What is the myth?
One of the most damaging and dangerous misconceptions about Russia commonly held by Western policymakers is that at some deep level Russian and Western interests must align or at least overlap, and that it must be possible to find common ground on serious issues because the two sides must fundamentally desire the same kind of relationship – one founded in mutual respect and peaceful cooperation for the common good.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
Western leaders routinely enter office with the ambition of improving relations with Russia. They continue to seek to normalize relations, in part by forgiving Moscow its sins. But doing so without addressing the fundamental causes of discord is highly damaging, as its sole effect is to confirm to Russia that its combative policies will be not only forgiven but rewarded. Time and again, Russia has shown that it is not inclined to reciprocate the good faith shown. Groundless optimism maintained in the face of consistently contrary evidence leads to recurrent ‘resets’ and consequent repeated disappointment. The result of each cycle of reset followed by disappointment is an even deeper crisis.
In December 2017 Boris Johnson, then the UK’s foreign secretary, went to Moscow looking for a reset. He told his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, that the UK and Russia had ‘substantial interests in common’. By mid-September 2018, he described this as the biggest mistake of his career and a ‘fool’s errand’. The current champion of resets is Emmanuel Macron, the French president. One must hope that his inevitable disillusion will not come at too high a cost for European security.
Why is it wrong?
Both at a strategic level and in detail on specific issues, Russian objectives and even the underlying assumptions about the nature of relations between states are entirely incompatible with what Western states and societies want, need, and find acceptable. A multitude of examples show how Russia has only limited consonance with Europe in basic assumptions on morals, values or ethics. As throughout its history, Russia measures its security and status in terms of raw military power. It is still pouring vast funds into the development of high-technology missiles, prioritizing the capability to destroy cities on the other side of the world over investment in paved roads and indoor sanitation for its own citizens.
Russian objectives and even the underlying assumptions about the nature of relations between states are entirely incompatible with what Western states and societies want, need, and find acceptable.
Meanwhile, Moscow continues to seek means of damaging or outmanoeuvring its adversaries in conflicts that those adversaries may not even recognize are under way. ‘Normal’ relations with Russia include fending off a wide range of hostile actions from Moscow; this has been the default state throughout Russia’s history. But still, destructive Russian handiwork – be it subversion, murders and assassinations, undisguised electronic warfare or false-flag cyberattacks – causes surprise every time it happens.
Perhaps the most dangerous dissonance lies in Russian and Western notions of sovereignty. The key difference is the Russian presumption that only great powers can be fully sovereign; and that smaller, less powerful states like Ukraine or, say, the UK are simply objects of different degrees of influence wielded by powers like Russia and the US. As such, Russia consistently demands to be involved in the foreign policy decisions of countries beyond its borders, in a manner entirely incompatible with Euro-Atlantic values, which hold that small states should be sovereign and independent. In short, while the West wants an international order based on respect for state sovereignty, Russia wants and expects to be allowed to limit the sovereignty of its neighbours.
The most immediate expression of this incompatibility remains the front-line states in Europe. When Russia insists it is entitled to a sphere of legitimate interests, the problem arises when these other countries do not wish to be within that sphere. The danger of precipitate action by Russia will persist for as long as the West supports the independence and unqualified sovereignty of those countries that Russia perceives as its fiefdom.
Russia has no interest in accepting an international order founded on principles and institutions established in the West, and which it sees as favouring Western interests. In particular, Moscow holds that it has been denied a role in the architecture of European security by Western states and organizations, especially NATO. To the extent that this is correct, it is because that is precisely NATO’s role: to protect its members from the kind of action that Russia would undertake in exercising what it sees as its rights. In other words, there can be either a European security order that respects the rights of all European nations, or one that grants Russia privileges; but not both at the same time.
What is its impact on policy?
