Given the hyperbolic hysteria which characterizes so much analysis of Russia, it is good to come across a book which studiously avoids all that and instead calls for ‘a sophisticated, empathetic understanding of Russia and how it works.’ In The New Politics of Russia: Interpreting Change, published this year by Manchester University Press, Andrew Monaghan of St Antony’s College, Oxford, denounces what he calls ‘the mainstream view of Russia in the West’, which he calls ‘narrow, simplistic, and repetitive.’ He analyzes the reasons why Western observers have continually been surprised by Russian actions and finishes by laying out his own model of how the Russian political system works. His book challenges Russian ‘experts’ to reconsider their assumptions.
Monaghan posits a number of causes for the poor quality of Western analyses of Russia.
First, government support for Russian studies declined following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The result, Monaghan says, is that ‘the practical capacity to understand Russia is much reduced in policy-making circles’, with ‘very few experienced Russia specialists at the heart of high-level decision-making in the West.’ I have some doubts about this idea. Monaghan is certainly correct about the decline in Russian studies in the West – the 1990s in particular saw numerous Russian departments closing in Western universities. But I’m not sure that Sovietologists were much more accurate in their predictions than the current generation of Russian experts, even though there were many more of them. Moreover, the problems we have in understanding Russia today appear to have more to do with the quality of analysis than the quantity of experts. To be fair to Monaghan, he acknowledges this, saying that, ‘a simple increase in resources and the number of analysts will not necessarily facilitate the correction of analytical mistakes.’ Instead, ‘there is a need to reassess the conceptual approach’.
Second, Monaghan says that there is an excessive tendency to view Russia in terms of ‘transition’ from communism to Western-style liberal democracy and free market capitalism, and to evaluate Russia according to its supposed progress in this transition. Consequently, ‘the focus of mainstream attention narrowed to support for the (liberal) opposition to Putin and objections to the Kremlin’s oppressive measures against it, in effect the story of embattled and threatened democracy.’ Because of this, Monaghan continues, ‘many who discuss Russia tend towards using a limited range of sources … most of which have a more liberal or Western orientation. … thus shining a distorting light on how Russia works.’ During the wars in Georgia and Ukraine, ‘Georgian and Ukrainian sources were often not critically examined before being absorbed and deployed in assessments of Russia and Russian intentions’, and Western analysts have championed those who oppose Putin as ‘charismatic, “crusaders”, and democratic’, even though they are often nothing of the sort. The result is that ‘advocacy and analysis become conflated.’ Thus, Western commentators greatly exaggerated the numbers who protested against the Russian government in 2011-2012 and overestimated the significance of the protests, the likelihood of ‘regime change’, and the fact that the government response to the protests was not purely repressive. The companion of ‘transitionology’ is wishful thinking.
Third, Monaghan says that Western views of Russia are characterized by ‘pronounced ethnocentrism and “mirror imaging”.’ He writes that, ‘The assumption that the Russians are not so different and see the world and react in the same way as Westerners has obstructed understanding Russian intentions, prejudices, hopes, fears and motivations.’ Monaghan argues that one of the great problems in Russian-Western relations is that the two sides do not in fact see the world in the same way. They also apply different meanings to the same words. Russia and the West have had very different views on subjects such as Iran, ballistic missile defence, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. They draw ‘different conclusions’ from the ‘same body of evidence.’ And while the two sides were at one point able to agree that they were committed to the ‘indivisibility of security’, they interpreted this terminology very differently. To the West, ‘indivisibility of security’ meant that military and political security were intimately connected to human security, and thus to issues of democracy and human rights. Russia, however, interpreted the phrase as meaning that the European security structure should embrace all the countries of Europe, including Russia. The differing interpretations of what had been agreed inevitably led to disenchantment when it became clear that the other side was not actually committed to things which it had been supposed that it was committed to.
In the final part of his book, Monaghan examines various models of the Russian political system, and develops one of his own. This divides the ruling class into three layers: the key ‘leadership team’ of a relatively small number of people surrounding Putin; the ‘federal locomotives’, who are a ‘larger group of those who are trusted to carry out the strategic agenda’; and finally, ‘a third category, the largest and most diverse,[which] consists of proven managers.’ The value of this model is open to debate, but Monaghan makes a good case that we need a ‘more sophisticated understanding of the wider political landscape and political culture.’
For the most part, I concur with Monaghan’s approach. The New Politics of Russia expertly dismantles the way the West views Russia. The book is a refreshing addition to the literature on Russian-Western relations.
If I were to add anything to Monaghan’s analysis, it would be to say that one of the reasons why we misperceive Russia is because we misperceive ourselves and so misperceive how Russians see us. We do not take seriously their objections to what we do; and we do not take those objections seriously because of our inability to regard ourselves as anything other than the ‘good guys’. If we are to improve our understanding of Russia, we perhaps first need to improve our understanding of ourselves.