Book Review: Should we fear Russia?

Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, is one of the more even-handed commentators on Russian foreign policy. On the one hand, he isn’t much of a fan of the ‘Putin regime’, and knows how to speak the sort of critical language required to confirm one’s reputation as a respectable thinker in the West. On the other hand, he avoids most of the hyperbole generally associated with commentary on things Russian, and isn’t one of those ‘non-systemic opposition’ types who gives the impression that Russia’s interests are best served by abject surrender to the United States. In light of the West’s current rampant Russophobia, his short (120-page) book Should We Fear Russia? is very timely .


Trenin’s answer to the question posed by his book is a bit of a ‘no’ and a bit of a ‘yes’. Russia isn’t a ‘threat’, he says, but its policies do pose a ‘challenge’ to the West, and are likely to keep doing so for the foreseeable future. ‘While most fears need to be put to rest’, he concludes, ‘the Russian challenge to the US-dominated/led world order is real, serious, and long-term.’

To reach this conclusion, Trenin analyses what people in the West fear about Russia, and shows that most of these fears are misplaced. Russia is not going to attack NATO, he says: ‘Daugavpils is not Donetsk-in-waiting, and Narva is no Lugansk. Poland is an even more far-fetched case. The Donbass model is not easily exportable, and employing it on the territory of a NATO member state denies the Kremlin any rationality whatsoever.’

‘Hatred of the West is clearly not an obsession of the Russian leadership’, says Trenin. Moreover, Russia has very little influence outside its borders. Even Belarus acts very independently of it. ‘In the future’, Trenin writes, ‘Russia’s sphere of influence is more likely to shrink further than to expand. The Russian empire is definitely not making a comeback.’ Russia has little soft power, according to Trenin, ‘no resources, and no real will to re-create its Eurasian empire’. The West should worry more about Russia collapsing than about Russia strength and ‘aggression’.

All this is a welcome rejoinder to a lot of the current scaremongering. But Trenin still thinks that the West has some reasons to feel worried. Russia, he says, ‘has a unique quality; its ruling elite and its people strongly reject domination of the international system by any one power. And Russians are ready to push back when they see their own interests in danger.’ American hegemony is coming to an end. Trenin warns, and Russia will not return to its behaviour in the 1990s when it meekly followed American’s lead. According to Trenin, ‘Contemporary Western-Russian relations are highly competitive on account of the fundamental clash of interests regarding the global and regional order, and any cooperation between the parties will happen within the wider environment of continued confrontation.’

Trenin therefore concludes that, ‘One needs to drop from the start any residual illusions about a Russia reassociated with the West and more or less following its lead. That window is permanently closed.’ The best that one can be hoped for is some ‘risk reduction’ measures, such as a ‘firewall around the zone of conflict’ in Donbass, and avoiding ‘provocative military exercises.’ In order to ensure a better long-term future, Trenin argues, world leaders need to create a ‘new security arrangement in Europe’ and  beyond, ‘to embrace all of Greater Eurasia’. He writes:

To be minimally stable, the emerging system will need to rest on the basic principles of rough equilibrium among the great powers, some sort of balance between competing regional ones, and adequate protection to others. … To have any chance of acceptance, the transcontinental/transoceanic security arrangement needs to be guided by the principles of politico-ideological pluralism and mutual respect.

Throughout his book, Trenin throws in occasional critical phrases to show that he is not some sort of Kremlin stooge. ‘Today’s Russia is frankly statist, patriotic/nationalist, and revisionist’, he says; Russia is an ‘authoritarian kleptocracy’, he writes; and so on. Yet his conclusion about the desirable shape of the world order could easily have been written by President Putin or Foreign Minister Lavrov. Trenin admits that, ‘This will be a hard sell in the West’, and therein lies the nub of the problem.

