This seems to be the season for reports about Russia. Hot on the footsteps of the Bow Group report last week, another volume has just landed in my mail box – a booklet from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) entitled Russia and the West: The Consequences of Renewed Rivalry. The report (which is available online) is a summary of a workshop held by CSIS’s Academic Outreach program. As the workshop was held under Chatham House rules, and as I wasn’t invited to the event, I can’t tell whose opinions are reflected in the document (though I could make some guesses). Also, the fact that what were probably 30-40 minute presentations have been reduced to 2-3 page summaries means a lot of sweeping generalizations and broad brush conclusions without much substantiation. As a result, the report is of limited use. Nevertheless, it does show what advice the academic community is giving government agencies in the West about Russia.
Some of it, such as the sections on the Russian intelligence community, business and politics in Russia, and the effects of sanctions, is o.k. Others parts are less sensible. The overall tone of the report is negative, putting the entire blame for current tensions in Russia-West relations, as well as for the war in Ukraine, on Russia. In the chapter on the Ukrainian conflict, there is a brief spark of recognition that things may be a bit more complicated than normally depicted, with a statement that, ‘Ukraine’s non-compliance with the [Minsk] agreement has now become glaringly obvious’, but this is little more than a blip in the general narrative.
This is clear from the first paragraph of the Executive Summary which states that after becoming president in 2012, ‘Instead of emphasising diplomatic initiatives, Putin introduced a comprehensive narrative of grievance which rejected post-World War Two security principles, revived traditional Russian imperialistic themes, and promoted an aggressive interpretation of Russia’s status’. Next, the chapter ‘Russia’s Self-Image and its Consequences’ states the following:
There is a clear historical link between Russia’s top-down form of government and Moscow’s imperial record. … That understanding includes the presumed right and need to dominate neighbouring regions. … What we have today is a set of legally protected myths which glorify the past. Stalin and the Great Fatherland War are its core elements. … The reality of rule by a narrow, self-interested and in part nervous cabal is by now imperfectly concealed. … Russian decision-makers have insisted with increasing vehemence that their principal antagonist is indeed the West. … It is hard for Western observers to grasp the meaning of such hollow narcissism. … Does Moscow really not understand why so many of its neighbours are afraid of it? … The logic of Russian policy is that the Kremlin should impose its rule by proxy on Kyiv. … Putin’s Kremlin is trying to force Russia into a mould that rejects its European heritage.
This reflects a common Western perception that autocratic, or at least imperfectly democratic, states are more aggressive than liberal democratic (i.e. Western) ones. And yet, most scholars who have studied the subject believe that while democracies rarely if ever fight each other, they are not in fact any less aggressive than other regime types. Martin Malia convincingly showed in his book Russia under Western Eyes that Russophobia in the West has rarely had any relation to the actual threat Russia has posed. When Russian leaders’ domestic policies have been viewed favourably, Western commentators have turned a blind eye to Russian imperialism, but when its leaders have been viewed as tyrannical, the West has vastly exaggerated the Russian danger to its security. Thus, public opinion in the West was vehemently anti-Russian during the reign of Nicholas I, even though Nicholas refrained from aggressive military actions, but it was very pro-Russian during the reign of Catherine the Great (perceived as an enlightened ruler) even though Russia expanded enormously. The idea that centralized and autocratic rule makes Russia a threat is without solid basis in fact.
Next, the idea that Stalin is a central part of Russia’s contemporary self-image is somewhat bizarre. Certainly, the Great Patriotic War plays an important role in Russian identity (as indeed does the Second World War in some Western nations), but Russians aren’t all neo-Stalinists. As for Russia’s alleged ‘hollow narcissism’, this charge is not entirely without foundation – Russian fears of Western hostility are, I believe, exaggerated, and there is a tendency for Russians to think that Western actions are directed against them when they are not. But there are some good reasons for it. Take, for instance, NATO’s proposed European anti-ballistic shield. I tend to the view that NATO planners really do see this as protecting Europe against Iranian nuclear-tipped missiles, and not as a tool against Russia. But I fully understand why Russians don’t agree. After all, the Iranian nuclear missile threat doesn’t exist. Accepting NATO’s claims means accepting that its leaders live in strange fantasy world. It’s easier to believe that they are rational, in which case, the anti-missile shield must have an alternative target, i.e. Russia. Russian fears do have some foundation. And while it is true that Russia’s rulers do not seem to realise how their actions in Ukraine might frighten some Europeans, this report makes it very clear that many in the West are equally incapable of seeing how Western actions might frighten Russia. This lack of self-awareness, on both sides of the Russian-Western divide, is a major cause of current tensions.
Finally, the claim that the Kremlin ‘is trying to force Russia into a mould that rejects its European heritage,’ is not untypical of comments in recent months which like to emphasize Russia’s alleged ‘turn to the East’, the supposed influence of Eurasianism, Putin’s increasing conservatism, and so on. But it is a huge exaggeration. The fact that Russia is trying to increase its ties with its Asian neighbours does not in any way mean that it wishes to cut its ties with Europe. On the contrary, President Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov, and others have made it clear that this is not their intention. Moreover, Russia’s ‘European heritage’ is a cultural phenomenon which runs so deep that rejecting it is simply impossible.
The report’s final chapter concludes that ‘the relationship [between Russia and the West] is going to be cold, unproductive, and adversarial in certain areas, and will offer minimal opportunities for successful mutual cooperation.’ This fate can be avoided. But doing so will require a change in attitudes not only in Russia but also among those in the West who perpetuate negative stereotypes.