RD Interview: After their bitter confrontation over Ukraine and Syria, is it really possible for the U.S. and Russia to chart out a stable course for international relations? We asked Michael Kofman, a fellow at the Kennan Institute of the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrive for a news conference after the International Syria Support Group meeting in Munich, Germany, Feb. 12. Photo: AP

Since the start of the confrontation between Russia and the West in 2014, analysts have been divided in explaining the very nature of the standoff. Some pundits have described it as a new Cold War.

But to what extent is such an analysis accurate? We recently sat down with international affairs expert Michael Kofman, currently a fellow at the Kennan Institute of the Wilson Center and an analyst at CNA Corporation, who offered his views on the current U.S.-Russian relationship, and suggested ways that the two former superpower rivals might construct a new security architecture that respects the interests of both nations

Russia Direct: How would you best describe the current state of affairs between the U.S. and Russia? 

Michael Kofman: I see the Cold War as a distinct period in history that should greatly inform our current experience, but is at best an analytical crutch for understanding current events.  Russia and the West are not necessarily in a long-term confrontation destined to last decades, nor is this state defined by broad global or ideological competition.

Having ended cycles of engagement and disappointment, we have likely settled into a time that will be characterized by retrenchment and confrontation. As a result, we naturally fall back to previous frameworks like Cold War 2.0. In describing the present-day, I prefer an old quote often attributed to Mark Twain, that history does not repeat itself but it does rhyme. 

Michael Kofman Our national security establishments hope for a return to the Cold War, where the logic of capability-based planning takes over, and we can retread a familiar confrontation. This view holds particular attractiveness in the U.S., since it is commonly accepted that America won the Cold War. Given Russia has nowhere near the resources of the Soviet Union, and great challenges, it makes sense for Western leaders to reason that Cold War 2.0 will prove a much quicker victory. 

In reality, the current relationship is unstable and unpredictable. Europe is much less sanguine on the Cold War victory narrative, seeing it as a tragic time not to be repeated. We do not know what the new normal is – containment with transactional cooperation? Confrontation with attempts at strategic restraint? There is already outright warfare in the political, economic and informational domains. The sand is still shifting and it is too early to judge, especially before a new U.S. administration sets Russia policy.

RD: In your opinion, what was the tipping point for the relationship to deteriorate?

M.K.: For the U.S., the return of Putin to the Kremlin [in 2012] marked the end of the reset. Looking on from the West, it was like nailing shut any prospect for liberalism and democracy in Russia.  Those who authored and believed in the merits of the "reset" were scorned.

However, for Russian elites, I suspect it was the 2011 intervention in Libya and U.S. support for Bolotnaya Square protests. Both were the final transgressions in U.S. foreign policy. Moscow viewed Libya as another thoughtless intervention to effect regime change, and even more egregious, bristled at what seemed like U.S. public support for protest movements against Putin in Moscow.  

This marked not a down cycle in relations, but a clear gradient. The lack of foundation is what made the relationship susceptible to serendipitous and catastrophic events. Snowden was one such train wreck, but the true departure point is the Maidan, the annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine.  

RD: To build on the previous question: where exactly and why did the relationship between Moscow and Washington go wrong?

M.K.: Russia failed to acknowledge that the nature and character of its political and economic systems were the profound limiting factors for its integration and cooperation with the West. No amount of energy deals with Germany or business deals in other countries can change that. Moscow tightened the grip on society, and the country became more authoritarian, worsening prospects. Russian leaders fail to appreciate that the West simply will not disassociate values from interests in the same way they are able to. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. was overly giddy with the world it had inherited after the Cold War. Some of America's interventions were imprudent, and others, unsuccessful. This frayed core aspects of the international order, and even more importantly, demonstrated the U.S. to not be a deliberate power. Moscow was not only disenchanted, but increasingly paranoid, and convinced that the U.S. policy establishment was as Dmitry Rogozin once said, “Like a monkey with a hand grenade.” 

The U.S. policy establishment has diverse inputs, each with their own objectives, from democracy promotion, to missile defense or let's say NATO expansion. The Cold War concentrated U.S. policy towards the Soviet Union, whereas normally competing imperatives and brutal election cycles make it hard for American leaders to see past their nose.

