July 29, 2019

The “Moscow Rules”: Ten Principles for Working with Russia

Keir Giles presenting his latest book "Moscow Rules" to a full house at ICDS on 6 March.
Keir Giles presenting his latest book "Moscow Rules" to a full house at ICDS on 6 March.

In March 2019, ICDS hosted Keir Giles launching his most recent book “Moscow Rules”. The book highlights how Western leaders repeat the same mistakes over and over again when dealing with Russia. He was asked to distil key recommendations for avoiding expensive and dangerous misunderstandings with Moscow – the “Moscow Rules”. Giles presents them to our readers here.

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

Russia’s actions and statements are guided by an understanding of the world that is consistent, and consistently expressed. And yet, they repeatedly cause surprise, alarm and dismay in Western capitals.

Western leaders often find it hard to understand that Russian assumptions persist unchanged: that Moscow believes in a hierarchical, rather than rules-based view of international relations, spheres of influence and the limited sovereignty of neighbours, the ‘right’ to a defence perimeter extending into or well beyond the territory of others, a right to oversight of countries where Russian ‘compatriots’ reside, and a default to Darwinian assumptions when these principles are not accepted.

This lack of comprehension of the fundamentally different Russian approach to international relations leads to errors that recur time and again in Western assessments of what Russia might do next, and how the West can best manage the relationship with Moscow.

The following ten “don’ts” are based on decades of personal observation of Russia, and the study of centuries of its previous history. Taken together, they provide a set of rules for avoiding further expensive mistakes and unpleasant surprises when dealing with Moscow.

1. Don’t say “they wouldn’t do that, it doesn’t make sense”.
Abandon any assumptions about what Russia might do that are based on what a Western liberal democracy would consider rational. Russia’s decision-making framework is bounded by an entirely different understanding of history, geography, social policy and relations between countries from that of the West. To understand the choices open to Moscow, it is critically important to see the world through a Russian lens, rather than be guided by what “makes sense” in Washington or Brussels.

2. Don’t confuse understanding Russia with excusing Russia.
Russia is guided by its own distinctive sense of historical imperatives, and consequently an enduring sense of privilege to disregard commonly accepted norms of behaviour. But the conviction with which these views are expressed does not necessarily make them right, or provide an excuse when they are acted on in ways the West finds repugnant.

3. Don’t ask binary questions.
Don’t ask about Russia “is it either this or that”, “either yes or no”. The answer is likely to be both, at the same time, or neither, or more. Dealing with Russia necessitates being comfortable with paradoxes and contradictions, and many things spoken and written about Russia are both true and not true at the same time. Consequently, when you ask “why does Russia do X”, don’t look for just one answer. There will be several reasons, some of which will overlap and some of which will contradict each other.

4. Don’t be distracted by bluster, bravado and bluff.
Just because Russia makes a lot of angry noise about your plans or proposals doesn’t mean Moscow will not be prepared to live with them when they are implemented. Russia defaults to threats and feigned outrage in order to improve its negotiating position, because the West’s responses show that this sometimes works. Listen instead for changes in tone that indicate real concerns.

5. Don’t forget that Russia does not consist of just one man.
The current leader in the Kremlin at any one time is not the problem if he is driven by persistent Russian beliefs and imperatives. The country and its leaders respond to internal and external challenges in ways that remain consistent over centuries; course corrections that accompany a change of leadership tend to be temporary aberrations.

6. Don’t just hope for “change”.
Change in Russia is rarely as deep as it appears, and certainly not always for the better; so it is dangerous to assume that political change in Russia is desirable because it will necessarily be an improvement. Russia’s current behaviour towards other countries and its own citizens is reprehensible. But by historical standards, Russia is still in a period of unprecedented liberalism. It would be hard for things to get better, but it would be very easy for things to get far, far worse.

7. Don’t expect Russia to respect values and standards that were invented elsewhere.
You can’t embarrass Russia over its behaviour at times when it places no value on its reputation. “Naming and shaming” has limited effect: it is important to “name” by continuing to call attention to Russian actions and holding Moscow to account for them, but do not expect Russia to feel the “shame”. What western liberal democracies think, or believe, or would like to happen is not a deciding criterion when Russia considers which course of action to choose.

8. Do not hope to appeal to Russia’s better nature. It doesn’t have one.
Russia sees compromise and cooperation, with no evident and immediate benefit to state or leadership interests, as unnatural and deeply suspicious. This places strict limits on the potential for working with Moscow even on what may appear to be shared challenges.

9. Don’t assume that there must be common ground.
It’s natural to search for these shared challenges, assuming there must be some way we can work with Russia on mutual interests. But there is a reason this search does not bring results, despite being conducted intensively throughout the almost three decades since the end of the USSR. Whenever it appears that Russia and the West could work together on a problem, it quickly becomes clear that not only Moscow’s understanding of the issue, but also its preferred solution and the methods it would favour to deliver it are entirely incompatible with Western norms, values and even laws.

10. Don’t think that you can choose whether to be at war with Russia or not.
Sometimes de-escalation, taken to its logical conclusion, equates to surrender. At the same time, Russia will never be “at peace” with you. Normal relations with Russia include fending off a wide range of hostile actions from Moscow; this is the default state throughout history, and Western nations should by now be realising this is the norm.

Taken together, these ten principles could help the West avoid repeating past errors in dealing with Moscow. This in turn would provide the basis for a relationship with Russia that is less hostage to misunderstanding and surprise.

Thank you to James Sherr, Senior Fellow at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute of the ICDS, and to James Nixey of Chatham House for their valuable comments on drafts of this piece.

“Moscow Rules: What Drives Russia To Confront The West” is available to readers in UK and Europe here and in US here