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Moscow Rules: what drives Russia to confront the West

Book Review: Keir Giles.

On28th January 2019, Sir Mark Sedwill (the UK’s National SecurityAdvisor (NSA), Cabinet Secretary and Head of theCivil Service) confirmed that the Russian Federation remainsa principal National Security challenge.  With this in mind, and accepting the Chief ofthe Defence Staff’s (CDS) recent charge to betterunderstand the multi-polar world of competing powers, Keir Giles could not havebetter timed the release of Moscow Rules.  Whether you are just starting your Russian learningjourney, you are a more experienced “watcher” testing existing assumptions oryour interest has been spiked by recent revanchistRussia writing, Giles uses his thirty years of experience to deliver what willbecome an essential reference source for anyone with a professional or personalinterest in understanding more about Russia.  The first indication of the quality of thebook comes from a quick scan of the Acknowledgements which contains some of theforemost western thought leaders on Russia; including names from ChathamHouse, Brookings, OxfordUniversity’s Changing Character of War Centre and ahost of other experts.

The provocative title, a nod to Cold War espionage, should not lead the reader to assuming this is a blinkered condemnation of Russia.  Though some might view the central theme as fatalistic, Moscow Rules encourages greater comprehension to support future coexistence whilst acknowledging that some strategic interests of Moscow and the West will likely remain incompatible.  The ten chapter book is composed around analytic themes1 – this is a strength and means that the reader can more easily return to specific interest areas in the future. Giles uses the themes to explore Russia’s self-perception and examine the enduring power tensions the country has domestically, across the post-Soviet space and with the West.  The importance of history remains a constant thread throughout; this does not trap the reader in the past but rather encourages them to understand that Russia’s current behaviours are shaped by experience and context.  The book’s structure provides an accessible insight into the nation’s, at times painful, journey through the Motherland narrative, internal control, balance of individual vs state to the “emergence” from Communism and continuing cycles of tension with the West.

Stand out chapters on the Russian psyche, the value of historical study and the potential for change will serve as a useful handrail for policy makers, analysts and researchers alike.  The reader will likely have current assumptions and views challenged as the “repetitive… story of Russia” is carefully illustrated and deconstructed2.  I particularly enjoyed the concluding “Way Forward” chapter.  It serves as a timely reminder that simply “hoping for a different future Russia” is not a viable policy.  Whilst one might not agree with all the conclusions, Giles presents a clear framework for future thought and discussion.  Tellingly, there are no easy solutions on offer but this is another strength as the reader is left with further homework, not least comprehension (pages 162 – 164).  Though only two and a half pages long, this gets to the heart of some of the 21st Century’s ambiguity and complexity challenges inherent within executing the UK’s National Security Strategy.  Significant recent coverage has focused on the technology big bet choices that Defence currently faces; however, Giles reminds us that more traditional big bet choices3 also require attention to generate effective policy advice and decision making.

One caution, this is one view on Russia.  To meet the challenges outlined by the NSA and CDS, please do not let this become the only book you read on this topic.  There is a treasure trove of additional reading featured in Giles’s Notes section (175 – 226).  In a break from most book reviews, I also recommend the following for those looking for more: “A History of Russia, 9th Edition” by Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, “Lost Kingdom” by Serhii Plokhy, “Russia’s Futures” by Richard Sakwa and “Russian Political War” by Mark Galeotti.  To accept Giles’s challenge of developing an understanding of the view from Moscow to support effective communication, you should also consider reading Russian academic/ think tank writing4.  One might not agree with the papers and arguments but this, potentially, uncomfortable reading/ learning is another step toward better comprehension; something that Giles proposes is critical to providing “the basis for safeguarding peace”… combined with the need for “strategic patience” (page 174).

Toconclude, I will borrow a quote from Giles’s book (page 159) that remains justas relevant for Russian study in 2019 as when it was originally penned in 1962:

“In order to understand them, both to comprehend their past and to forecast their future, we must take full account not only of the period since 1917 but also Russia’s age-old experience, much of it tragic, through many centuries. Then we must ask ourselves what has changed and what is the same in the underlying sources or causes of Russian attitudes and policies toward the West.”

Frederick L. Schuman 5
William McKeran

William McKeran is studying at the UK Defence Academy and King’s College London. He is undertaking a Masters by Research that is using Complexity Theory to analyse the UK’s National Security Council, Fusion Doctrine and the Russian Federation.


  1. Russia’s Part in the World, the Internal System, Inheritance and Prospects for Change.
  2. James Foote, Russian and Soviet Imperialism, (London: Foreign Affairs Publishing, 1972), 58.
  3. Though not specified in Giles’s RF comprehension observations; this is a useful prompt to government for identification of and investment in thematic specialisation, cultural/ language expertise and strategic communications set against the NSA’s evolving region and theme Threat vision.
  4. Including the Russian International Affairs Council, the Valdai International Discussion Club and Russia in Global Affairs.
  5. Frederick L. Schuman, The Cold War: Retrospect and Prospect, (Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1962), 13.

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