Why do we think about Russia the way we do? What affects our inclination to regard its politics and foreign policy with broad approval, distaste, or anything in between? While there is a wide range of explanations for different and sharply contrasting opinions on the country, this report concerns the persistence of ideas that contradict or misconstrue the factual evidence. Simply put, a lot of views on Russia lack foundation and are plain wrong. For example, ‘Russia and the West are as “bad” as each other’ in asserting power extraterritorially and /or violating international law. ‘Economic sanctions don’t work, so it is pointless to pursue them in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.’ Such views not only are common in the media, but have been encountered by the authors of this volume in countless discussions over the years with policymakers and government officials. This report challenges the most entrenched and persistent myths and misconceptions about the Russian state’s agenda, and presents ideas to inform sounder decision-making.
Perfect objectivity is no more possible in analysing Russia than it is in the case of any other subject. We are all prone to some degree of prejudice or preconception, and the factors informing particular views naturally include personal politics, experiences and upbringing – as well as received wisdom from intellectual mentors, influential commentators and the media more broadly. Specific prejudices, whether favourable or unfavourable, towards Russia can also arise because they fit a particular worldview, or because it is politically or financially advantageous for an individual or institution to take certain positions. These pre-existing mindsets and ingrained convictions are often augmented, amplified or activated by propaganda or disinformation emanating from Russia itself. Combined with today’s international media environment in which the sheer volume of information circulating allows unreliable ideas to escape scrutiny easily, myths can become a more powerful driver of action than the facts.
When this happens in the case of foreign relations, the consequence is bad policy that can be detrimental to international security. The Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan observed that ‘a point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding’. In the third decade of the 21st century, nobody should need to be persuaded that relying on second-hand and misguided standpoints and dogma as a replacement for understanding Russia is dangerous for us all. So, for example, when representatives of Western countries have taken their seats at the negotiating table after Russian interventions in Georgia, Syria or Ukraine, they have invariably accepted the false premise that Russia – like the West – is looking to end the conflict. In fact, Russia’s overriding motive for talks in such cases is usually to secure a better position for itself, and in some cases simply to freeze the conflict. Sadly, lives have been lost from underestimating the lengths to which Russia is prepared to go to defend and promote what it sees as its interests. In the case of the conflict in Donbas that Russia has studiously cultivated as a tool to weaken Ukraine’s independence, there is an assumption in the West that a happy medium must exist that solves the underlying problem and satisfies all parties more or less equally. At the same time, France and Germany have tolerated Russia’s participation in peace negotiations legitimizing its claim to be a facilitator of peace rather than a party to the conflict.
Misinformation and disinformation play a crucial role in maintaining the power of Russia in the world, and that of its political elite at home. Myths about Russia, its history and above all its relations with the West are therefore carefully protected and nurtured by the Russian authorities.
Yet we should remember that when myths about Russia are repeated, it is not always with malign intent. As McLuhan’s American contemporary, Will Durant, observed, ‘the trouble with most people is they think with their hopes or their fears or their wishes, not with their minds’. The compilation of mistaken ideas about Russia in this volume is not intended to disparage the motives of all who give credence to them – and who in some cases repeat them with damaging effect – but merely to illustrate that these views are indeed popularly held.
For the Kremlin, of course, the prevalence of such myths in Western discourse is not just convenient, it furthers Russian goals. Their powerful grip on Western and Russian minds distorts perceptions, impairing recognition of Russia’s hostile actions against its neighbours and its own population, and constraining appropriate policy responses. If illusions about Russia were less prevalent, the world – and especially Russia’s neighbours – would have fewer problems to deal with. Misinformation and disinformation play a crucial role in maintaining the power of Russia in the world, and that of its political elite at home. Myths about Russia, its history and above all its relations with the West are therefore carefully protected and nurtured by the Russian authorities.
One ubiquitous myth not covered in this compilation is that of ‘Russophobia’. It is a charge routinely levelled at non-Russians (and sometimes even at Russians themselves) who disapprove of what the Russian state does. But claims of Russophobia rely for their effect on the suggestion that to criticize unacceptable actions by the state – again, whether abroad or at home – amounts to racial discrimination against the Russian people. This is self-evident nonsense. The Russian state is not synonymous with the Russian people. Nor, it must be said, is the Putin regime entirely the same as the Russian state.
Most Western specialists on Russia would like to see the country prosper as a responsible member of the international community. But when this wish incorporates a desire for Russia to become a less authoritarian country – one that observes international obligations to respect the sovereignty of its neighbours and the human rights of its citizens – ‘accommodationists’ and Russian nationalists alike characterize the position as ‘anti-Russian’. Like much of the invective levelled at those who wish for a better future for Russia, this flies in the face of reason. Besides the fact that two of the authors of this volume are Russian themselves, all of them have devoted their professional lives to studying the complexities of Russia and the former Soviet states. It would be perverse if that choice were born from innate prejudice. Instead, their analyses reflect their professional assessments and their personal concern at the distortion of facts.
The evidence submitted in the 16 principal chapters that follow is intended to encourage the questioning of many widely held assumptions about Russia. To quote the British economist John Maynard Keynes, ‘When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir?’
About this report
Each chapter follows a uniform structure and is necessarily concise – varying between around 1,500 and 3,500 words in length and addressing the same five questions (or variants thereon): What is the myth? Who advocates or subscribes to it? Why is it wrong? What is its impact on policy? What would good policy look like? A concluding chapter draws out the key lessons from the authors’ puncturing of the myths outlined in the report, and suggests guiding principles for more rational and informed Western policymaking towards Russia.
A few caveats are necessary:
First, we have used a wide definition of the term ‘myth’. Some of the essays debunk factual inaccuracies. It is simply incorrect, for example, to claim that the relationship between Russia and the West soured solely because of NATO enlargement; or that the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus are all one nation. Other essays, however, highlight incorrect reasoning rather than outright errors of fact. Put another way, point ‘A’ may well be true, or at least not verifiably untrue, but that doesn’t make point ‘B’ the correct conclusion to draw from it. For example, Russia’s geopolitical importance does not automatically justify Western attempts to improve the relationship in the absence of concessions from Moscow on key issues.
Second, ‘Russia’ is sometimes referred to as a single homogeneous entity: ‘Russia says’, ‘Russia does’, and so on. This is, of course, an oversimplification that masks enormous diversity. While convenience and readability dictate the term’s frequent use as a shorthand, where possible the authors refer to ‘the Kremlin’, ‘the Russian leadership’ or ‘Moscow’ to articulate policy action or ambition emanating from the central government (although these wordings, too, generalize to one degree or another). We do not, as a rule, use the term ‘Russia’ to mean the country in its entirety or all of Russia’s 146 million citizens.
Third and finally, ‘the West’, too, is a shorthand label, covering a variety of national and institutional approaches to Russia. There is no convenient way, for example, to capture in a word the different respective approaches of Australia, Estonia, Japan and the US (especially the approach adopted by the previous US administration, under Donald Trump). ‘Western nations’ and ‘rules-based international order’ are also equally unsatisfactory terms in their own ways. Nonetheless, one vital interest that is common to almost all actors in the West, regardless of the term’s definition, is preventing the current state of confrontation with Russia from spilling over into open hostilities.
The myths exposed in this report – selected from a depressingly longer list of qualifying entries – are those that the authors believe to be the most pernicious and damaging in terms of developing effective policy towards Russia. The aim of institutions such as Chatham House is to have a positive impact on policy, reflecting, in our case, the aspiration for ‘a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world’. This report represents an attempt to do just that.