‘How do you deal with a problem like the Russians?’ It’s a question which seems to dominate public discourse nowadays, with the Russian Federation elevated to the status of Enemy Number One in much of the Western world. Oxford University’s Andrew Monaghan has an answer – ‘not like we’ve done so far’. In his last book, The New Politics of Russia, he attacked the mainstream Western view of Russia as ‘narrow, simplistic, and repetitive’. Now, in a new book Dealing with the Russians, he lambasts the Euro-Atlantic security community for its approach to the ‘Russia challenge’. ‘The problem Russia poses is being misdiagnosed and the responses, therefore, poorly framed,’ he argues. It is time for the ‘retirement of the worn-out and out-of-date repetitions, and the tired clichés and template phrases that currently dominate the public policy lexicon.’ What we need, says Monaghan, is ‘fresh thinking.’
To make his case, Monaghan frames the book’s problem in two parts: first, how to interpret its nature (is Russia a threat? and if so, how big, and of what sort?); and second, how to respond to it (dialogue or deterrence?). He then rounds this off with a discussion of what he thinks needs to be done to improve matters. This last section is directed primarily at a British audience, but most of what Monaghan says could apply equally to other major Western states.
As far as the first of these issues is concerned, Monaghan is clear that, ‘Russia poses a major challenge to the Euro-Atlantic community.’ He claims, however, that the nature of that challenge is misunderstood – ‘The challenge is based, though, not on an expansive, aggressive Russian plan, but instead on a series of contemporary (if long running) policy disagreements that are emphasized by different understandings of today’s international environment.’
Clearly, the responses required to combat an ‘expansive, aggressive Russian plan’ are rather different to those required to resolve ‘different understandings of the international environment.’ Interpreting the problem correctly is thus a matter of some significance. Unfortunately, says Monaghan, most Western analyses of the ‘Russia challenge’ get it badly wrong. ‘Thinking about Russia is stuck in the twentieth century,’ he writes. It is founded on outdated analogies of the Cold War and Munich/Hitler, but these are entirely inappropriate for understanding the contemporary international environment. We need to start thinking about the world today, says Monaghan, not the world of yesterday.
Another problem is that ‘Russia is conceptualized through ‘buzzwords and abstract labels’. As an example, Monaghan discusses the idea of ‘Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD)’, an idea which, he says, has ‘crossed the buzzword threshold’. A2/AD refers to efforts to ‘prevent or constrain the deployment of opposing forces into a given theater of operations and reduce their freedom of maneuver once in a theater,’ and it is often claimed that the Russian military has been expanding its A2/AD capabilities in the Baltic region so as to prevent NATO from deploying forces there in case of war. This supposedly seriously threatens European security. The problem with this idea, says Monaghan, is that ‘Russia has no new concept or doctrine that would correspond to Western understandings of A2/AD … A2/AD is a concept that is foreign to them. Thinking in these terms imposes a Western operational thought process onto the Russian one.’
Similarly, Monaghan denounces the entire industry which has developed in the past five years devoted to hyping the threat of Russia ‘hybrid war’. ‘Hybrid war’ is another baseless buzzword, he says ; it ‘does not relate to Russian concepts. … [It] is not a Russian construction – there is not a “Russian hybrid war” in the way it is conceived’. Talk of hybrid war produces ‘an inaccurate view of Russian defence and security thinking’, and ‘magnifies Russian capabilities, effectively asserting the omniscience and omnipotence of the Russian leadership’ (which, I suspect, is precisely the point!).
All in all, therefore, Monaghan concludes that thinking about the Russian threat ‘is in the grip of exhausted metaphorical shorthand … introducing shibboleths and myths – not to say fantasies – to the debate. …. This shorthand has thus introduced rigidity and dogma’. This is pretty stern stuff. One has to agree with Monaghan that we need some new thinking about the nature of the threat.
The same applies to thinking about how the West should respond to the Russian challenge. Too often this is reduced to a choice of two options – dialogue or deterrence. Both have their limitations. Given the depth of the disagreements between Russia and the West, Monaghan believes that it is very unlikely that dialogue will produce meaningful results. That leaves deterrence. But to deter effectively one has to know what it is one is deterring. That means having a proper understanding of the threat – i.e. of Russian intentions and capabilities. Unfortunately, instead of being analysed realistically, the threat is generally ‘framed as Russian foreign policy adventurism, an unprovoked strike from a clear blue sky’. Deterring fantasies isn’t of much value, but that’s what we seem intent on doing.
Monaghan concludes that ‘Neither dialogue nor deterrence is an end in itself.’ What is needed is a ‘broader strategy’. For that, ‘there is a need to develop a better understanding of Russian defence and security thinking.’ And that brings us to Monaghan’s main point of what we have to do to ‘deal with the Russians’ – we have to understand them better. And that requires us to open our minds to alternative points of view. He argues that the experience of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 showed the dangers of groupthink and the need for ‘real diversity of thought rather than shades of mainstream thinking’. Unfortunately at present,
Thinking about Russia … fails to understand the social, economic, political and cultural factors on the ground in Russia. Instead, as we have seen, there is a narrow, abstract and clichéd view of Russia. This has driven a narrative about Russia that has been … impervious to reasonable challenge. … important sections of established Russia expertise … are largely ignored.
From this, Monaghan concludes that the West needs ‘a coherent, sustained and thorough reinvigoration of Russia expertise … The point is that there is too little sophisticated expertise on Russia … and that which does exist is overwhelmed by simplistic and misguided jingoism.’
This is all very true. Monaghan’s critiques of Western perceptions of Russia are very apt. He deserves a lot of credit for having the courage to say all this, especially as in the current climate anybody who says this kind of thing is liable to find himself denounced as an ‘agent of influence’, ‘Russian proxy’, or ‘ Kremlin Trojan Horse’. But while Monaghan’s attacks on current Western thinking and policy are bang on the nail, his recommendations of what needs to be done instead are a little thin – strategy rather than tactics; and more investment in Russia expertise. The first is valid in any situation; the second, in my view, is somewhat problematic. Monaghan made the same recommendation in his last book. In my review, I cast doubt on it, noting that, ‘the problems we have in understanding Russia today appear to have more to do with the quality of analysis than the quantity of experts.’ I still think that’s a valid criticism. Simply churning out more Russia ‘experts’ won’t necessarily improve the quality of analysis, especially if education in things Russian is driven by demand from the military industrial complex. Furthermore, even if better analysis does result, that won’t necessarily produce better policy. There are already plenty of people in academia, business, and so on, who know Russia well and have balanced, sensible views about it, whom governments could consult if they wanted to. They don’t want to. Take a look at the list of witnesses to the relevant parliamentary select committees, and you’ll understand this soon enough. You can have more and better experts, but if they’re saying something politically unwelcome, it probably won’t make much difference.
In a sense, therefore, this book would be better titled How not to deal with the Russians since it’s stronger as a critique of existing policy than as a set of positive recommendations for a new one. I don’t want to make that sound too negative. The critique is excellent, and I’m well aware that this blog is guilty of much the same thing – lots of carping about all the nonsense which people are saying, but not much by way of positive proposals. There’s a good reason for that – the prevailing narrative is so strong that until something is done to demolish it, alternative policies are never going to get a hearing. At some point, though, we’re going to have go one step further.
To be fair to Monaghan, though, he says upfront at the start of his book that it aims ‘not so much to make specific policy recommendations about how to “deal with the Russians” … but to step back to make a bigger argument for a broader shift in terms of conceiving the nature of the challenge Russia poses.’ He achieves his aim, and for that we must thank him. It’s a shift which is long overdue.