• Tim Uebelen

Moscow Rules: Decentring Russian domestic and foreign policy

Russia's re-alienation from the West?

In his speech at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) in February 2007, Vladimir Putin openly accused the United States of overstepping its national borders “in every way” and therefore posing a security threat to the world due to which “no one feels safe”. This direct message hit the assembled global elite by surprise, keeping in mind Putin’s efforts towards a rapprochement between Russia and NATO in his first few years as Russian president. Following this clarity, the relations between Russia and the West cooled down considerably with the war in Georgia in 2008 and reached the brink of a complete halt with the annexation of Crimea and the subsequent Ukraine crisis in 2014. Often perceived by Westerners as aggressive and having an expansionist behaviour, this development is attributed in academic circles to the NATO and EU eastward enlargements in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including the planned EU-Ukraine Association Agreement in 2013 (e.g. Chenoy & Kumar, 2017, p. 255). This approach implies, however, that the relations between the West and Russia would have most likely been splendid, had the EU and NATO refrained from further eastward enlargement. But would this be true?

In his excellent book "Moscow Rules: What Drives Russia to Confront the West" the author, Keir Giles, decouples the current Russian foreign policy approach from its president and outlines his main argument according to which Putin, contrary to Western perceptions, is following the Russian mainstream. He does so by applying many persistent domestic and foreign policy approaches, most notably the assertion of great power status. Instead of an unpredictable interruption in the improving relations between the West and Russia after the Cold War, Giles observes a repetitive occurrence of sinusoidal fluctuations between rapprochement and alienation that can be traced back to tsarist times. Although each confrontation causes a new surprise in the West, Russian state behaviour is described as consistent, in which “Putin himself is not the issue” (p. 160). All in all, this book offers an overview of Russian thinking, the comprehension of which is of central importance for all those who want to understand not only Russian state behaviour, but above all the intrinsic world view of Russian citizens, which is inseparably linked to the political action of the state apparatus. Giles systematically builds up his argumentation by dividing the book into four main parts, in which he breaks down the Russian perception of its relationship with the West, the Russian self-perception and the way the system has shaped the lives of its citizens, the Russian moral framework, as well as the Russian cyclical history and the nature of change.

Decentring Russian policymaking

Western observers of Russian domestic and foreign policy often apply a rather Western-centric perspective. Keuleers et al. (2016), for instance, argue that analysts of European foreign policy tend to use a Eurocentric perspective, which can quickly lead to problems in understanding the concepts and framework conditions of non-European counterparts. This is the starting point of Giles’ work. He visualizes the vast differences between Europe and Russia by exemplifying experiences from the British novelist Gerald Seymour who outlined that crossing the Estonian-Russian border represents “a collision point in two worlds, tectonic plates, where great forces either tolerated each other […] or collided” (p. 6). Even though Giles explicitly emphasizes that the intention of his book does not lie in delivering an academic approach to understanding Russia or its behaviour, what he does is decentring the view of how Russia sees the West instead of adopting Western values and projecting them on Russian behaviour. This goes in line with the decentred perspective, which refers to analysing EU foreign policy from the context and perspective of the country and society being studied (see Keukeleire & Lecocq, 2018). The problem underlying this approach lies in the filtering of information and concepts that do not match or go beyond one's own world view. In order to apply the decentring approach, Fisher Onar and Nicolaidis (2013) propose the application of three dimensions in international relations. Firstly, by provincializing, foreign policy analysts recognize the specificity of their own standpoint, which is based for instance on their beliefs and worldview. By acknowledging their own subjectivity, they can learn from other worldviews (engagement), which ultimately leads them to renew relations in a non-European world based on mutual understanding, which Fisher Onar and Nicolaidis (2013) refer to as reconstruction.

In the EU Global Strategy paper 2016, former EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, stresses that “responsive external action must be underpinned by a strong knowledge base” (p. 48). In order to overcome possible knowledge gaps about other parts of the world, it is therefore crucial to acquire a deeper situational awareness, profound language skills as well as one's own local experience in the observed region. In this context, Keukeleire and Lecocq (2018) propose five partly overlapping conceptual categories in order to operationalise the decentring agenda, considering space, time, polity, norms, and language.

