Return to Cold War

Return to Cold War

Robert Legvold

Polity Press, Malden, Massachusetts 2016, 208 pages

Book Review published on: August 4, 2017

Relations between the United States and Russia have reached a low point in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Pretty dramatic stuff, but are we in a new cold war? Long-time scholar of Soviet and Russian affairs Robert Legvold, in his short volume Return to Cold War, argues persuasively that’s exactly where the two countries now find themselves.

Legvold’s purpose is threefold: to justify the characterization of the “collapse in relations” as a new Cold War, to underscore the consequences of the current state of affairs and place them in a broader context to provide a better chance of changing course, and to suggest a new path for the United States and Russia. His thesis is that the confrontation between the United States and Russia that began with the Ukraine crisis in 2014 is a new Cold War and the result of behavior by both countries beginning with the collapse of the USSR. The only way out of the current situation must be a joint effort by Washington and Moscow. His case for a new Cold War rests on similarities about both sides’ perceptions, approaches, and actions between the original Cold War and today’s situation.

Legvold offers a well-organized argument, first exploring alternative explanations for the current situation, then explaining how both the original Cold War and the contemporary conflict between the United States and Russia came to be, and finally offering a way ahead for the relationship. Whereas he could have taken the approach of “I’m Robert Legvold, I’ve been studying this for decades and you should accept my logic,” Legvold ably presents both sides of the argument, drawing on detailed evidence, extensive documentation, and a fulsome list of references. Readers can draw their own conclusions.

Legvold recognizes that ending the new Cold War will initially require small steps, which would have been a challenge when he wrote the book and have become more difficult with the passage of time. The strategic dialogue he recommends began under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s direction but was suspended after the United States imposed new economic sanctions on Russia. Arms control, another potential starting point and one which Putin’s advisors have identified as an area for cooperation, remains especially problematic given allegations of Russian noncompliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Cold War or not, why care? As Legvold points out, the threat of nuclear weapons and their proliferation, along with other transnational challenges that require bilateral cooperation between the United States and Russia, demand an honest understanding of the relationship. Bearing in mind Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum, “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish ... the kind of war on which they are embarking,” we need to understand the nature of even a cold war, and Legvold’s book serves this purpose well.

Book Review written by: Mark Wilcox, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas