How they affect Western policy, and what can be done
CHATHAM HOUSE REPORT
13 MAY 2021
This report deconstructs 16 of the most prevalent myths and misconceptions that shape contemporary Western thinking on Russia. It explains their detrimental impact on the design and execution of policy, and in each case outlines how Western positions need critical re-examination to ensure more rational and effective responses to Russian actions.
Underpinning our analysis is the essential argument that, contrary to wishful thinking on the part of many Euro-Atlantic politicians and policymakers, there is little prospect of Russia becoming a more constructive and cooperative partner for Western governments in the foreseeable future. Well-meaning efforts to ‘improve’ the relationship with the Kremlin are thus likely to founder, as Russia’s strategic goals, values and understanding of interstate relations differ irrevocably from those of the West.
Western policies towards Russia have failed to achieve their basic goal of establishing a stable and manageable relationship with Moscow because the thinking behind them has often been unrealistic or simply flawed. This study encourages Western governments and institutions to reassess their assumptions about Russia in order to develop more effective responses to the increasing challenges the country presents. ‘Effective’ in this context means, in particular, deterring Russian aggression abroad and ultimately securing a less adversarial relationship with Russia without compromising principles of sovereignty and security and the values on which they are based.
To this end, the report presents 16 of the most prevalent ‘myths’ – in a broadly defined sense – that distort the Western policy debate on Russia. It outlines how specific misconceptions have gained unwarranted traction in policymaking circles in the ‘West’ (understood here principally as Western Europe and North America). It describes the impact of these misconceptions on Western policy towards Russia, and in each case suggests what better-informed policy would look like.
The origins and causes of these myths can be divided into several broad categories. Some originate in the West, based on the default assumptions of politicians and policymakers whose formative experience has been restricted to operating in Western democratic systems and interacting with like-minded countries. The belief, for example, that Russia and the West have the same desired end state for their relationship arises when we project our own values on to Moscow and assume that we share a default common understanding of basic principles. So, too, does the argument that it is necessary or desirable for the West to make concessions to win Russian cooperation on particular issues. Similarly, the notion that the problem in relations with Russia is a lack of dialogue presupposes that more dialogue will narrow differences, when in fact Russia’s current leadership is strongly motivated to maintain confrontation as a means of forcing concessions from the West.
Other prevalent myths simply reflect inadequate knowledge of Russia. For example, the widespread impression that the regime is effectively a one-man show controlled by Vladimir Putin is a consequence of insufficient understanding of how the country is really governed, and of the significant roles played by other individual officials and the institutions they control in shaping, negotiating and delivering policy. Similarly, the assumption that what comes after Putin must necessarily be better than the current leadership derives from an entirely human inclination towards optimism which has not been tempered by exposure to the realities of Russian politics and history.
A further, distinct category of myth relates to Russia’s relationship with China. For example, the idea that the West as a whole can find common cause with Russia against China, or contrive a means to set Russia and China against each other, is a confection of multiple myths – most notably regarding the complex nature of the Sino-Russian relationship itself, and Russia’s long-term objectives for its own relationships with Euro-Atlantic states and institutions.
However, the majority of the myths presented here have become embedded in Western policy discourse as a direct result of deliberate Russian lobbying and disinformation. Several of the myths are prevalent not only because they arise spontaneously and out of good faith, but also because it is in the Kremlin’s interest to cultivate them. Some reflect long-standing aspirations on the part of Russia: its quest for a pan-European security system on a Russian design has persisted in various forms since the 1950s. Equally, certain myths reflect broader strategic narratives that provide a framework for legitimizing Russian foreign policy goals: for example, the notion that Russia can rightfully lay claim to a sphere of privileged interests; or the suggestion that Ukrainians and Belarusians together with Russians are one Slavic people rather than having their own identities and separate forms of statehood. At other times, Russia’s aim in propagating a myth can be linked to a discrete foreign policy outcome such as promoting the Eurasian Economic Union as an economic integration project equivalent to the EU.
Many of these myths, whether deliberately promoted and promulgated by Russia or not, find a willing audience in the West because they sit comfortably with audiences not attuned to Russia’s understanding of history and its current leaders’ definition of national interests. Adherence to myths can sometimes provide convenient excuses for inaction – or coping strategies in the face of fear and discomfort over the idea of Russia as a strategic adversary, and in the face of Russian actions that should otherwise be unacceptable. As such, the myths exert a pernicious influence on Western policy, distorting it to favour or permit outcomes desirable for Russia but not for the West.
One of the aims of this report is to call out these myths and encourage a reappraisal by Western policymakers who have misconstrued the nature of the relationship with Russia for too long. By challenging incorrect assumptions about Russia, and the flawed policy arguments that are based on them, this report urges Western politicians and officials to re-examine their positions on Russia and the effects of their assumptions on policy.
In April 2021, US President Joe Biden stated a desire for ‘predictable and stable relations’ with Russia. This was not a naive call for a reset. The explicit invitation to de-escalate, accompanying
a carefully calibrated package of new sanctions, showed a clear intent to influence Russia’s risk–benefit calculus and offer Russia a route to a better and less fraught relationship with the US and the West more broadly.
Russia’s immediate and emphatic rejection of this offer means that the relationship seems to have returned to its usual unstable path. That said, in one respect the relationship with Russia is predictable: the analyses presented in this report strongly suggest that Russia, for the foreseeable future, will continue to trample on internationally accepted principles of behaviour and commit further aggressions undeterred, using some of the myths below as justification.
The Russian leadership will, of course, also continue its efforts to redefine the balance of global power and negotiate with Washington in a context more favourable to Russia. For US policymakers and their allies, as well as their respective publics, unravelling myth from reality in dealing with Russia has arguably never been more important.
Myth 01: ‘Russia and the West are as “bad” as each other’
This pervasive view ignores significant differences in policy and conduct. ‘The West’ is a community of shared interests and values; NATO and EU enlargements have been demand-driven. Russia instead seeks to impose ‘firm good neighbourliness’ on other states whether they agree or not, and regards a ‘sphere of privileged interests’ as an entitlement. Controversies over Western military interventions bear no comparison to the duplicity, the absence of diplomacy and the wholesale abrogation of treaties that preceded Russia’s interventions in Georgia and Ukraine. The West requires greater clarity in presenting its own policies, but there is no equivalence to acknowledge.
Myth 02: ‘Russia and the West want the same thing’
Western policies that aim to engage with Russia fail if they are founded on the notion that at some level Russian and Western interests must align or at least overlap. The drive to normalize relations without addressing the fundamental causes of discord makes things worse not better. Both strategically and in detail on specific issues, Russian objectives and underlying assumptions about relations between states are incompatible with what Western states and societies find acceptable. Recognizing that Western and Russian values and interests are not reconcilable, and adjusting for that reality in the long-term conduct of the relationship, is key to managing these conflicts and contradictions.
Myth 03: ‘Russia was promised that NATO would not enlarge’
Contrary to the betrayal narrative cultivated by Russia today, the USSR was never offered a formal guarantee on the limits of NATO expansion post-1990. Moscow merely distorts history to help preserve an anti-Western consensus at home. In 1990, when Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to a united Germany’s incorporation into NATO, he neither asked for nor received any formal guarantees that there would be no further expansion of NATO beyond the territory of a united Germany. The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the USSR transformed the security situation in Europe. Russia’s new leaders did not question the principle that countries in Europe were completely free to make their own security arrangements. Similarly, the NATO–Russia Founding Act signed in 1997 recognized the ‘inherent right’ of all states ‘to choose the means to ensure their own security’.
Myth 04: ‘Russia is not in a conflict with the West’
Euro-Atlantic policymakers may be reluctant to admit it, but Moscow’s natural state is one of confrontation with the West. A key feature of the conflict is the use of unconventional hostile measures that remain above the threshold of accepted peacetime activities but below that of warfare. The Kremlin seeks to undermine Western interests through a well-established toolkit, such as election interference, targeted state-sanctioned assassinations, and information warfare. Crucially, unconventional hostile measures and indirect actions are not just features of this conflict, but contribute to the (mistaken) perception of there being no conflict.
