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Should We Fear Russia?
Forfatter: Dmitri Trenin
Forlag: Polity Press (UK)
The Russia-Georgia war in 2008 was to show that the NATO expansion eastward limit had been reached. With the Ukraine crisis of 2013 – 15, it was exceeded. 


“Russia is both strong and weak; both authoritarian and lawless; traditionally and without values. Everything can change overnight, and nothing will change in 200 years. ”This is what Russian Dmitry Trenin writes in the easy-to-read and well-argued book Should We Fear Russia?. The author discusses developments in Russia and Russian foreign policy, and both goes through and addresses the most common reasons Western politicians give for their Russia fear. In addition, he asks whether Russia has reason to fear the West. He concludes that the fear is excessive on both sides and that there is an urgent need for confidence-building and conflict-reducing measures.

Russia-West crisis. The book begins with an enlightening description of how the Russian elite interpreted the collapse of the Soviet Union: The incident was understood as a voluntary liquidation of the old Russian empire, with Moscow's leadership itself declaring independence for both Russia and the other Soviet republics. The country's new elite thought the rewards would be an invitation to the western security community and dreamed of creating a free trade zone "from Vladivostok to Lisbon". At the same time, they expected to be treated as a great power – the second most powerful country in the alliance after the United States.

The West, on the other hand, interpreted the collapse of the Soviet Union as the result of a Western victory in the Cold War, and viewed Russia as a beaten and not entirely reliable state. Instead of welcoming the Russians, NATO and the EU moved ever closer to the Russian border, while it became clear that Russia was not allowed to join the community. The Russians perceived this as both a breach of trust and a threat, and eventually found it necessary to change policies to halt Western expansion. Trenin describes the Russia-Georgia war in 2008 as "a loud warning shot" that would show that NATO's eastward expansion limit had been reached. When the West later supported the provocative regime in Russia's most important neighboring Ukraine, this limit was exceeded. Russia, as is well known, responded to the regime change by annexing the Crimean Peninsula and supporting an armed uprising in eastern Ukraine.

The fight against Islamic extremism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are important fields where Russia and the West have common interests and opportunities for cooperation.

Russia's weaknesses. For a Western reader, it is worth noting precisely this: that from the Russians' point of view, the current conflict between East and West started not with the annexation of Crimea, but with the regime change in Ukraine. However, the fact that the split is deep and lasting seems to be a widespread view on both sides. Trenin sees it as likely that the Russians will now be driven east and into closer cooperation with China – that the country will go from being "the eastern part of the West" to becoming "the western part of the East".

Among the many concerns addressed and rejected in the book are the Western fears of Russian "hybrid warfare": a hidden form of war – a mix of information warfare, support for local Prorussian actors and such limited use of military forces that their presence cannot be proven. . The horror is unfounded, says Trenin: There is not a single western country where many enough in the population prefer Russia to their homeland – unlike in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

On the whole, it is convincingly argued that Russia has neither the will nor the opportunity to rebuild the Russian empire, much less threaten the West. Russia's GDP is only a fraction of the US, and the Russian defense budget is only a tenth of the Pentagon's. In addition, the country has almost no close allies. The economy is doing poorly, the institutions are corrupt and the opposition is divided. Political stability is largely linked to Vladimir Putin's personality and role.

In discussing whether Russia should fear the West, Trenin writes that what the West presents as "deterrent" to soothe NATO's easternmost member state in Moscow is perceived as military pressure, and that the Russian general staff no longer considers the West border to be sufficiently protected. The Russians have a genuine fear of US-funded "color revolutions" and the US plans to break Russia into several states. While this fear may be irrational and excessive, it is important that we in the West take on it for real.

The way forward. Trenin warns that any mishaps between Russia and NATO's naval or air force, provocative military exercises and troop build-up near each other increase the risk of conflict and could be fatal. This warning should be taken seriously, especially when he adds that "an actual war between Russia and NATO will almost certainly lead to a nuclear war disaster".

In order to dampen the tension and avoid misunderstandings that can get out of control, the author suggests that more dialogue be initiated. This should be done both at the top level, at the lower level and through established institutions such as the OECD, the UN Security Council and the NATO-Russia Council. At the same time, he points to the fight against Islamic extremism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as important fields where Russia and the West have common interests and opportunities for cooperation. These are wise tips that are easy to join.

Should We Fear Russia? treats very comprehensive topics over only 120 pages, but Trenin never writes easily or without documenting his claims. Few or no prior knowledge is required to read the book, and the author explains both the issues he addresses and their approach in an understandable and compelling way. He succeeds in explaining Russia's position in international politics without defending it. After reading his assessments of whether we should fear our mighty neighbor in the East, the Western Russia's fear appears almost paranoid and hysterical. The book is recommended for anyone who wants to understand more about the complicated relationship between NATO and Russia.

Aslak Storaker
Aslak Storaker
Storaker is a regular writer in Ny Tid, and a member of Rødt's international committee.

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