Book review: Dealing with the Russians

‘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 It is time for the ‘retirement of the worn-out and out-of-date repetitions, and the tired clichés and template phrases that currently dominate the public policy lexicon.’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.’

monaghan

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 It is founded on outdated analogies of the Cold War and Munich/Hitler, but these are entirely inappropriate for understanding the contemporary international environment.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.

16 thoughts on “Book review: Dealing with the Russians”

  1. It seems to me, everything is much simpler.

    Obviously, Russia is a threat to the US of A — see the 1992 “Wolfowitz doctrine”, where it stated directly. Consequently, Russia is also a threat to the major protectorates of the US, euphemistically described as “Euro-Atlantic community”. The rest is propaganda, and demonizing the enemy is a trivial matter.

    If he wants a different approach, better understanding, peace, love, harmony and bubble gum, then what he needs to question are the underlying assumptions, the root cause. For the US, it’s the basic imperial strategies a-la “Wolfowitz doctrine”, and for the “Euro-Atlantic community” it’s their acceptance of American domination.

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    1. Very harsh obit, though possibly well deserved. I never met him. He was my supervisor’s supervisor. I don’t know the full story, but my supervisor made it clear that she had not gone on well with Stone.

      My only other connection with him was my article in ‘War in History’ in 2015, “The pre-war origins of Russia’s defeats in 1914 and 1915. Re-examining Norman Stone’s Eastern Front”. In this, I demolished some of the more contentious theses Stone produced in his best-known book.

      So maybe not a great historian. But he wrote entertaining op-eds in the Sunday Times, I’ll grant him that.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. interesting, KB, both the author it feels and Stone’s own obituary or obituary post script on Edward Hallett Carr on LRB in 1983, who was as Evanssuggests his patron and mentor at Cambridge. (ß)

      Thanks, I like this type of asides more then Lytt’s by now rather easily foreseeable responses. They still irritate me though.

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  2. In his final paragraphs Professor approaches dangerously close to the heart of the matter, but then, naturally, rushes back from the precipice of the Abyss, which proximity alone began to sap his ideological resolve and sunny Western liberal disposish. Mao Cheng Ji writes all right and obvious things, but commits a mortal unhandshakable sin of mentioning the Wolfowitz doctrine – meaning that he will be ignored by “proper people”.

    The call to look for the root causes is very laudable, but often more than not is carried out in “7 blind men and an elephant” fashion. “Blind men” are also “biased men”, some of whom, using their other senses instead of sight (e.g., olfactory organs) deliberately position themselves at poor elephant’s derrière, perform (time and again – to the thunderous applause and approval of the Enlightened Western Public ™) an act of amateur colonoscopy and proclaim: “Behold! That’s the essence of the Elephant!”. Sometimes, the Elephants becomes annoyed – or enraged and tries to stomp on the irritant. Biased Blind Men promptly call for help from the professionals whose job is to kill all sorts of animals for fun and profit. That’s my allegory to the Western Russia analysis.

    No, instead of biased talk about “root causes” or “how to deal with [Outsiders X/Y/Z]”, these authors in their books should finally start asking the ur-question – how to deal with ourselves?

    Professor Robinson writes:

    “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… You can have more and better experts, but if they’re saying something politically unwelcome, it probably won’t make much difference.”

    He also wrote in the same blogpost:

    “At some point, though, we’re going to have go one step further.”

    ^This. You said “A”, Professor – how about saying “B” and then the rest of the alphabet? Okay, here’s a hint. Try to answer the question – “who are you?”. Who is Monaghan? Who are these “experts” and “Russia studying academia?”. Here’s another hint:

    “The evidence suggests that foreign policymakers do not seek insight from scholars, but rather support for what they already want to do. As Desch quotes a World War II U.S. Navy anthropologist, “the administrator uses social science the way the drunk uses a lamppost, for support rather than illumination.” Scholars’ disinclination to be used in this way helps explain more of the distance.

    It also explains the rise of think tanks, which are more pliant than academics but provide similar marketing support. As Benjamin Friedman and I wrote in a 2015 article on the subject, think tanks undertake research with an operational mindset: that is, “the approach of a passenger riding shotgun who studies the map to find the ideal route, adjusts the engine if need be, and always accepts the destination without protest.”

    As former senator Olympia Snowe once put it, “you can find a think tank to buttress any view or position, and then you give it the aura of legitimacy and credibility by referring to their report.” Or consider the view of Rory Stewart, now a member of parliament in the UK, but once an expert on Afghanistan who was consulted on the Afghan surge but opposed it:

    “It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, “I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?” And you say, “I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.” And they say, “No, no, that bit’s already been decided—the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.” And you say, “Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.” And then they say, “We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart, and he says…”

    Or look at how policymakers themselves define relevance. Stephen Krasner, an academic who became a policymaker, lamented the uselessness of much academic security studies literature because “[e]ven the most convincing empirical findings may be of no practical use because they do not include factors that policy makers can manipulate.”

    The explicit claim here is that for scholarship to be of any practical use, it must include factors that policymakers can manipulate. This reflects a strong bias toward action, even in relatively restrained presidencies.”
    – Justin Logan, “Cult of the Irrelevant: National Security Eggheads and Academics

    I remember when you posted your presentation and the following Q&A session on the topic of the history of Russian conservative thought, professor. The questions being asked amounted to

    a) Present day hot-button issues (aka “how Russia is baaaaad”)

    and

    b) To what degree these conservative thinkers influence modern Russia (aka “How Russia has always been baaaaad”)

    None (NO ONE) of them, precious gentle students in the heartland of the West, ever thought that you just did what any scientist have to do – carried out a research to further humanity’s collective body of knowledge about us and the universe. No – they, these precious children, want the real life application from the “Russian studies”, i.e. it must help them wage the War. You, in this regard, thoroughly failed them – and other, full grown, and even old and senile children that more often than not call all the shots.

    Or, screw it, TL;DR version – Professor, why can’t you just admit that you as a member of intelligentsia belong to the strata whose function is to serve the ruling class? That, despite all the illusions of the privilege and self-importance, no, you, white-collar Western intellectual mass, are not “the power” – you are hired workers, hired to deliver a preset result. Maybe after developing a certain conscience about yourself and your real status, you might then proceed to talk about how the policymaking really works or how you (general “you”) have so little impact on it despite your shiny Ivory Towers and data stuffed brains.

    P.S. Btw, case in study. Did Boris answer your letter? Do you plan to write another one to him soon?

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  3. Thank you for the review professor.

    I remember that Roger McDermott wrote that the idea ‘hybrid warfare’ is alien to Russian defence thinking.

    Another thing I think that maybe is missing – a bit adventuresome and without proof from the words of very high ranking policy makers but with some from lower ranking persons – is that perhaps some of our thinking about Russia is us projecting our aggressive and plotting tendencies onto the Russians.

    I will not pretend for a second that the Russians are either passive or angelic. However, since as the book you review and others have pointed out a lot of Western concepts are projected onto Russian thinking and actions that don’t have much basis in how the Russians actually think, perhaps we also project some of our thinking onto them. In particular with what is happening in Iran and Venezuela, these seem to be actions very much in line with what we accuse the Russians of doing.

    Finally, I should also note that I think a huge factor in lowering the quality of Russia experts is exemplified by a Soviet joke “What is the difference between western Russia experts and western China experts? The China experts love China!” I myself was motivated to study Russia for what you might loosely call Military Industrial Complex reasons, but I conceived of the Russians less as an enemy to be feared and loathed and rather a country and people to be studied in its own right, and I also was moved by a profound respect for the people and the Army that saved Europe from the night of fascism. And as I read people like Herspring and Glantz while comparing them to others such as Anthony Beevor or any number of German officers writing about the Soviet Army, I realised much of the popular history, even taught history – which is what most politicians will be aware of to the extent they are aware of history – was riddled with Patrick Armstrong wrote in THE FIRE BELOW “a series of memes.”

