March 6, 2019

Balancing Russia’s History and Politics

Academics and journalists are perpetually excited by the question of which books world leaders are reading. Keir Giles’ latest book should certainly be one of them; or at least one that Western leaders should read.

This is because the relationship between the West and Russia is one of the book’s central themes. To be more precise, Giles tries to answer the question of why the West always gets it wrong about Russia. To do so, a brief, but comprehensive analysis of Russian politics is necessary – and this is just what Giles provides.

Keir Giles, “Moscow Rules. What Drives Russia to Confront the West”, Brookings Institutions Press, Chatham House, 2019.

History is the best teacher when it comes to understanding Russia’s behaviour. But history is not the only answer – and Giles’s book works perfectly in balancing Russia’s history and its current politics. It is dangerous to explain everything with history, even though historic patterns keep repeating themselves in Russia. On the other hand, to analyse Russian politics without examining the period before perestroika and glasnost would be simply superficial.

What are Giles’ most important conclusions? First, contrary to the common belief that Russia is a mysterious country, understood by nobody and therefore extremely difficult to deal, Giles argues that nothing in Russia is unpredictable. He demonstrates through historic examples that many things constantly recur. The question, rather, should be why the West is time and again surprised by what is going on in Russia.

Second, and this directly concerns Estonia, no relationship with Russia can be built on win-win logic. As Giles perfectly explains, in order to create stability inside the country, Russia needs to create instability in its neighbourhood. And that includes Estonia. Consequently, the criticism that Estonia sometimes faces from the rest of the West for not having friendly relations with Russia is based on an empty premise. It must be said, however, that after the occupation and annexation of Crimea, this criticism has almost faded away.

But there is a sort of light at the end of tunnel, even if it is not the light we usually hear about from those who predict a bright future between the West and Russia. Giles says that optimism about Russia is simply unjustified. The sensible approach is to realise that there will always be disagreements between the West and Russia; and that this recognition is the only way forward.


Keir Giles will present his book at the ICDS on 6 March.

Filed under: Commentary