Here goes with another long book review (of what is actually quite a short work, which I read in a single afternoon). But bear with it. As so often, the book, while not revealing much of value about Russia, does provide valuable insight into how Russia is viewed by its Western critics.
Keir Giles of Chatham House in the United Kingdom wants to enlighten us about Russia, and has written a book, Moscow Rules, to that end. A clue to his thesis lies in the subtitle: What Drives Russia to Confront the West. According to Giles, the problem in East-West relations is that Russia is ‘confronting’ the West. Why? Because, basically, Russians aren’t like us, they’re ‘un-European’. They’re innately ‘expansionist’, distrustful of the West, untruthful, and authoritarian. The West should rid of itself of any delusions that it can live in peace with Russia, and instead focus on deterrence and containment.
Giles notes that Westerners have been surprised by Russian behaviour under Vladimir Putin. But they shouldn’t be. One can see a ‘remarkable consistency of specific features of Russian life over time,’ meaning that Russia today is just an extension of Russia in the past. The problem, in short, isn’t Vladimir Putin, it’s what one might call ‘eternal Russia’. As Giles says, ‘throughout the centuries, Russia’s leaders and population have displayed patterns of thought and action and habit that are both internally consistent and consistently alien to those of the West.’ Russia, claims Giles, is ‘a culture apart’, and ‘Russia is not, and never has been, part of the West, and thus does not share its assumptions, goals, and values.’
So what distinguishes Russia from the West?
First, Giles focuses on Russia’s desire for respect on the international scene. Russia, he says, considers itself a great power, and wants to be recognized as such. I have to say that I don’t see what is particularly Russian about this, but Giles has an answer of sorts: unlike other countries, who understand that respect can be earned in many ways, ‘Russia equates respect with fear’. He continues:
Reaching international agreement through compromise and cooperation that goes beyond direct self-interest is not in the spirit of Russian public diplomacy. … The instinctive rejection of cooperative solutions is reinforced by the belief that all great nations achieve security through the creation and assertion of raw power. In this view, one sides’ gain is automatically the other side’s loss, and win-win situations are not envisaged. … Russia’s belief that insecurity of others makes Russia itself more secure … implies that to realize its great-power status, Russia must necessarily diminish the power and status of competitors.
These are quite dramatic claims. One wonders what the evidence is for them. Unfortunately, Giles doesn’t produce any. He appeals to history, but history actually points in an opposite direction. Russia has repeatedly entered into cooperative alliances (the Franco-Russian entente for starters), has signed large numbers of international treaties (including a whole swath of Cold War era agreements), and has worked together with multiple other countries in a friendly, cooperative fashion (current trading relations with China and other countries; membership in multilateral organizations such as the World Trade Organization, Eurasian Economic Union, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and so on and so forth). Giles’ thesis is simplistic to the point of absurdity. It’s also completely impractical. No state could actually view the world as Giles describes it and engage in meaningful international relations.
Next, Giles attacks the Russians for another allegedly innate aspect of their character: expansionism. According to the Chatham House expert,
continued expansion by direct conquest or colonization has been Russia’s default option since the foundation of the Muscovite state. … The rationale and claim to legitimacy for expansion may change over time, but the ambition to expand has remained consistent.
Once again Giles fails to provide supporting evidence for such a sweeping claim. For sure, there have been some periods of massive expansion in Russian history, but there have also been periods in which Russia has been content to sit within its borders as well as periods of contraction. And even if the claim is true, it’s hard once again to see how it makes Russia so very different from the West (which Giles never defines). The British Empire covered a quarter of the globe. The United States expanded from 13 colonies on the eastern coast of America all the way across the continent, and then overseas to Hawaii and the Philippines. The United States now has military bases in over 100 countries around the world. Who’s the real expansionist?
Giles is perhaps aware there’s a problem here, so he comes up with the following riposte. Sure, other states were imperialist, but they’ve got over it. Russia hasn’t. Russia, he says, ‘has not traveled as far along the path of postimperial normalization as countries like the United Kingdom, France, or Portugal had a quarter century after the end of empire.’ Thus, ‘there is little in mainstream Russian political consciousness to curb Moscow’s relentless instinct to expand the area over which it exerts control.’
Again, this is a highly dubious assertion. The United Kingdom has fought more overseas wars than any other country in the world since 1945. Just in the past 20 years, its troops have seen combat in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and are currently assisting the Saudis in Yemen. Its defence minister talks of reversing the country’s withdrawal from ‘east of Suez’ and of building military bases in Asia and the Caribbean. Is it really true that Brits have rid themselves of their imperial mentality? Methinks not.
The next element of the Russian character Giles identifies is paranoia – ‘the unchanging assumption that other states are inherently adversarial.’ After many pages telling us that Russia is innately expansive, this is rather ironic. As proof, Giles mentions the EU’s Eastern Partnership Progam, which he says,
was perceived as a signal to Moscow that the West intended to exert influence in Russia’s natural domain. Actions that have nothing to do with Russia are seen as hostile because in Moscow the notion that they could be conceived and planned without taking Russia into account is difficult to grasp. … In the absence of any rational – to Russia – explanation for EU interest in Russia’s neighbourhood, or U.S. interest in Ukraine, the only remaining explanation is hostile intent toward Russia – and Russia acts on this understanding. … Interest by the United States, EU, and NATO in cooperation with Russian neighbors is not anti-Russian.
