Bear with a sore head

"Keir Giles suggests what the West’s policy towards Moscow should look like if it is to be guided by reality rather than hopes or a pretty dream"

Andrew Stuttaford

The key message underlying Keir Giles’s trenchant, persuasive and alarming Moscow Rules is that the idea of Russia as a part of the European family is an illusion. In fewer than 200 pages he pulls that notion to pieces and then suggests what the West’s policy towards Moscow should look like if it is to be guided by reality rather than hopes or a pretty dream.

Giles, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House, explains how Westerners are misled by geography (a portion of Russia is, after all, in Europe), language (Russians may use the same political terminology as their counterparts in the West, but they tend to mean very different things by it), and even appearance: “[T]he majority of [Russians] are outwardly indistinguishable from white members of the Euro-Atlantic community.” The misunderstanding may be deepened by, as Giles notes, the high visibility of a “Westernised” intelligentsia, whose views are not representative of the country as a whole. And there’s something else that I’d add to the pile of deceptive resemblances: The civilisations of both Russia and the West owe much to Christianity. Even the Soviet rejection of religion (based, in no small part, on the writings of a German, which is to say, a Western, philosopher) can be reread as another of the millenarian explosions that have long scarred European history. The distance between Anabaptist Münster and revolutionary Petrograd is not so very far.

The belief, against a great deal of evidence (a good selection of it neatly sketched out in this book), in the essential similarities between Russia and the West is helped, as Giles points out, from the way that “Western minds, especially liberal educated ones, rebel against national stereotypes. The taint of orientalism causes them to reject explanations for personal or national behaviours that are based on psychological constructs or worldviews that are specific to a given people or culture. The notion that a nation will behave in a given way because that is how it has always done is a hard sell in academic circles.”

But “the taint of orientalism” is not the only reason for Western reluctance to accept Russia for what it is. Elsewhere, Giles refers to the manner in which the West “and, in particular, Western Europe, [has] moved on to a postnationalist view of international relations”. That’s true enough, but the blandness of the wording (“moved on”) understates the extent to which this shift is based on a quasi-religious faith in “progress”, rather than any understanding of human nature or, beyond a cosy corner of Europe, how much of the world actually still works.

Russia’s perception of itself is, Giles maintains, “far from unique — plenty of nations have convinced themselves of their special destiny and birthright of leadership”. But, even if the West has now adopted a different interpretation of what that means, Russia has not (and, nor, I suspect, has, China, say, or India). Russia’s claim to great power status may be considerably less convincing than it was in Soviet or imperial times, but the West still needs to deal with its consequences, which can be summarised as a demand for “respect”. In this context that is a more loaded term, as Giles warns, than the English word implies. It conveys a sense that Russia should be feared too. Russia wants to be deferred to both globally (Barack Obama’s jibe that it was a “regional power” stung) and also with regard to its supposed right to control a sphere of influence in its neighbourhood.

And the way that Russia sees itself cannot, Giles argues, be wished away, or blamed on propaganda or, for that matter, on Vladimir Putin. Putin is “enacting, rather than inventing” long-term ambitions which resonate with “ordinary” Russians in a way that should not be underestimated (Giles is clearly not optimistic that Putin’s departure would mean a change for the better). “What has changed” and “dramatically” so is Russia’s “capability to achieve these ambitions”.

That’s not a comforting thought, given Russia’s resentment over the humiliations of the 1990s, its zero sum approach to international relations (something also well covered in this book), and, if necessary, its willingness to resort to violence. The best response, Giles asserts, is to accept that there are profound differences between Russia and the West that cannot be “reset” away, and then find a method to manage them. This will have to include defining “the boundaries of acceptable behaviour” and then policing them, a task that will require the West both to stick more closely together and to increase spending on the various varieties of hard power required to back up its stance.

With President Trump still prone to thinking aloud about Nato and too many European nations still unprepared to take their own defence seriously, that may be a tall order. Under the circumstances, sending a few copies of this book to Berlin and Washington DC would be a good plan.

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