Review: Moscow Rules: What Drives Russia To Confront The West – by Keir Giles

I am a new member of Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, in London. On a recent visit, I made use of the vast resources of a very well-stocked library at Chatham House and this book is the first of the loans that I have finished reading. It is apt as Keir Giles is indeed a senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House. He is an expert on Russia and this was clear from the outset of this book, Moscow Rules.

I have read much material on Putin’s Russia in the last decade or so. I have also extensively studied the Cold War and beyond that into Tsarist Russia and the Revolution of 1917 and subsequent communism of the Soviet Union. I think that Keir Giles’ book stands out among many other titles in that he seeks to identify the difference between Russia, Russians, their leaders, and The West. Often, that there is a clear difference between Russia and ourselves, is glossed over. We see Russians as an extension of ourselves, with European, democratic, libertarian values. Russian commentators, who educate and inform Western readers on the subject of Russia, are indeed akin to us Europeans or North Americans and do in fact share our values. However, Giles is keen to point out that these Western-facing Russians are the minority, the tip of the iceberg and the extreme. Russians proper are not so European. As much as Peter the Great or Catherine the Great sought a  European home for Mother Russia; that dream has never been achieved. Russia is such a vast continent spanning Europe and Asia and containing such vast isolated resources and diverse populations  that, to consider it European. is just folly. Geographically, we are told of how the natural frontiers make defence an almost impossible task for Russian militaries to arrange conventionally. In Moscow they seek buffer states. ‘The only safe border is one with a Russian soldier on both sides’.

Giles identifies that strategically. Russia has changed little with regard to its foreign policy since Tsarist times, through Soviet Communism and into the post Soviet times of Yeltsin and now Putin. It always blows hot and cold in its foreign policy and relationship with The West. One of the biggest factors in Putin’s current stance is his concrete conviction about the fall of the Soviet Union as being the worst event in Russian history. The tumultuous topsy-turvy gangster capitalism that accompanied the Yeltsin era in a Russian flirtation with free market capitalism, brought the country to its knees. The people suffered a massive decline in living standards. Oligarchs got rich but the experiment with out and out capitalism just didn’t work. One of the main reasons for the fall of the USSR was a ‘betrayal’ by Ukraine in agreeing with Belarus to leave the Union after the Baltic States successfully seceded. In Russian, Ukraine means’ borderland’ and it is known as ‘Little Russia’ History with the ancient Rus capital of Kyiv in Putin and many Russian eyes does not separate Ukraine from the motherland. We have seen Ukrainian leaders of the USSR like Khrushchev and Brezhnev. It is the bread basket of Russia. One of the principal functions of the Ukraine borderland is to act as a territorial buffer to invading armies. This was the case when Napoleon came and also Hitler’s Nazi Invasion. It was clearly agreed at the end of the USSR, beforehand with Mikhail Gorbachev, that there be no further expansion of NATO into Russian imperial territory. This has proved a lie by The West. Whereas we see our export of Western democracy as a gift to Russia, the Russians see inequality, decadent and immoral sexual values, and an untrustworthy source of liars and values which simply are not native Russian. It’s like Christian missionaries, Western ventures into Russia.

The Russian mentality of paranoia is justified. They do accept autocracy and it works. Yes, there is brutality and State oppression but also the Russians trust their leaders. The Tsar was holy, God’s representative on Earth. Although the horrors of Stalin are obvious, his personality cult was also very real indeed. What we see in our media’s depiction of Vladimir Putin, the Russians see exactly the opposite. He has genuine popularity and represents true Russian values. Propaganda and suppression of dissidents has a long history within Russia and is an accepted part of their culture.

The whole Russian language has its peculiarities and translation into and out of Russian is not straightforward. Giles identifies an example in the difference between Pravda and Istina. Pravda is a ‘tactical truth’ and Istina is the ‘real truth’. We don’t have equivalents in the English language. So often, Western ‘experts’ on Russia do not possess lived in experience of Russia and the cultural knowledge that accompanies native language skills. One has to think like a Russian in Russia in Russian to understand the country.

As the book draws to a conclusion, Giles doesn’t leave us with false hope that Putin will be ‘offski’ any time soon. And if he is, his replacement will have similar mentality and little will change; relationships between blocs could indeed disintegrate further. There is a certain stability and continuity in Vladimir Putin’s rule, as unpalatable as it might be at present. We seek rapprochement but we must recognise Russia’s point of view. NATO is encroaching and I personally see the argument being a double-edged sword regarding Ukraine. Both sides are equally guilty. It’s one thing Eastern European satellites signing up to NATO, but vast core areas of the Soviet Union adjacent to the Motherland signing up? It is unacceptable from a Russian perspective. You have to draw lines at some point. The whole Westphalian system is based on drawing borders and we know from other war experience that borders don’t necessarily export very well. Eg. The Middle East and Arab World. There needs to be some middle ground and it is important that politicians on both sides of the divide look at the psychology of their agreements and disputes and I think that by studying ‘Moscow Rules’, which is a very interesting, mainly psychological,  exploration of the differences between Russia and us, any potential diplomat involved in international relationships, will be wiser and better armed in their ability to succeed in diffusing the ticking timebomb. I don’t think that there are many on the planet out there that wish for a full MAD Armageddon nuclear exchange between the old Cold War rivals.

It’s the first book that I’ve read from Chatham House library: I’m off to a good start and it makes me hungry for more. The library there is alone worth the membership fee alone for anyone with just a vague interest in international geopolitics. Chatham House is a renowned think tank with leading global experts. Knowledge is the key to all survival and is the essence of civilization.

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