and away from efforts to pull parts of the former Soviet Union together into a new kind of Russian-oriented integrated structure. Naturally, Russia has seen this as a great loss to both their cultural identity and their contemporary goals. All of this is now compounded by the current political and economic failure in Ukraine.

So is Russia's concern over Ukraine more cultural than ideological?

My point is that there is a long history and cultural identity between Russia and Ukraine. They are, if you will, Slavic brothers. That’s the context, and so Russia’s immediate concern is Ukraine’s orientation. Is Ukraine going to remain roughly within Russian orbit? Will it be a country where Russia’s business community has important influence? Will Russia be able to count on their support in foreign policy and regional projects? Or is Ukraine going to defect to the West and become part of the E.U. and maybe even NATO, which Russia continues to define as an adversary? Now that everything has collapsed, I believe we are in what I call a new Russia-West Cold War.

How would you characterize this new Cold War?

Obviously it’s very different from the first one. The original Cold War was universal in the sense that it dominated the entire international system. This time, China won’t be a part of it. Nor will India. And it won’t have the same kind of ideological basis of capitalism versus communism. Certainly, one hopes that it won’t also be under the continuous dark shadow of the threat of nuclear war. 

However there are still similar characteristics, which is why I think people are wrong to dismiss the current tensions among Russia, NATO, and the United States. The old Cold War was very serious and this one will be too. The reason I call it a Cold War is not just because the consequences are serious, but because the tendency of each party is to see problems as a result of the nature of the other side. And while there may continue to be brief moments of cooperation, the relationship between Russia and the West is no longer ambiguous. Each side sees the other as an adversary.

Is Vladimir Putin a 21st Century dictator?

Well I would say that Putin has gone in an increasingly authoritarian direction. The Russian political system itself is certainly more autocratic than it is democratic, but it’s not a dictatorship in the same way the Soviet Union was. Putin is not Stalin or Hitler, but he is scarcely a Jeffersonian democrat. He claims the system remains democratic, but I think very few people, especially those who would like to organize effective political parties or enjoy completely free press, would agree. However it is a projection of our imagination for us to assume that he is determined to hang onto power in the most dictatorial fashion and aggressively reconstitute what used to be the Soviet Union. That’s not who Putin is.

What's the possibility of a full Russian invasion into Ukraine?

Well, it’s not that Putin has a plan that ends with a Russian invasion and seizure of Ukraine. But what he does, in my view, will be determined by unpredictable events. That's why this thing is so dangerous. We don't know what's going to happen next in Eastern Ukraine. Right now pro-Russian forces have seized many Ukrainian towns and are trying to control them. It's uncertain whether military clashes will escalate. The next uncertainty is what happens in Donetsk, where they evidently intend to hold a referendum on May 11th. 

It's not clear what the outcome of the vote will be. Will there be demand for substantial autonomy within a federalized Ukraine, or will there be an effort to annex the Donetsk region to Russia? If it is the the latter (and it could certainly be a controlled election) then what will the Russians do? And if there is escalating violence, and we've seen it now spread to Odessa, the Russians have said they would have to protect Russians in Eastern Ukraine. If they start doing that, even with partial military efforts, what happens if the Ukrainian military responds? Or if this situation spirals upwards into a full-blown civil war and the Russians become fully involved, what will NATO and the U.S. do? This situation is so dangerous because, as you can see, it's so unpredictable.

Originally published May 6, 2014.

Robert Legvold

Dr. Robert H. Legvold is the Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus at Columbia University's Department of Political Science, and is a specialist in the international relations of post-Soviet states. He is currently a contributor at Foreign Affairs Magazine.