Failure to understand that Russia’s decision-making framework is bounded by an entirely different understanding of history, geography, social policy and relations between countries means that Moscow’s decisions routinely surprise and dismay the West. This leads not only to occasional panic over what Russian strategic intentions may be, but also, when crises deteriorate to the point of armed conflict, the repeated imposition by Western powers of ceasefire terms (drafted in Moscow) on the victims of Russian aggression. Whether in respect of Georgia in 2008, or Ukraine and Syria in more recent years, the West insists on terms that constrain the victim while allowing the aggressor, Russia, continued freedom of action (and, in the case of Ukraine, even denying that Russia is a party to the conflict at all). This results from a basic mismatch of objectives: the West wants to stop the fighting, while Russia wants to win the war. A particularly vivid case is the widespread assertion in the West that the best resolution for the war in Ukraine would be for Ukraine to make concessions, rather than for Russia to cease its aggression.
Failure to understand that Russia’s decision-making framework is bounded by an entirely different understanding of history, geography, social policy and relations between countries means that Moscow’s decisions routinely surprise and dismay the West.
The search for consensus or appeasement has other pernicious consequences. The moral equivalence that is implied in discreetly ignoring hostile Russian actions is inimical to the values and ethics that have historically defined the West, since to reach a consensus with those who seek to undermine democratic and liberal values does their work for them. In addition, repeated failure despite best intentions leads to a search for blame, which sometimes mistakenly finds the roots of the failure in past and present Western actions rather than in any fundamental contradiction, or indeed in Russian behaviour.
Russia is guided by its own understanding of how the world works, rather than by what a Western liberal democracy would consider rational. For instance, this understanding causes Russia to claim (or perhaps even sincerely believe) that countries join NATO or the EU because they are forced or induced to do so by Washington or Brussels, rather than because it serves their own interests. This extends to the inability to agree on basic facts of recent and more distant history. There is no prospect of reconciling Russia’s assertion that NATO committed in 1990 not to accept new member states in Eastern Europe with NATO’s position that no such commitment was ever given. And the campaign to enforce a Soviet view of history on Russians has intensified, and is now reaching well beyond Russia. In addition to the restoration of previously debunked Soviet myths about the Second World War, Russia has reverted to denial of the USSR’s role both in cooperating with Nazi Germany to divide Eastern Europe between them in 1939–40, and in brutally repressing the independence of those same states in the post-war period. This process has seen the former victim states of Soviet aggression and occupation throughout Northern and Central Europe subjected to a sustained information barrage seeking to excuse Moscow’s conduct, and to shift blame for both the war and its aftermath to those same victims.
If, in addition, those who argue that President Vladimir Putin needs to legitimize himself through foreign adventures are right, then an essential prerequisite for stability within Russia is the creation of still more instability abroad. As a result, Europe as a whole has become the scene of an unresolved conflict.
What would good policy look like?
Assumptions that Russia was a partner to the West and shared its interests prevailed for more than two decades after the end of the Cold War, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. It is essential that these assumptions now be discarded and the reality of disagreement recognized. But this in itself should not lead inevitably to outright hostility. One lesson of the Cold War is that coexistence is possible while accepting that the strategic interests of Moscow and the West are incompatible.
Meanwhile, well-intentioned suggestions for calming relations with Russia abound. Where they founder is in the fact that, in order for them to work, they need Moscow on board as well. It is a fundamental mistake to assume by default that Russia is interested in cooperation on reducing tensions, or that Western states and institutions can improve the situation without such cooperation. The Russian leadership instead sees concessions and compromise as weakness to be exploited. Preventing dangerous incidents between Russian and NATO aircraft and warships does not require negotiation of a new agreement; it only requires Russia to abide by existing safety rules. Similarly, proposals for arms control agreements to replace those that have become void in recent years will go nowhere if they disregard the fact that Russia has stepped away from the previous agreements deliberately and for clearly defined security aims. Cooperation against terrorism, too, sounds attractive – until Russia demonstrates in Chechnya and Syria that its methods for what it calls counterterrorist operations are entirely unpalatable to the West.
Western policymakers, politicians and populations need to be constantly reminded not only that the people who run Russia are not like them, do not like them and do not wish to be like them, but also that there are good reasons why attempts to find common ground with Russia consistently fail. Recognizing that Western values and interests are not reconcilable with those of Russia, and adjusting for that reality in the long-term conduct of the relationship, will be key to managing conflicts and contradictions rather than wishing them away. This in turn will be an essential foundation not only for understanding Russian statements and actions, but also for ensuring future European peace and stability.