‘The non-West is not going to evolve into anything like the present-day West, a homogeneous community of like-minded nations with a set of shared values and undisputed leadership provided by the United States’, writes Trenin. This is, I think, a fairly accurate depiction of reality, but it doesn’t have to be a cause of trouble. Countries like Russia, which insist on defending their own interests even when they don’t match those of the West, do of course pose a challenge to Western hegemony. But that challenge only matters if the West insists on interpreting its interests as being dependent upon maintaining that hegemony. I think that there are lot of people in the West who think that that is not very sensible and doesn’t actually make their countries any better off. Were Western leaders to consider their interests more intelligently, the Russian ‘challenge’ might turn out to be not such a challenge after all.

18 thoughts on “Book Review: Should we fear Russia?”

  1. “Russia, he says, ‘has a unique quality; its ruling elite and its people strongly reject domination of the international system by any one power.”

    Russia was ready to accept the hegemony of the United States if the United States took into account the interests of Russia, just as the United States takes into account the interests of Turkey. But the United States chose constantly to undermine Russia’s interests (without any rational reason, simply because of the old phobias). Such a policy would have a predictable result


  2. The fact that in order to be considered a “respected scholar” ™ in the Free West one has to constantly (and absolutely unnecessary) pepper one’s work with obligatory statements denouncing “Putin’s Regime”, “Russian aggression” etc – even if one IS a Russian national himself – in order to be ranked among the “hanshakables” is a sad one. If the aim of the scientific community is the discovery of te Truth (whatever it is), then al these rites and magical formulas had to go. Doesn’t matter who is writing a thing if the data it is based upon is objectively true and the conclusions are not insane. If you are ready to dismiss someone based on authors political views only (or only by the fact that the author has the temerity to be a patriot) then YOU are the problem.

    In the same vien like during the Middle Ages one had to constantly refere to the Bible and the writings of the Church Fathers in order to be considered “acceptbale”. Or how one in the USSR had to do basically the same, only referencing the classics of Marxism-Leninism.

    And these people claim to be “intellectual elite”? Pathetic. Simply pathetic.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I second this. If even Dmitri Trenin is inserting “obligatory” denunciations into his work, then Russia-watching has fallen on hard times indeed.


      1. Thanks to both of you for your replies. I might say that I raised this issue of “kleptocracy” because it is an incendiary term and to describe modern day Russia as such seems to me to be factually false. (The more interesting/debatable question is how much corruption is there in Russia.) Trenin, along with (especially) Karaganov and Lukyanov, are Russian analysts whom I read whenever possible. Given that he is the Director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre surely he has sufficient “gravitas” in the West, so why does he say such a thing? I have certainly read articles by him that seem to me to be perfectly reasonable, and Paul’s summary of his book suggests that the book is, overall, realistic and sensible.
        To Lyttenburgh I would comment that “geopoltics” is not quite a closed axiomatic system. Most people in the West form a very negative impression of “Russia” from the MSM, and find it easy enough to accommodate “minor” inconsistencies. Most, afterall, are very busy and haven’t the time, even if they have the interest, to sort through what they have heard. Thanks again.


    2. I notice that you don’t comment on Trenin’s description of Russia as a “kleptocracy”. To what extent do you think that this is still true, and to what extent do you think that corruption has been diminished? (I would be interested to read what Paul thinks about these issues.)


      1. I don’t like the term ‘kleptocracy’ as it goes beyond saying that there is a lot of corruption and instead implies that the only purpose of the country’s rulers is self-enrichment. That’s going too far, in my opinion. The Russian state has invested heavily in the infrastructure of Russian society; and leaders clearly also have other goals – e.g. reassertion of Russia as a ‘great country’, which in turn requires Russia to be prosperous, which in turn places limits on how corrupt the rulers can be.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. “Russia is a Kleptocracy” is one of those religious dogmas held by the Western Establishment. They do honestly believe in that. As with any religious dogma – it’s a heresy to question or doubt that. So, either due to their deep religiosity, or out of low cognitive capabilities/sheer laziness no one among the Enlightened Western Public ™ does.