The problem with this is that there is some evidence that the creators of the Eastern Partnership Program – Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski – very much intended it as ‘anti-Russian’, seeing it as means of pulling former Soviet states out of Russia’s orbit and scuppering Russia’s efforts to establish the Eurasian Economic Union. Giles, though, is having none of this. Russian suspiciousness is ‘perennial … it is deeply ingrained in Russian thinking about security and Russia’s position in the world … every trivial error of action or message by the West is taken as evidence that Russia’s assumption is correct.’
I especially like the phrase ‘trivial error’. I guess by that, Giles would mean things like invading Iraq, or overthrowing Gaddafi and sowing chaos in North Africa. Trivial indeed!
Having dealt with external affairs, Giles next examines how Russia’s views of the world are shaped by characteristics of its internal life. What follows is a succession of clichés which Giles backs up with references to the likes of 16th century English traveller Giles Fletcher and 19th French visitor Astolphe, Marquis de Custine, whom one can hardly describe as the most neutral of observers.
Russia’s political tradition, we are told is ‘despotic government’ – ‘a political system that not only differed fundamentally from that of Western Europe from its very beginnings but also diverged further through failing to develop over time.’ Giles quotes Russian philosopher and sociologist Aleksandr Akhiezer as saying, ‘Russia is populated by an archaic people with a peasant consciousness, who have no need of a state, only of a czar and a few of his minions.’ Russian society is founded on the ‘subordination of individualism to the interests of the group … throughout the centuries the ideas of legality and liberty, of the rule of law and the rights of the individual, have been largely outside of Russian experience.’
Russians don’t value the individual, Giles adds, as shown by ‘Russia’s operations in Syria, where both the final objective and the means used to get there are repellent to Western sensitivities.’ Russian leaders also engage in foreign adventurism in order to boost domestic legitimacy, we are told.
It is a critical point for understanding how Russia differs from the West. It is simply that when describing most other European countries, analysts and commentators do not need to engage in this discussion of the legitimacy of power – because it is unquestionably legitimate to start with.
It reads like a history of Russia written by Richard Pipes. What makes it appealing is that there is an element of truth to it, but it’s also grossly simplistic. Historians have poked serious holes in Pipes’ theory of the ‘patrimonial state’, while there are sociologists who argue that Russia’s real problem is not collectivism but rampant individualism. Giles doesn’t provide any supporting evidence for the claim that Russian leaders wage war to boost domestic legitimacy nor for the claim that Western leaders don’t do likewise. And his description of Russian military methods in Syria ignores the equally massive damage done by America and its allies in places such as Raqqa and Mosul.
That’s not the end of the exaggerations and simplifications, however. Giles adds another one. Russians are inveterate liers. As he puts it:
The West does not always fully understand the power and effectiveness of Russian willingness to tell a lie that both the speaker and the listener know is a lie. …[In Russia,] deception is an established, acknowledged, and in part accepted component of political culture. … [This] provides the background for what is often perceived as the fundamental duplicity of Russia’s stated goals in international relations.
In contrast to ‘Russian leaders’ … habitual mendacity’, claims Giles, ‘Western politicians lie as an exception. … Russian politicians and officials lie by default.’ But do they? As so often, Giles provides no data to support this assertion. I have seen analyses of the speeches of American politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Presidents Trump and Obama which calculate what percentage of their statements were untrue. To back up his claim, Giles would need to produce data from similar analyses of Russian politicians’ words. He doesn’t. He just states it as fact. Personally, from my own studies of Putin’s speeches, I rather doubt that you will find significantly more untruth than in Western leaders’ words. What you certainly won’t see is evidence that he and other Russian politicians ‘lie by default’. The claim is almost certainly untrue.
Giles concludes his book by arguing that the prospects for change in Russia are slim, at least in the short to medium term. Western analysts pay too much attention to members of Russia’s liberal fringe, he says, and so exaggerate the extent of opposition to the regime (for once I concur with him). Putin’s eventual departure from the scene won’t change matters, as the problem lies much deeper in what he describes as ‘the key to the Russian enigma …the toxic blend of paranoia, delusion, isolation, and inability to adjust to the notion of cooperation for the common good.’ Opportunities to improve relations may arise, but ‘These opportunities are rare and depend entirely on internal Russian circumstances.’
In other words, current East-West tensions are entirely Russia’s fault and depend on Russia changing. Since that is unlikely to happen, the West should stop kidding itself that it can enjoy a positive relationship with Russia. Instead, the West needs to develop the ‘political will to use hard and soft power to defend boundaries and values … Political will also requires a demonstrable readiness to resort to force in this defense, and under no circumstances to allow Moscow to become convinced that it can act without consequences.’ Giles concludes, ‘Russia’s traditional and persistent respect for brute military force as the key determinant of national status and the right to assert national interests means that the United States and Western alliances must respond in kind.’
One can see why many in the West find this message attractive. It tells them Russia is fully to blame for our mutual differences; that the West is entirely ‘innocent’ (Giles’ own word); that any mistakes it may have made are ‘trivial’; that the root of the problem lies in Russia’s innate difference from the West, including its inherent aggressiveness, paranoia, and lack of respect for individuals; and that the West must therefore take a hard line, and invest more in deterrence and coercion, including, one assumes, military spending. But while attractive, it’s also rather dangerous. It’s based on oversimplified analyses of Russia’s past and present, exaggerates differences between Russia and the West (which nowadays includes many Eastern European countries which have no more historical experience of democracy and so on than Russia), and displays an extraordinary lack of self-awareness. It leads to recommendations which are likely to intensify conflict as much as remedy it.
Towards the end of his book, Keir Giles laments the neglect of Russian studies in the West and the consequent lack of understanding of Russia. Reading this book, one has to agree that he’s at least right about that.