American leaders did not only fail to consider how Russia would view the net sum of such decisions, they did not care, because Russia was not a power to contend with for most of the past 25 years. This is reflected in sentiments I still hear regularly today, that Russia is in structural decline and somehow will not be a problem for U.S. foreign policy a few years down the road.

In Ukraine, specifically, each side committed a different sin. The EU was obtuse and incoherent in pursuing the partnership agreement and the U.S. was woefully negligent in ignoring the entire matter, while Russia proved both rash and reckless in its reaction. The problem between Russia and the West was borne out of both sides not taking the consequences of bidding for Ukraine seriously, and therefore underinvesting in informed policy and communication.

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RD: What are America’s biggest miscalculations about Russia and its policies? What about those of Russia vis-à-vis the United States?

M.K.: The West grossly overestimated the ties that bound Russia - trade, finance, international law, institutions, etc. - in relation to its defined interests: a clear zone of influence, the cessation of Western efforts at democratization, NATO expansion, or even EU expansion to Ukraine and Georgia. That is, the Western vision of the post-Cold War order blinded it to the realities of how the international system looks from the vantage point of major powers.  

Hence, the inane dialogue over Russia’s 19th century behavior in a 21st century world. For Russia, China, and others, the only thing different about the 21st century is power distribution in the international system. I know that's a realist perspective, but just try having a discussion on values and norms in the international system with Chinese or Russian analysts to see how much there is in common.

Western leaders thought then, and still do, that through engagement they can in time make Russia into a Western country under a different leader. That is, even with the failure to bind Russia, many have transitioned to believing what they have is a Putin problem, not a Russia problem. I see no evidence to support such notions, and even more worrisome, emerging narratives that Russia will somehow disappear as a problem in the medium term. One faith-based approach to dealing with Russia has been replaced with another faith-based approach. So far there is no vision for how to structure relations with Moscow.    

Russia continues to want recognition and a place that is not conferred by its economic or military power. Moscow also narrowly defines interests in traditional geopolitical terms, unable to understand why the West is unwilling to disassociate values from its foreign policy. Hence there has always been an impasse over democratization, and the right of countries to choose their association with NATO and the EU.

Even today, Moscow is faced with the challenge of having broken the rules that guided its relations with the U.S., but being too weak of a power to make American leaders compromise or negotiate new terms. Additionally, Russia never put itself in a serious position to become a pillar of the international system. Yes, it was dominated by the U.S., but so what? Russia could have attained a prominent role. 

I saw efforts in this direction in the early 2000s by Putin. Yes the response from the U.S. was not especially substantive. The Bush administration spurned him in policy, as it did Iranian overtures.  Still, Putin gave up quickly, perhaps emotionally, to Russia's detriment. Today the authors of the reset policy in America likely feel the same resentment that Russians experienced in the mid-2000s.   

RD: Is a fractured perception of each other the main obstacle or does it really boil down to a deep divide in national interests?

M.K.: Paradoxically, there is much greater convergence than divergence in U.S.-Russian interests around the world, but the points of division are more defining. The West will not accept Putin’s vision for Russia or its right to impose “limited sovereignty” upon neighbors.

Russia will not abide efforts at democratization, regime change or the further spread of Western institutions to its borders and is willing to use force to stop such efforts. Russia is a revisionist country when it comes to the international system, the rules of the game and the security dynamics in Europe.  The revisionist bit is often overstated though, since in my opinion, Russia wants to revise it to what it was at the end of WWII. 

Still, any such revision is unacceptable to the U.S. The West is logically a status quo actor, given its dominance across the economic, political and security spectrum. Hence conflict on this point is inevitable. Another problem is the West is revisionist when it comes to democracy promotion, and here Russia is very much a status quo power on its periphery, seeking to prevent such efforts.  

Perception is a secondary obstacle. There are poor inputs into U.S. policy on Russia, characterized by bad information and lack of expertise. U.S. policy is swept along by strong ideological currents. On the Russian end, there is a rather inadequate understanding of economics and law by the elite, unable to truly calculate impacts and consequences of use of national power other than use of force. I also see a conspiratorial trend in the Russian outlook on the world, seeing everything as a U.S. ploy or machination. It strikes me as ill informed and, in some respects, symptomatic of having never mentally abandoned the Cold War.