Myth 05: ‘We need a new pan-European security architecture that includes Russia’
Russian leaders advocate a treaty-based and continent-wide European security system that would replace existing ‘Euro-Atlantic’ structures, particularly NATO. This proposal is problematic: it ignores basic differences between Russia and Western countries over the issue of sovereignty. Russia wants ‘great power’ privileges for itself, limits on the sovereignty of neighbouring countries, and agreement that states should not be criticized if they run their domestic affairs in ways inconsistent with the values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. This perspective clashes with core Western interests and values. As such, even if a new pan-European security architecture were to be established, the fundamental differences in outlook between the two sides would stop such a system from functioning. Western policymakers should be clear that disagreements with Russia over the European security architecture are profound and unlikely to be reconciled soon.
Myth 06: ‘We must improve the relationship with Russia, even without Russian concessions, as it is too important’
This myth rests on the premise that a combination of supposedly self-evident geopolitical weight, mutual economic interests and compensation for losing the Cold War are overriding imperatives for a successful reset with Russia – leading to a necessarily fully functional relationship. That this may leave ‘lesser powers’ more vulnerable to intimidation or influence is, according to those who subscribe to the myth, an unfortunate side effect and/or a price worth paying. Yet quite apart from the deep ethical ambiguities such an accommodation implies, the arrangement simply would not work.
Partly, this is because the presentation of the West, and the US in particular, as a threat to ‘Fortress Russia’ is an essential support to the Kremlin’s increasingly authoritarian domestic rule. Few areas show promise for cooperation with Russia. Efforts in those most frequently mooted – cybersecurity, the Middle East and North Africa, trade – have all failed so far because of Russia’s illiberal approach to each subject. It is also worth remembering that Moscow itself is not putting forward cooperation wishlists; they are invariably the work of Western politicians and diplomats. Western policymakers must expect that the Kremlin’s vision of Russia as a fortress entitled to a commanding role in the world yet threatened by outside powers, and by the US in particular, will remain at the heart of its beliefs.
Myth 07: ‘Russia is entitled to a defensive perimeter – a sphere of “privileged interests” including the territory of other states’
The idea that Russia should be entitled to an exclusive sphere of influence in other states, notably in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, is deeply problematic. It is incompatible with professed Euro-Atlantic values around states’ sovereignty and rights to self-determination. It is detrimental to geopolitical order and international security, as it implicitly gives licence to Russian actions – territorial aggression, annexation, even outright war – that risk creating instability in Russia’s neighbours and Europe more widely. It effectively entitles Russia to dominate neighbouring states and violate their territorial integrity. And it misconstrues contemporary geopolitical realities, such as Russia’s grudging acceptance of a second player in its vicinity – China (specifically, in relation to the expansion of China’s influence in Central Asia). Betrayal aside, it is doubtful that it is even within the gift of the West to concede a sphere of influence to Russia – or that such an understanding would work if somehow established. Failure to critically re-examine geopolitical doctrines on this subject risks reproducing reductive Cold War-era postures. And while some post-Soviet and Eastern European states – and even their populations – may desire closer relations with Russia, none of them want to sacrifice their sovereign rights.
Myth 08: ‘We must drive a wedge between Russia and China to impede their ability to act in tandem against Western interests’
The notion that the West can exploit tensions between Russia and China both misunderstands the nature of the relationship between the two countries and overestimates its susceptibility to external leverage. A corollary of the myth is the assumption that Russia and China form a single strategic entity that was somehow ‘allowed’ to develop by negligent Western policymakers. Yet just as the West did not join Russia and China together, it cannot put them asunder. The two powers have a natural ideological compatibility as well as complementary economies and interests in a range of spheres, including technology, cyber cooperation and defence. At the same time, the myth distorts the nature of the Sino-Russian relationship by ascribing to it a behavioural convergence and a grand conspiratorial character, while overlooking each state’s commanding imperative to retain full autonomy in decision-making. Given that the two powers currently have more to gain from cooperation than competition, both Russia and China have chosen to push their differences to the background for the foreseeable future. But latent bilateral tensions could come to the fore in the future as China’s ascendancy continues. The emergence of an ‘axis of authoritarianism’ is thus not in prospect.
