Selecting the myths and misconceptions about Russia to include in this collection was challenging. There is no shortage of views on Russia that are commonly accepted but nonetheless confused, misguided or misinformed, sometimes dangerously so; and most analysts nurture their own personal lists of bêtes noires from among them. However, this paper is not about ‘wanting to be right’ about isolated data points. It is about correcting those myths that lead to bad policy.
All of the authors of this volume could have written on a number of different topics, and the resulting selection is only a sample of the wide range of firmly established but fundamentally incorrect ideas about Russia with which they have to grapple in the course of their professional lives. Other candidates for inclusion that in the end did not make the cut were that ‘Russia engages in aggression abroad to divert attention from pressures at home’ (untrue – Russia has its own foreign policy objectives, regardless of domestic politics) or that ‘there can be no security in Europe without Russia, and that there are no major world problems which can be solved without Russia’ (again no – where Russia is involved in a situation, it is almost invariably a substantial part of the problem, not the solution).
This is in no way to suggest that people should not be allowed to say these things – it is a vital feature of a democracy that a wide range of genuine and honest opinion should be allowed to flourish in open debate. Our point is a different one: that fallacious propositions, especially but not only those devised and inseminated by our adversaries, should not be so widely embedded in the foundations of Western decision-making. The one aspect that all of the selected myths have in common is that our authors have observed them leading directly to policy errors by Western actors in dealing with Russia.
And it is the action that results from these mistaken views that matters. Collecting and dissecting this cross-section of errors has not been an exercise in intellectual vanity; instead, it is intended for a very specific purpose. The authors have repeatedly found that engaging in serious policy discussions on Russia requires first challenging unhelpful but firmly entrenched preconceptions. These present obstacles that must be cleared so that Russia can be considered on the basis of reality, rather than on the basis of mental constructs that are comfortable for Western observers but entirely misleading. In a strange parallel, this process of breaking through barriers to a meaningful discussion resembles a common experience of European and US officials in interactions with their Russian counterparts, where a precondition for serious conversation is so often dealing with the disinformation, misdirection, bluster and bluff that precede it.
Considering all of these observations in the round allows us to extract a number of common themes. These can be distilled into a set of 10 foundational principles essential for achieving better results in managing the West’s relationship with Moscow.
10 principles for the West for dealing more rationally and effectively with Russia
- Adopt strategies based on an honest appraisal of the evidence of Russia’s capabilities, intentions and actions. Do not adopt them through putting hope before experience, or because plausible alternatives are uncomfortable, or on the basis of the myths debunked in this report.
- Remember that the Kremlin is not the West’s friend. Well-connected members of the Russian regime enjoy the West’s luxury resorts, legal systems, banks, schools, high-end properties and so on; but this does not mean they share its politics, values or respect for the rule of law.
- Do not accommodate or appease Russia in return for assumed benefits. These will not materialize. In particular, avoid the temptation to seek a grand bargain in relations with Russia, or a major geopolitical realignment. So-called ‘realist’ policies simply play into Russia’s hands.
- Expect to be disappointed by Russia. Experience consistently demonstrates the futility of treating Russia as a reliable partner acting in good faith. Expect Russia to violate any agreement entered into with it when this suits Russia’s interests, unless there is substantial leverage to enforce the terms of the agreement in question.
- Don’t give up. Keep the pressure on Russia by being clear about core Western interests and refusing to accept hostile actions that challenge them, and keep faith that Western political systems, sanctions and other responses work in the long term. Adopt the principle that each ‘unacceptable’ action should be met with an equal or asymmetric reaction.
- Accept that an unfriendly relationship with Russia is appropriate at present and dictated by the realities we face. Indeed, a good relationship with Russia would be highly inappropriate in the contemporary context. Russia’s conditions for ‘friendship’ invariably come at a cost that is damaging to our interests and those of others.
- Place security above economic gains. Any reduction in business with Russia is far outweighed by the costs of failing to deter Russia from undermining or attacking Western nations, societies, citizens and core interests. There are times when security and economic imperatives will come into conflict, and this will entail some financial sacrifice. Financial investment only builds political bridges when political interests coincide.
- Resist the temptation to compromise interests and values in pursuit of cooperation, even while recognizing that cooperation may still be possible in a small handful of areas. A similar principle applies to dialogue. Neither cooperation nor dialogue is as important as understanding the fundamental differences between Russia and the West.
- Expect noisy, angry and vituperative responses from Moscow as the price to be paid for defending Western interests. Such responses must not act as deterrents to policy, as that would constitute successful blackmail.
- Build expertise. The West needs to reconstitute a far larger and more expert pool of Russia specialists to ensure trustworthy analysis of Russia’s actions, and to prevent the development of still further myths.
These common-sense principles derive from the authors’ experience of seeing how the application of policy based on erroneous assumptions has repeatedly resulted in failure. Trade has trumped security, a cooperative relationship with Russia has been – and still is – assumed to be the default state, dialogue is seen as an end in itself, expertise has been allowed to atrophy, and so on. The 10 principles listed above are, then, the result not just of analysis and experience but of simple logic.
All the same, it is highly unlikely that the publication of this report will end the conversations around the myths it exposes. Many of the myths have become embedded in the Western discourse as articles of faith, and will not easily be dislodged. But the authors of this collection have shown how the patterns of repetitive failure in engagement with Russia are founded to some extent in readily identifiable false premises that have taken root in policy and analytical communities outside Russia. In challenging such thinking, the authors hope not only to reduce the analytical bandwidth that needs to be expended on repeatedly tackling the same misconceptions, but also to aid policymakers in developing options for engaging with Russia that have a much greater chance of success.
This success is of course also dependent on Western countries examining themselves. Their ability both to defend themselves and to project long-term influence is critically dependent on strengthening not only the resilience of their institutions and societies, but also that of their reputations – nurturing and rebuilding the credibility of their democratic systems. Most importantly of all, it is crucial for the West to avoid belief in myths in its self-appraisal as much as in its assessment of Russia.
Myths about Russia endure not only as other myths do, passed down through oral and written tradition. They flourish in policy debates like invasive weeds – ones that not only propagate naturally but also benefit from malicious and regular re-seeding and fertilization at the hands of the Kremlin’s extended network of messengers, minions and tools. Their complete eradication is as improbable as the arrival of a liberal, democratic and internationally responsible Russia. Nevertheless, patient and persistent weeding brings us steadily closer to the ideal croquet lawn of clear-sighted and objective policy analysis, undistorted by false premises and comfortable delusions. It is the authors’ hope that this volume can be put to durable use as a powerful weedkiller.