Spatial decentring

Spatial decentring refers to different geographies, demographics, developments, infrastructures and other factors of different regions or countries. In his book, Keir Giles outlines the Russian fear of land and resources. In the Russian perception, the length of its state borders presents a significant vulnerability to which Russia “must exert control far beyond them” (p. 26) in order to protect itself. What might be quickly understood as expansionist behaviour in the Western perception is rather an intrinsic existential fear than an insatiable hunger for territory. Furthermore, Russians seem to be forced to protect their vast amount of natural resources, in which, according to their perception, the West has a primary interest. Therefore, Giles contours that “the only secure Russian border is one with a Russian soldier standing on both sides of it” (p. 36).

Temporal decentring

Temporal decentring leads to recognizing different benchmark dates and ways of counting time in different regions. In his highly debated essay “The End of History?”, political scientist Francis Fukuyama (1989, p. 4) marks the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union as “the end of history as such”. President Putin, on the other hand, in a speech held in 2005 called the Soviet fall as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century (Reuters, 2018). Keir Giles also takes up on the different interpretations of the USSR dissolution. While often referred to as a ‘collapse’ in the Western hemisphere, Russia perceives the end of the Soviet era more as a “constructive and responsible choice” (p. 59) to voluntarily withdraw from territory.

Polity decentring

In their decentring framework, Keukeleire and Lecocq (2018, p. 285) also introduce the category of polity decentring, which refers to political entities or authority structures in different countries. Hard to understand from a liberal democratic perspective, Giles explains the Russian state order as based on a supreme leader’s authority. Russian citizens are being described as dependent on a strong leader and an omnipotent state. Not only do Russian citizens tolerate actions by their government, which would be seen intolerable in the West, but they also decouple the leadership from the current individual situation they live in – at least up to a certain degree (p. 152-7)[1]. This becomes visible in a 2017 poll, which shows that Russian under-25s desire to travel and see Russia develop into a more Western direction, while at the same time preponderantly approving Putin (p. 136). Russia furthermore applies a different conception of state sovereignty by thinking that only great powers can be sovereign, while small states are objects to differing degrees of influence (p. 27). This presents another diametral difference to the Western conviction that all states’ sovereignty, including that of small countries, must be protected. Another mismatch between Western and Russian worldviews lies in the perception of the civil society. While liberal democracies apply concepts such as civil liberties and democracy based on principles of reciprocity of individual rights and responsibilities, Giles observes a subordination of the individual to the interests of the group in Russia. This collectivist approach (sobornost’) results in Russian citizens being “subjects, rather than citizens, of Russia” (p. 88).

Normative decentring

Another category to consider is the role of norms, which are described as “a standard of appropriate behaviour for actors with a given identity” (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, as cited in Keukeleire & Lecocq, 2018, p. 283). It should be noted that there is no universality of norms and that values can be interpreted differently. In the case of Russia, for example, Giles outlines that territory, the political status as a great power, national prestige and hard security are more valued than some Western values such as individual rights and quality of life (p. 160). First and foremost, the notion of great power status is of central importance to the Russian state. Instead of measuring a state’s power based on different indicators such as GDP per capita or military spending, Russia represents the idea of having a birth right of greatness. With this comes the notion of ‘respect’, which, contrary to Western perceptions, is equated with fear of Russia. If this expectation is not met by the world community, Giles argues that Russia insists on being perceived as a great power and seeks confrontation (p. 12). Against this background, while the West, and the European Union in particular, is a proponent of multilateralism, Russia is described as a realist actor that defines national security as a zero-sum game. Destabilizing other countries therefore proves to be an integral part of the Russian foreign policy approach in order to increase its own national security. This, in turn, leads to a security dilemma in dealing with Russia (p. 21). Another discrepancy lies in the perception of democracy, which has strong negative connotations in Russian society due to the experiences of the 1990s. The role of democracy is only one of many examples given by Giles, with which he outlines the “moral decadence” (p. 108) of the West through the Russian eye.