Myth 09: ‘The West’s relations with Russia must be normalized in order to counter the rise of China’
Rapprochement with Russia as a strategic means of countering China would likely take place on the Kremlin’s terms, and would mean sacrificing the hard-won sovereignty of other post-Soviet states. Moreover, to subscribe to this myth is to assume that the Kremlin even wants normalized
relations with the West, and to forget that a better relationship with Russia, whatever its price, would do little to prevent China’s reach and capabilities from continuing to grow. Most importantly, while China’s transgressions of international law and violations of human rights are no more to be excused than those of Russia, an alliance with the Kremlin implicitly removes the possibility of China and the West having sustainable relations in the longer term. Western nations do not have the luxury of focusing solely on the challenges posed by China while somehow glossing over Russia’s aggressive behaviour.
Myth 10: ‘The Eurasian Economic Union is a genuine and meaningful counterpart to the EU’
Russia presents the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as a partner for the EU in a proposed free-trade area stretching ‘from Lisbon to Vladivostok’. In reality, the EAEU is a political project lacking the features of a true common market. Russia disregards the rules of the very organization through which it seeks to reassert its power, and with which it wants the EU to cooperate. Trade policy does not constitute a separate, non-politicized track in Russia’s foreign policy; it is subordinated to it. Due to this instrumental use and deep politicization of economic diplomacy, the EAEU is functionally unable to act as an integration body in Eurasia, not least because Russia has no economic interest in comprehensive trade liberalization either inside the EAEU or via a free-trade area with the EU.
Myth 11: ‘The peoples of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are one nation’
The Kremlin misrepresents the region’s history in order to legitimize the idea that Ukraine and Belarus are part of Russia’s ‘natural’ sphere of influence. In fact, both countries have stronger European roots than the Kremlin cares to admit. It is historically inaccurate to claim that Russia, Ukraine and Belarus ever formed a single national entity (indeed, the latter two countries also have political and cultural roots in intrinsically European structures such as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania). The Kremlin’s narrative, which served to justify Russia’s claim to the status of primus inter pares among post-Soviet republics, acknowledges Russia’s right to interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbours to this day. The idea of a ‘triune’ Russian nation downgrades the uniqueness of historic indigenous cultures. Moreover, in questioning the authenticity of Ukrainian identity and the viability of ‘Belarusianness’ as national building-blocks, it seeks to entrench in international public opinion stereotypes that would make it harder for the two countries to pursue greater integration with Europe.
Myth 12: ‘Crimea was always Russian’
The Kremlin propagates the fiction that Crimea legitimately and willingly ‘seceded’ from Ukraine and ‘rejoined’ Russia in 2014. If unchallenged, this myth risks further undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity and encouraging expansionist powers elsewhere. The subsequent drastic militarization of Crimea by Russia, and the latter’s unlawful restrictions on navigation in the Sea of Azov, increase the vulnerability both of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean to Russian security threats.
Yet the reality is that Crimea has been in Russian hands for only a fraction of its history. Historically (before 2014), Crimea belonged to Russia for a total of only 168 years, or less than 6 per cent of its written history. Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, no major separatist movement has existed in Crimea. Ukrainians, Russians and Crimean Tatars co-existed peacefully, with wide-ranging autonomy provided by the constitution of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. The ‘referendum’ organized by Russia and held under duress on 16 March 2014 was in fact merely a smokescreen to formalize Russia’s military takeover of the peninsula.