        If they would de think about it, all sorts of ugly pointed questions ought to arise. Say, the Western Establishment has as its chief (official) goal nowadays the “rebuking of Russian aggression” and “Containment/Isolation of Russia” in the name of making it “behave”. According to the most learned and pious Priesthood of Freedoom and Mockracy (i.e. the punditocracy of the West), Putin, this chief “kleptocrat” of all Russia, has, what now – $40 blns and villas all round the globe. Imagine what a True Believer among the Western Public (who really, really believes in everything told by the Priesthood) would ask then? Said believer would ask – why didn’t you stop Putin long time ago? Why, if the Western Establishment knew all those years about Spanish villas, illegal bank accounts full of bloody money etc, they didn’t threaten this kleptocrat with taking everything away if he won’t start behaving NOW? Putin, being kleptocrat, i.e. a person who is interested ONLY in personal enrichment, would be acquiescent – no doubt here. And then all those thousands of dead and displaced in Syrian and the Ukraine (about which the Priesthood likes to write so much!), always placed at the feet of the “Kremlin policy”, just won’t be a thing – you’d prevent all this suffering.

        Yet the West didn’t do that! How come?! This results in all sorts of heretical thoughts, you know. Either the West is not Omnipotent – they can’t do with Putin what they (allegedly) do all the time with various “tin-pot dictatorships”. Or Putin is not a kleptocarat and when he is talking about “raising Russia from the knees” he is not bluffing, he is not playing “hard to get” vis-à-vis West – he actually means every word he says in public. Finally, the third and most dangerous thought – that there are no “Putin’s villas” or billions of dollars hidden in Roldugin’s cello. Then it will just highly that the Priesthood of the punditocracy is full of shit, that they are just a bunch of cheap shills and pressitudes, and that the expression “Fake News” is all about them.

        Heresy – heresy all of that!

        And this tendency of unthinking acceptance of the Dogma has much broader consequences. I still read postings on various forums from the people who sincerely believe that “Trump is Putin’s bootlicker” or “Flynn was taking Kremlin’s shilling!”. These people (self-described “liberals” and believers in “common human values”) pose as the “intellectual elite”, nothing like plebeian rednecks and blue collar racist who voted for “Orange Mussolini” (c). None of them, naturally, utilizes even minimal required brainpower to ponder over Dogma.

        Say, you believe that “Russia elected Trump”. Okay, then it means that a “country masquerading as a gas station” (c), with the economy “size of Italy” (c), which “produces nothing” (c) screwed over the Exceptional Nation, and the most powerful country in the world. How’s that? How’s the feeling to be screwed by Russia – an opponent, your priesthood spent decades to establish, and then to diss and belittle? That FSB (obligatory – “former KGB”) proved itself more powerful than the entire word-soup of the intelligence agencies of the Bastion of Democracy? You know, those agencies that are famous worldwide for staging coups, “revolutions”, psy-ops and bugging world leaders phones? Or that “Kremlin Propaganda tools” (c) of RT and Sputnik managed what CNN, MSNBC, CBS, and virtually every single mainstream Media outlet FAILED to accomplish, i.e. brainwash the American public in the right direction? And that they did it having a tiny fraction of these mastodons budget. How come? What, money now is not everything? Then all this crowing about Russia having less money than the West is pointless. Or, maybe, they did nothing? Then the chief accusation about “Russian meddling in elections” (c) crumbles.

        But even if ignore all of the above (which they do), the key question remain – why are you not revolting? C’mon, you are spitting with indignation, that you have “Siberian Candidate” in the White House. Basically, you are saying that current POTUS is illegitimate one. Then you, as a citizen, is not bound by this “illegitimate regime”. Go ahead – stop paying taxes! Ignore the police – they are all just lackeys of the “New Hitler” anyway! Take your gun (you have one, do you?) and start the Resistance.

        None will do that. Because its one thing to kvetch before a monitor and your personal safe bubblespace of likeminded kvetchers on the Net – and, as they say in Odessa, “entirely another difference” when you (personally – you) Have To Do Something. So you cope with that either not thinking (the easiest way) or by ignoring these thoughts, while hypocritically carry on with bitching and moaning.