    To conclude this overly long comment, one example will do. One the one hand the Russians and Russian defense policymakers have a perverse pride in the number of dead of WWII. To both William Odom and Herspring Russian military interviewees said a variation of “the value of human life is not as high in Russia as it is in the West.” One the other hand, post-Stalin Soviet Armed Forces doctrine aimed to use firepower and materiel to cut down on casualties as far as possible, and the Soviet Army invested a lot in its medical infrastructure. In the Afghan War the 40th Army was supplied with improved body armour to reduce fatalities. These are not actions consistent with a set of policymakers utterly indifferent or uncaring to human life.

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    1. “On the one hand the Russians and Russian defense policymakers have a perverse pride in the number of dead of WWII.”

      We are not. Stop your gratitious Russophobia masquerading as “respect”, dewittbourchier.

      “On the other hand, post-Stalin Soviet Armed Forces doctrine aimed to use firepower and materiel to cut down on casualties as far as possible, and the Soviet Army invested a lot in its medical infrastructure.”

      Fucking bullshit in lieu of “Stalin drowned the [racially superior proper European] enemy in [subhuman Asiatic] corpses” narrative. One has just to analyze Red and then Soviet Army battle doctire, after action reports and results of various engagement during the war.

      It’s just that other countries facing Hitler on their soil (with some rare exceptions) did not have to fight for their survavial as human species, opting for a comfortable civilized occupation instead. Thus idea to sacrifice – continiously – their own people in order for the rest to stay alive had never faced them. E.g. – Soviet Army’s Posnan’s offensive operation or, even erlier, near complete annihilation of 40-50 “Panthers” taskforce sent to relieve of Ternopol’s siege – all with minimal casualties to own side. Or just one phrase – “Kessel von Halbe”.

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      1. My comment as is stands. One of these reasons Khrushchev dismissed Zhukov was that Khrushchev believed Zhukov was too willing to accept casualties in a future war, and Khrushchev wanted a Marshal who would focus more on developing a doctrine designed to minimise casualties as far as possible without compromising the overall operational and strategic effectiveness of the Soviet Armed Forces.

        Also I would highly recommend you consider things such as the Ardeatine Massacre and Oradour Sur Glane before you call German occupations civilized. They were anything but, they were deeply traumatic for the occupied countries and in places like France and Italy resistance grew and grew. In both countries rations the Germans gave out were barely above the levels they gave to Poles. This is hardly ‘civilised.’ It is barbarous.

        It just means that what they did in the Soviet Union was so much worse.

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      2. “One of these reasons Khrushchev dismissed Zhukov was that Khrushchev believed Zhukov was too willing to accept casualties in a future war, and Khrushchev wanted a Marshal who would focus more on developing a doctrine designed to minimise casualties as far as possible without compromising the overall operational and strategic effectiveness of the Soviet Armed Forces. “

        Source for that claim? The meme about “Zhukov the butcher” is way too convenient (for existing Western biases about “un-humane Russkis”), but severely lacking in facts. Do you even know what Zhukov really meant by his “advance through a minefield” comment to Eisenhower that since then mutated into something unbelievable?

        “In both countries rations the Germans gave out were barely above the levels they gave to Poles. This is hardly ‘civilised.’ It is barbarous.”

        […]

        Wow. First world problems in a nutshell.

        “It just means that what they did in the Soviet Union was so much worse.”

        Because the Wermacht received prior instructions relieving them from all restrictions, d’uh! Since my lack of sympathy for the Euros, who spent mere days resisting and then, yes, had it easy under occupation.

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  4. 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.

    Related. Somewhat. Today’s scheduled events for the language program I’m attending.

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    1. Of course, I can hardly complain, having had a career in intelligence myself!! Still, it’s sad that that seems to be the one available career track. What about business, etc?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thus far only one hour-long session on building careers with international companies. To which, if I’m not mistaken, the speaker showed up thirty minutes late.

        Liked by 1 person

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