Myth 13: ‘Liberal market reform in the 1990s was bad for Russia’
The myth is that in Russia in the 1990s liberal market reform created a prolonged recession. It is true that liberal reform was attempted and that output fell heavily over six years, but the former did not cause the latter. Liberal reform as originally conceived was never fully or adequately implemented in Russia. In Poland, in contrast, where reform was carried out, the decline in output was brief and modest. In Russia, politically weak authorities failed to follow through on stabilizing the economy (including getting inflation under control and managing the public finances), while another key strand of reform, privatization, was marred by corruption. The false belief that a well-functioning market economy is somehow incompatible with Russia weakens Western policy.
Myth 14: ‘Sanctions are the wrong approach’
Economic sanctions have already demonstrated practical and normative value as responses to unacceptable Russian behaviour – but they need to be allowed time to work, and their effectiveness should not be judged against impossible tests. Despite claims to the contrary, sanctions have influenced Russian actions and have taken effect despite the challenges of their use on a large and resilient target. Sanctions also demonstratively condemn unacceptable behaviour and reaffirm collective commitment to the norms and principles of international order.
Myth 15: ‘It’s all about Putin – Russia is a manually run, centralized autocracy’
Governance in Russia is not a one-man show. Contrary to widespread thinking, many different actors and institutions can play a meaningful role in decision-making and policy implementation in the country. The president’s personal role is often exaggerated, with external observers overlooking or misunderstanding the roles of collective bodies (for example, the Presidential Administration and the Security Council), overestimating the degree of managerial competence and discipline (presidential orders are, for instance, frequently not fulfilled), or failing to take into account the self-interested behaviour of actors beyond Putin. Although Putin may have the ability to intervene in all types of decision-making, that does not mean that he always does or wants to. To understand how governance actually works in the country, we need to take into account the power and complexity of the Russian bureaucracy – which will only continue to grow in importance.
Myth 16: ‘What comes after Putin must be better than Putin’
This myth again reflects the triumph of hope over experience and analysis. Russia has structural issues that go beyond the difficulties associated with Putin’s rule. As a result, the likelihood of a
post-Putin Russia building a viable democratic political system is now lower than it was during the 1990s. In particular, the country will need a new professional cadre of elite bureaucrats and policymakers if it is to deliver accountable and effective governance. Yet conditions for the cultivation of such a cadre do not exist in today’s Russia. Irrespective of who eventually succeeds Putin, Russia’s political culture is certain to continue to impede the development of more constructive relations with the West.
The recommendations make full use of the combined decades of experience of the analysts responsible for this report – experience which, unlike that of politicians, has not been limited or constrained by electoral terms or the cycles of political fashion. The analysts offer the following advice to Western policymakers:
First principles: understanding the relationship
- Understand that Russia is not currently a partner of the West, and recognize the reality of disagreement. There are good reasons why attempts to find common ground with Russia have consistently failed over the past 25 years: the strategic interests of Moscow and the West are at present incompatible.
- Do not assume by default that Russia is interested in cooperation to reduce tensions, or that Western countries can persuade the Russian leadership to change its position. Confrontation with the West currently helps the Kremlin to consolidate its rule at home.
- Accept that a poor relationship with Russia is not a tragedy if there are currently no means to improve it. Diplomatic tensions are an inevitable result of properly recognizing the nature of the Russian system in its current form.
Dealing with Russia’s leaders
- Identify what a realistic desired state of relations with Russia should be – what should the West expect from Russia, and what can and can’t it live with? Define actions that are ‘unacceptable’ and ensure there are meaningful consequences for Russian transgressions of international law and norms.
- Acknowledge the role of people and institutions beyond Putin in decision-making. The limits of Putin’s power, as well as the importance of many actors who enable him and at times constrain him, must be recognized.
- At the same time, do not posit policy on an anticipated improvement in Russia after the current leadership departs. Putin and his entourage subscribe to long-standing Russian policy principles, and their disruptive foreign policy should not automatically be considered as an anomaly.
Supporting Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space
- Insist that Russia is not entitled to an exclusive sphere of influence at the expense of the sovereignty of its neighbours. A Russian veto on the foreign and security policies of independent countries around its periphery should be publicly deemed unacceptable, not only because it is antithetical to Western values and priorities but because it is destabilizing for the security of Europe.
