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U.S.-Russia tensions: U-M professor, former diplomat discusses

Russia recently moved nuclear-capable missiles to NATO's doorstep. In addition, competing military operations in Syria and increasing concerns over Russia's involvement in cyber security breaches related to the U.S. presidential election have strained U.S.-Russia relations in recent months.

Melvyn Levitsky, professor of international policy and practice at the University of Michigan's Ford School of Public Policy, discusses the issue. Levitsky spent 35 years as a U.S. diplomat under eight different presidential administrations. He served as officer-in-charge of U.S.-Soviet bilateral relations and as a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Q: What has Russia done that we should be concerned about?

Levitsky: Bringing up these missiles, giving missiles to Iran, what they're doing in Syria, what they've already done in Ukraine, presents real threats to American national security. And while we don't want to have an armed conflict quite obviously—and I don't think they do either—it's unclear what the negotiating agenda is now so that we can have an understanding, in kind of the way we had during the Cold War when we had certain "clients" and we made sure these clients didn't get these two countries into a shooting war.

Q: Why is Russia a threat to US security all of a sudden?

Levitsky: It's not all of a sudden. Their agenda is to make themselves into a power that is always consulted on and it's always there on the most important issues as they used to be. They've tried to come back, they have come back. They've made themselves both an irritant and a factor in international affairs.

They just pulled out, for example, from the agreement we had to get rid of excess plutonium—which can be used, of course, to make weapons. They just provided the last shipment of surface air missiles to Iran. There are many of these irritants going on. That makes them relevant, and it could be what their agenda is. 'You can't ignore us. We're Russia and we're back.' But most of it is done on the basis of irritation.

Even during the Cold War, we had cooperative agreements of arms control. Even that seems to have gone, although the society itself seems to be quite different than during the Cold War. And the country, of course, in terms of population and strength, is not nearly as powerful or large as the Soviet Union was.

Q: How would you describe the current status of U.S.-Russia relations?

Levitsky: My career was made mostly during the Cold War and this is reminiscent of what was going on then. What is particularly interesting to me is how similar some of the rhetoric sounds coming out of Russia—which used to be Soviet rhetoric—that is not ideological, but is state rhetoric.

It is reminiscent. But, on the other hand, there are some islands of openness in Russia that didn't exist. The press has a certain degree of freedom. Putin tries to control the press and the economy but there are areas of the economy that are at least verging on the free market, so there is a different dynamic going on. But there's no doubt that he's very popular and that what he's doing now to kind of bring them back internationally is popular among Russians.

Q: You mentioned the Cold War. Could we go back to a Cold War with Russia?

Levitsky: We're in a kind of Cold War now except that it is very strange. Even during the Cold War, there were areas of cooperation. We negotiated arms control treaties. We had incidents in sea treaties, test ban treaties, areas where it was in both countries' interests to cooperate. We have that in regard to Syria—although it's not working very well, but we're both there.

Q: Do you think Russia is behind the hacking of the Democratic National Convention and Hillary Clinton's emails?

Levitsky: Looks to me like they're using plausible deniability, where it's quite clear it's coming from Russia. Not quite clear it's coming from exactly the intelligence agencies but there's enough people around that they can be in touch with. Putin might not say necessarily 'do this,' but there's a link there. This is very curious. Normally, the Russians would go for someone who they can predict and Trump is someone hard to predict. I'm not sure that, if their experts look at this, they would find some advantage in it.