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RD: How much is the current confrontation a war of ideology and values – or is it just an interest-based rivalry?

M.K.: I don't see it in any of those terms. These are the lexicons of the two countries, but not the basis for conflict.  Russia talks in terms of interests, while the West speaks of values and ideology. Ideology is not at the root of this confrontation, and values have a debatable role in any of this, or Western foreign policy for that matter. This is about the rules of the international system and a vision for how the world should work: who makes them, who enforces them, and who abides by them.

The proximate cause is Russia's periphery, but ultimately this is a system-level conflict that was bound to emerge, if not with Russia, than eventually with China. Russia's interests in its periphery, and how it goes about pursuing them, are incompatible with the rules of the international system. They are also incompatible with the U.S. vision for the world, but particularly for Europe

Russian leaders see the current rules as unfair, and America's actions as largely hypocritical. The question that is being answered right now is to what extent Russia can break such rules, and get away with it. I'm confident that at the very least Russia is in no position as a power to rewrite them.

RD: Some in Russia believe there’s a strong anti-Russian lobby in the United States that fuels stereotypes and fears of the American decision-makers and the wider public towards Moscow. If there is such a lobby, what can be done to minimize their impact on the policy-making process?

M.K.: Of course there is, Russia and the U.S. were enemies for decades, during the Cold War and even before WWII.  That history casts a long shadow over perceptions of Russia, as many who lived and fought in those Cold War era conflicts are still in positions of power today.  History is its own lobby.

What is the current state of anti-Americanism in Russia? How does Russian media portray the U.S.?  For vested interests on both sides, this is not a problem but a solution. In  Moscow it is in the interests of the state to maintain such strong anti-American and nationalist sentiments. In the U.S., there are of course lobbies for fearful NATO allies, and all sorts of other vested interests who would do well with Russia returning as a prominent enemy. Heightening threat perceptions of Russia has become a useful vehicle for them to pursue desired resources and policies.

I would say Moscow has done the job for such groups quite well with its foreign policy, though there is always more to add to the "Russian threat" shopping list. Vilifying Russia today is an easy game, especially since many just substitute Putin for Russia. However, we should not oversell their influence. There is no domestic anti-Russia lobbying group, but Russian leaders fail to appreciate the constituency in America that wishes to see liberal democracy spread and will always oppose an autocratic system no matter it's name.  

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More notable, there are few Russian compatriots or immigrants willing to speak up on behalf of Russia in the U.S. – a reflection on how Russians in America view the achievements of their homeland.

RD: How do you think the elites of countries in the post-Soviet space play Moscow and Washington against each other, if in fact they do?

M.K.: As much and as often as they can. Central Asian states are always keen on maintaining independence and foreign policy options, although they mostly play between China and Russia. Eastern European states, particularly NATO members, seek benefits and relevance largely by leveraging the Russia threat. Otherwise, the security threats Europe would look at are terrorism and refugee flows (no, I don’t think Iran is really viewed as a missile threat by Europeans or ever was). Countries like Georgia tried to escape the unfavorable realities of their geography by seeking ties with the U.S. and entrance into NATO. Some have sought to bandwagon with Russia, economically or security wise, like Armenia and Belarus, but always hoping to keep some options open.

RD: What are potential scenarios for further development of the relationship between Russia and the United States?

M.K.: A reset could only come after a prolonged period of confrontation or perhaps a leadership change in Russia. Right now the defining word is confrontation. The U.S. is not willing to reset relations with Vladimir Putin, for as long as he is there, and Russia is too weak to make America reconsider any of those big picture questions about the international order or the rules of the game. 

In the near term, I only see instability as Russia depends on use of military power abroad as its only tool to achieve policy interests and leverage a change in the relationship with the U.S. The U.S. is likely to abandon restraint under a new president and be more proactive in containing Russia, which will also have unpredictable consequences.

Right now in the U.S., I largely see a policy debate between no ideas and bad ideas on what to do about Russia. Current policy imperatives in the U.S. are to compartmentalize relations, mitigate the damage to interests.  Russia's are the opposite: damage as much as possible to negotiate a way out because of economic pressure. Time is not on Moscow's side.

RD: It may be still early to tell, but judging by the presidential campaign debates and candidates’ reactions, how can American foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia change after President Obama leaves office? 