Linguistic decentring

The final conceptual category of the decentring framework lies in the factor of language (Keukeleire & Lecocq, 2018, p. 287). With the language as the key to understanding and unveiling fundamental meanings and nuances, language barriers can embody a significant hurdle to comprehend each other. Giles takes up on this not only by referring to the fact that one of the challenges in understanding Russian is, indeed, the Cyrillic script. He also outlines the boundaries of some English terms. Truth and lies, for instance, are not as strictly separable as in the West. Russians rather consider the situational context, as well as the motivations and intentions of the speaker. This leads to two different translations of the term ‘truth’. While pravda means a conformity with certain accepted versions of facts, ethical, moral and legal standards of correctness, the actual truth is best translated with istina, which refers to metaphysical, unchanging truths about the universe (p. 110). This list of untranslatable terminologies can be continued at will. It is worth notable however that these distinctions of one term can, in parts, explain the concept of doublethink among Russians[2]. Further shredding the concept of truth allows people to accepting two contradictory assumptions of truth at the same time, which can be applied according to each situational context.


Keir Giles’ book offers a broad introduction into what leads to the reoccurring differences in mutual comprehension between Russia and the West and how these can be overcome in future relations. He does this by outlining several discrepancies, including spatial, temporal, polity-wise, normative, and linguistic mismatches between Russia and the West. Less attention, however, has been given to the vast differences among ‘Russians’ themselves. The categorization of ethnic or linguistic Russians (russkiy) and Russian citizens (rossiyskiy) alone gives us an insight into the diversity within the Russian state itself. While observers of Russian domestic and foreign policymaking, including Giles, often refer to Russia as if it was a homogenous entity, it is exactly the diversity and multiethnicity among Russians, which could have some additional explanatory potential for the state apparatus’ actions.

In the book we do not get a detailed discussion of this last aspect. Nevertheless, Giles, who currently serves as a Senior Consulting Fellow for the prestigious British think-tank Chatham House, offers plenty of other insights instead, based on his in-depth knowledge about Russia, including his fluency in the Russian language. Having served as a member of the BBC Monitoring Service reporting on Russian economic and political affairs in the early 1990s, his curriculum also includes the attachment to the UK Defence Academy’s Research and Assessment Branch (R&AB), where he briefed various governments and academic circles on Russian domestic and foreign policy issues. His experiences both in the Western hemisphere and in Russia make it certainly worthwhile to have his accumulated knowledge now collected in one volume.


Chenoy, Anuradha M., and Rajan Kumar (2017). Re-emerging Russia – Structures, Institutions and Processes. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan.

European Union (2016). Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe. A Global Strategy for the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy.

Finnemore, Martha, and Kathryn Sikkink (1998). International norm dynamics and political change. International Organization 52(4), 887-917.

Fisher Onar, Nora, and Kalypso Nicolaidis (2013). The Decentring Agenda: Europe as a post-colonial power. Cooperation and Conflict 48(2), 283-303.

Fukuyama, Francis (1989). The End of History?. The National Interest 16, 3-18.

Keukeleire, Stephan, and Sharon Lecocq (2018). Operationalising the decentring agenda: Analysing European foreign policy in a non-European and post-western world. Cooperation and Conflict 53(2), 277-295.

Keuleers, Floor, Daan Fonck, and Stephan Keukeleire (2016). Beyond EU navel-gazing: Taking stock of EU-centrism in the analysis of EU foreign policy. Cooperation and Conflict 51(3), 345-364.

Reuters (2018). Putin, before vote, says he’d reverse Soviet collapse if he could: agencies. By: reuters.com: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-election-putin/putin-before-vote-says-hed-reverse-soviet-collapse-if-he-could-agencies-idUSKCN1GE2TF (accessed 07 January 2019).

[1] Giles describes the Russians as extraordinarily tolerant and patient with their leadership. Nevertheless, once a certain tipping point has been reached, masses will mobilize and become extremely violent. The danger for the Russian leadership lies in the unpredictability of this tipping point. [2] For further explication of the concept of doublethink, see p. 113.

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