  3. Russia, he says, ‘has a unique quality; its ruling elite and its people strongly reject domination of the international system by any one power.

    Unique quality? Lol. Who was that British character who said: ‘the problem with these international forums is that they tend to attract foreigners’?


    1. Thank you for providing this articele for reference.

      “The first part of the article traces how, since 1991, a story about greatness centred on being part of contemporary European civilization…”

      An extremly novel AND short lived sentiment that started during the Perestroika among the usual crowd of always kvetching dissidents and came crashing down by… 1993 for sure. Soviet Union did not base it’s narrative of Greatness on belonging to some made up construct of “Europeness”. It based it on belinging to the Socialist Camp. Only so-called Russian lierals invented the notion that to be Great one has to belong to the Racially Superior European Civilization, and to beling to one you have to do everything the West tells you to do.

      “The former story spelled cooperation with Europe and the West”

      Translation: a tenure of Mr. Kozyrev aka “Mr. Yes” as the Foreign Minister of RF, where all key foreign pilicy interests were surrendered to the West.

      “where the latter spells confrontation”

      Translation: Rusia embraced slogan Having Balls Matter

      “The second part argues that Russia’s superiority complex is unsustainable. It is hard to see how, in the face of the formative structural pressure of the state system, Russia will be able to sustain its superiority complex.”

      Translation: Our Western partners wish the destruction of Russia.

      “A state that does not order itself in such a way that it may either gain recognition as a Great Power by forcing its way and/or by being emulated by others, is unlikely to maintain that status.”

      That’s… What the hell is this?!

      The rest is just propaganda drivel.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. ” *I turn to the well-documented case of the nationalist entrepreneur Aleksandr Dugin, not necessarily because he himself is particularly influential where foreign policy-making is concerned, but because his work in bringing together disparate groups and ideas is symptomatic of the streamlining of statist and nationalist stories into the overarching xenophobic nationalist story about Russian superiority vis-à-vis Europe that went on to marginalize the liberal story.* ”

      The author has created a fabulous Russia (in which local loony Dugin defines foreign policy), not existing in reality. A good method of writing scientific papers


  4. I have read articles by Dmitri Trenin
    And unlike mr Robinson I am not impressed. His work brings to mind the phrase “Whoever pays the piper calls the tune”.
    I put him in that category of Russians who sell there services to the various think tanks. The fact they are Russian is largely irrelevant – they are in service of institutions with particular agendas.


  5. Kleptocracy? Over there, in Russia? A terrible thing, I’m sure.

    However, take the ‘subprime mortgage crisis’ of 2007-2009. Wide-spread well-coordinated well-organized corruption of all western financial institutions, followed by the inevitable crush, followed by a trillion dollar government bailout (that’s just in the US, not counting all other bailouts): politicians brought to power by banks, pay back, to their sponsors, trillions of public dollars, while completely ignoring endless foreclosures (still continuing today), bankruptcies, homelessness (tent cities) and other kinds of hardship among the general population.

    Tsk. I guess nothing to see here, just liberal democracy together with human rights and free markets being understandably messy…


  6. the overarching xenophobic nationalist story about Russian superiority vis-à-vis Europe

    That’s not true. I haven’t followed Dugin for a couple of years now, but I’ve read his stuff before, and there’s no ‘Russian superiority’ in it. On the contrary, he forcefully rejects any cultural superiority. His idea (which I like) is radical cultural relativism. There’s Russian culture, Americans culture, Kalahari bushmen culture, and that’s fine: they are all equal, don’t judge, live and let live. I don’t see what’s so loony about that.


  7. I am not a particular fan of those ritualistic 5 minutes of hating Russia either (to be interspersed every half hour or so) to maintain sacred handshakeablyness. I actually think it debases whoever does it. Of course, my financial livelihood is not based on being handshakeable, so it is very easy for me to call out people on that.


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