M.K.: It could be more hawkish under both Democrats and Republicans. You have liberal interventionists and neocon interventionists with good prospects running on either side. I'm thinking of people like Hillary Clinton or Marco Rubio. U.S. policy under the Democrats will be proactive on Russia, even if the relationship stabilizes. Under Republicans, it will be big on talk, but focus more on terrorism and homeland defense, using Russia as the justification for a host of defense spending and traditional superpower priorities. Ultimately, both sides understand that China is the larger strategic problem for the U.S. this century.

RD: What is lacking in American decision-making on Russia? Lack of funding for and interest in Russia Studies in academia? Declining expertise on Russia in think tanks? Strategic planning flaws in the State Department, Pentagon, or other government agencies? 

M.K.: All of the above, but in particular, expertise and strategic planning. To paraphrase Gandhi when he was asked what he thought of Western civilization: “It would be a good idea.” I think the same of strategic planning, funding or Russia expertise in the U.S.

RD: There’s a vision in Russia that Americans have inaccurate perceptions and make wrong conclusions about either Russian domestic or foreign policies because they heavily rely on the opinion of those individuals or civil groups whose opinion is believed to be very much marginalized and thus not representative (opposition leaders, NGOs). Do you see this as a problem or a true judgment?

M.K.: In some cases. I see it as a problem with individuals rather than NGOs. It is an overly spun narrative in my view. Some of the voices of authority on Russia in the West are those with distinct political agendas. It's an important perspective to consider, but to be taken with large doses of salt. American leaders occasionally fall into the trap of listening to dissidents, exiles, and others, whose views come through a heavily shaded lens. Iraq offers important lessons in what happens when you believe dissidents and buy into their narrative on a country. It would be surprising not to find "Ahmed Chalabis" or "Nouri al-Mailikis" among Russian dissidents. 

RD: Is there a viable agenda for US and Russia in the post-Soviet Space and in the Middle East?

M.K.: In the post-Soviet space, there is counterterrorism, and nuclear safety, but that's not much to feed on. I see little viable agenda there, unless confrontation and trench warfare can be called an agenda. It was zero-sum geopolitics before for Russia, and it is even more so now, especially since Moscow can use force and impose its will on others in a way it could not during the 1990s and early 2000s. That is, the same game but higher stakes for all concerned. Ukraine has landed on U.S.-Russia relations with the impact of a thermonuclear weapon. The agenda is a matter of looking for survivors.

In the Middle East and elsewhere there could be a viable agenda, from the war in Syria, to the more important Iran-Saudi Arabia contest playing itself out along a range of conflicts. We can't predict what blows up next, or what could be on the docket even later this year. Despite today’s rancor, the U.S. is quite rational in pursuit of mutual interests with Russia and will continue to try and compartmentalize these aspects of the relationship. The question is, can Russia be a positive force somewhere in the world? 

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RD: What areas can be explored apart from those developed at length in previous decades (nuclear proliferation, WMD, space, etc.)? Сan there be a cooperation or at least a lesser degree of adversarial relations in matters of geopolitics and security?

M.K.: There was great progress made on cyberspace during the reset, and the Arctic and various agreements on behavior in space still hold good prospects. Although a categorical answer, in matters of security yes, but in matters of geopolitics probably not. In the medium term, relations will become more adversarial if the next U.S. president abandons restraint.

RD: What should a U.S.-Russia compromise in Syria look like in order to avoid slipping into yet another policy grievance?

M.K.: Well, it has already been more than a four-year policy grievance – so too late.  The problem is less between Russia and the U.S., and more between Iran and Saudi Arabia. That is, the allies and proxies of the two countries are the impediments to a solution. I see a divided Syria between the remnants of the Syrian regime and the Islamic State. Or in a better universe, a Kurdish state. The main point of division is who will rule the rump Syrian state.

Much will be decided by the Russian military campaign and the U.S. effort against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). My view is that the U.S. and Russia are generally in agreement that Assad should be part of the political transition, but ultimately must depart the presidency. I don't see how Russia intends to secure gains in the conflict without a political settlement, and Assad doesn't look like the sort of leader you could count on to keep Syria stable. Russia and Iran will have to deliver on a political transition if they expect the U.S. to lean on Saudi Arabia