Book Review: ‘Should We Fear Russia’ by Dmitri Trenin

At a time when “Russia experts are multiplying like rabbits”,and the Russia hashtag has become a permanent Twitter feature, it is refreshing to see a work that truly—and deeply—investigates the Kremlin’s behavior. One such work is the concise and illuminating “Should We Fear Russia?” by Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, a regional affiliate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In barely 125 pages, Trenin explores the status of the West-Russia relationship, focusing in particular the climate of fear that has shrouded the foreign policy relationship since 2014. Trenin points out that the Cold War analogy, invoked repeatedly since the Crimean annexation, has harmed rather than helped our understanding of the situation. Using this analogy makes us look for signs that will not come, and produces “preventable mistakes” of its own. With a deft hand, Trenin explores the Russian mindset since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and how the West’s failure to integrate a post-conflict former enemy—as well as a major power—resulted in a new conflict in just a generation.

Trenin’s argument does not go softly on Russia, either. His criticism of both Western and Kremlin politics is balanced and fair, drawing on an understanding and clarity of each perspective that is often hard to find. The first part of book explores the factors that have fueled the West’s fear of Russia and critically appraises their validity as well as their interpretation from the Russian perspective. He argues that the West seriously underestimated the humiliation of “losing” the Cold War, while the U.S. was blindly overconfident in claiming to have “won” it. In this environment, Russia’s real fears and concerns, including the fact that 25 million Russian citizens were left outside of Russian borders overnight, were ignored to the West’s own peril.

Secondly, Trenin explores how Russia actually does present real challenges to the West: “if anything, the West should fear Russia’s weakness more than its strength.” He details points of contention in the Middle East, eastern Europe and Asia, and explains that Russia’s refusal to be “led” by the West, namely the U.S., will not go away. Continual sanctions and “bringing Russia in-line” will simply not work and will only lead increase the possibility of conflict.

An underlying current of Trenin’s book is the loss of respect for the adversary. The West has forgotten that Russia is a nuclear power and no longer treats it as such. The lampooning and outright lack of cordiality, not seen even during the Cold War, makes us forget that we are not dealing with caricatures, but a real state, a real leader and real people. These are dangerous things to forget, especially when escalation seems to be so high on the agenda.

Trenin argues that Russia should be feared, but not for the simplistic reasons often given in the West. His suggestions on how to overcome upcoming challenges are sobering, pragmatic and, unfortunately, fundamentally lacking in Moscow, but perhaps even more so in Washington. Trenin’s work is in essence an example of Occam’s Razor: the simplest answer is often the best and most appropriate one. And yet, it is astounding that we give in to grandiose and hyperbolic theories when the best analysis is to put oneself in another’s shoes.

“Should We Fear Russia?” is tightly argued, clear and enjoyably written. Trenin presents a balanced, critical and level-headed analysis of both Washington’s and Moscow’s policies, as well as their mistakes and opportunities. We can only hope that foreign policy workers on both sides of the divide take up its wisdom.

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