Sara Jolly reviews ‘Dealing with the Russians’ by Andrew Monaghan

30 May 2022

by Sara Jolly

Sara Jolly reviews Dealing with the Russians by Andrew Monaghan, Polity, Cambridge, Oxford, Boston, New York [Paperback 2019]. pp160. £14.99 ISBN 9781509527625.

For those of us who keep scratching our heads and asking ourselves, “But how did it all come to this?” Andrew Monaghan’s book, Dealing with the Russians, might be a handy place to start.  The title is clever, as the themes of the book include ‘dealing’ in both senses of the word – ‘coping’ and ‘negotiating’. And the content is even cleverer.  This is not a book for the faint-hearted, and I imagine its primary readership is fellow subject specialists. Nevertheless, as a formidably well-informed analysis of past and potential approaches to the problem of understanding Russia and engaging with her,  the book contains much of value even to the lay reader with an interest in Russia.  The fact that this densely-argued book, published in 2019,  has been so dramatically overtaken by events does not by any means invalidate what it has to say. Even though it seems likely that  Russia  will be a pariah state for the foreseeable future, at some point , (and certainly after Putin’s departure) some kind of relationship with Russia will presumably be resumed, and the history of past attempts to understand her will doubtless feed into the process of forging a new relationship.

At the time this book was written Andrew Monaghan was Director of Research on Russia and Northern European Defence and Security at The Changing Character of War Centre, Pembroke College, Oxford.  As he says in his preface, the book ‘brings together history, politics, policy and strategy … to make a bigger argument for a broader shift in terms of conceiving the nature of the challenge Russia poses.’  As the book was published three years before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 it deals in foresight rather than hindsight and contains many prescient observations.

The book ‘s four chapters are  packed with highly concentrated analyses based on a combination of original research — in the form of the author’s interviews and discussions with important  players and observers —  and a very wide-ranging selection of material drawn from a vast number of sources including House of Commons and EU reports,  US Congress reports, Washington think tank papers, the Nato website, but also speeches by leading Russian figures  — Putin, Lavrov, Gerasimov, Shoigu — items from the Russian Security Council website, and discussion documents from the Moscow-based think tank, the Valdai Discussion Club, which has been described as the Russian equivalent of Davos. Monaghan uses this rich source material to support his examination of the tried and tested approaches of the past, that have been for the most part unproductive, and to suggest fresh thinking about how the West might deal more productively and effectively with Russia  at some point in the future.  

While Russia’s invasion of  Ukraine and seizure of Crimea in 2014 marks a crucial turning point in its relationship with the West, Monaghan also highlights a seemingly much more parochial event as another key moment: the attempted murder of the Skripals in Salisbury in 2018. He quotes an unnamed European politician as saying that ‘politically, all hopes of a better relationship stopped with Salisbury.’

In his first chapter Monaghan traces the growth of Russia as a perceived threat to the West, with concomitant loss of trust between the two sides and mutual accusations of responsibility for escalating tensions and military activity, for instance in the Baltic Sea and Syria. The ‘profound mutual insecurity’ of both sides has led, according to the Finnish president, Sauli Niinisto, to ‘a vicious spiral from which it is difficult to extricate ourselves’. Using a vivid and enlightening metaphor, Monaghan posits that ‘contemporary debates in the Euro-Atlantic community and Russia are starting the history of the relationship from different points in time and thus working effectively in what might be called different time zones’. Thus he identifies the starting point for many Euro-Atlantic analyses of Russian activity as early 2014, while for the Russians the chronology ‘usually begins in the 1990s, most obviously with the alleged promise not to enlarge NATO and then with NATO’s campaign against Serbia in 1999.’   

Reading this section I was vividly reminded of my reaction, a few days after the current war started, to a Whatsapp message from a high-achieving  Russian academic, whose memoirs I have been translating. She wrote, jauntily, unapologetically, as it seemed to me at the time, “The USA rules the world and Russia has got on its nerves.”  I was appalled. How could this highly educated, well-read, widely-travelled woman come out with ‘such drivel’ as I put it to myself. The fact that I was so unprepared for her ‘commentary’ on the war and that she was so unaware of how ‘wrong-headed’ her remarks would seem to me, illustrates in microcosm this concept of two sides living in different ‘time zones’.

Chapter Two, (Mis)interpreting the Russian Threat, goes on to  examine what Monaghan characterises as the misdiagnosis of the nature of the problem.  He pours cold water on  the popular  ‘return to the cold war’ theory. He suggests that the situation in the twenty-first century is more dangerous than in the actual Cold War, because many of the mechanisms for confidence building and crisis response have been lost.

Monaghan warns that ‘thinking of the challenges that contemporary Russia poses in the light of the Cold War,’ runs the risk that  ‘decisions can be made with the minimum of fresh analysis’. He notes that the rise of China, instability in the Middle East, terrorism, migration and climate change are all new factors that make the Cold War analogy unhelpful. He quotes the American military historian David Glantz (actually discussing the Japanese misreading of the Soviet Red Army’s abilities during the war in Manchuria in 1945), but his warning seems equally apt in the contemporary context:  ‘The blindness born of biases we bring to the study of Russia is a dangerous phenomenon that inhibits full understanding’.  

Monaghan goes on to emphasise the importance of language itself in framing discussion on Russia, noting wryly that ‘Much of the language in today’s Euro-Atlantic debate about Russia and the challenges it poses would fail George Orwell’s critique: he would surely have highlighted  the staleness of imagery, the lack of precision and the loss of vividness’. Monaghan bemoans hackneyed current thinking that is expressed, in Orwell’s scathing image, in ‘phrases tacked together like the sections of a pre-fabricated henhouse.’  

The third chapter, From Dialogue to Deterrence, makes for forlorn reading in the light of Russia’s current spetz operatsiya. It traces various attempts by the Euro-Atlantic community and the USA to re-engage with Russia after the first attack on Ukraine and the subsequent shift in policy from relationship building to a policy of  deterrence.

In his final chapter Monaghan posits the urgent need for a much more strategic and better informed approach to Russia. He regrets the decline, since the 1990s, of Russian Studies specialists and Russian language speakers to contribute to the debate on policy.  Reading this, one wonders whether the number of students in the West applying to  Russian Studies departments will drop dramatically after the 2022 invasion?  Or whether the dearth of home-grown expertise might be compensated for by the steady influx of intellectuals now leaving Putin’s Russia and in search of meaningful employment in their exile? This insightful book is an excellent primer for all of us who watch anxiously as events unfold, and who feel an urgent desire to be better informed about the background to the crisis now engulfing us.

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