- Reject the concept of a single Russian nation encompassing Ukraine and Belarus. Russia’s contention that the core Slavic nations are ‘one people’ is an attempted legitimating device for intervention in those nations’ affairs. The idea must be contested because it is a serious obstacle to both countries’ stable development.
- Maintain commitment to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Russia’s neighbours, including Ukraine, and clearly communicate this to Russia. The illegality of the occupation and annexation of Crimea must not be glossed over or no longer discussed simply because it is inconvenient to do so.
- Build on the success of NATO security programmes in the Baltic Sea region by expanding these to the Black Sea. Such measures should include a reinforced forward presence in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, and should also utilize the new Enhanced Opportunities Programme for Ukraine as a vehicle to increase Black Sea security.
- Systematically expose, attribute and discredit Russian hostile actions. This must continue to be a multinational effort, demonstrating and confirming international solidarity.
- Keep calm. Russian policymakers will keep trying to unnerve Western audiences and weaken their support for European security institutions, for example by overhyping the dangers of instability and war. Russia wants its adversaries to fear escalation.
- Recognize that history matters, and that Russia manipulates the facts for a purpose. This requires senior Western officials not just to be well briefed and confident of the facts, but ready also to challenge Russian interlocutors when they present false narratives.
Russia and China
- Recognize that, under current circumstances, efforts to divide Russia and China will be futile and counterproductive. Nurturing more effective alliances with multilateral or regional organizations would be a better way for Western governments and institutions to
- counter any regional influence the two countries are accruing, whether individually or jointly.
- Rather than ascribing a grand conspiratorial character to the Sino-Russian relationship, prioritize specific threats and challenges that can be successfully countered by the West. Focusing on the two countries’ putative partnership obscures more relevant questions such as how Russia is able to pose challenges as a lone actor.
- Ensure that Western nations remain able to address challenges on more than one front. Placing a foreign policy focus on China should not equate with Russia being ignored.
- Maintain the use of sanctions as the West’s most potent instrument. Sanctions can be a precision tool, targeting individuals and sectors with little impact on the wider population, especially compared to domestic structural factors. The West enjoys escalation dominance here, and can apply more severe measures in the event of further unacceptable Russian behaviour.
- Do not hold sanctions to impossible tests they will inevitably fail. Sanctions on their own may not cause Russia to reverse the most important actions it has taken. But no foreign policy instrument achieves all its goals. Sanctions influence Russian capacities and choices, and have discouraged the regime from escalating its actions on specific occasions.
The business community and the Russian economy
- Do not allow Russia to use Western business interests to undermine policy principles. The debacle over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is a classic example of how a ‘business first’ approach to interstate relations conflicts with political objectives and weakens solidarity.
- Emphatically counter the notion that Western ideas are responsible for Russia’s economic problems. The Russian narrative of ‘humiliation’ and ‘exploitation’ by the West in the post-Soviet period is persuasive but pernicious, and must be resisted for the sake of sound policy in the future.
- Given Russia’s instrumental use of trade diplomacy, limit EU engagement with the Eurasian Economic Union to ongoing technical dialogue. Any such engagement should be premised on Russia meeting clear preconditions, for example with regard to its actions in Ukraine and its commitments as a member of the World Trade Organization.
Addressing Western fallibility
- Insist on transparency. Not only must Western countries continue to publicize Russian hostile actions in order that their politicians and publics are sufficiently well informed to
- debate appropriate policy responses, but those responses must be publicly explained and justifiable. Explaining policy is part of making policy.
- Do more to pre-empt Russian accusations of hypocrisy. By acting more often in accordance with their proclaimed values, Western governments would enhance their authority, be heard with greater respect and, consequently, be able to defend and promote their interests more effectively.
- Invest in Russia expertise. Above all, this volume demonstrates the continuing critical importance of well-informed analysis of Russia. Investment in a cadre of Russia specialists across a broad range of areas is an investment in effective Russia policy, and hence in the future security of Europe and North America.