Chatham House exposes common Western myths about Russia

Marco Levytsky, editorial writer.

May 13, the prestigious think tank, Chatham House, issued a comprehensive report which deconstructs 16 of the most prevalent myths that shape contemporary Western thinking on Russia. This report is one that all Western leaders concerned with world security should pay very close attention to.

Founded in 1919 during the Paris Peace Conference, Chatham House, also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs, is an independent policy institute headquartered in London. Its mission is to provide authoritative commentary on world events and offer solutions to global challenges. It helped craft the multilateral institutions and mechanisms of global financial stability after the Second World War. It also gave African independence leaders a platform throughout decolonization and was key to Anglo-Soviet track-two diplomacy initiatives.

The authors of this report state that Western policies towards Russia have failed to achieve their basic goal of establishing a stable and manageable relationship with Moscow because the thinking behind them has often been unrealistic or simply flawed. In doing so, it presents 16 of the most prevalent myths about Russia. Some of these originate due to erroneous assumptions made by Western leaders, but the majority come “as a direct result of deliberate Russian lobbying and disinformation.”

Space does not permit us to examine all 16 myths, but there are several that relate directly to Ukraine that should be noted.

Myth: ‘The peoples of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are one nation’
As the report states: “The Kremlin misrepresents the region’s history in order to legitimize the idea that Ukraine and Belarus are part of Russia’s ‘natural’ sphere of influence. In fact, both countries have stronger European roots than the Kremlin cares to admit. It is historically inaccurate to claim that Russia, Ukraine and Belarus ever formed a single national entity (indeed, the latter two countries also have political and cultural roots in intrinsically European structures such as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania). The Kremlin’s narrative, which served to justify Russia’s claim to the status of primus inter pares among post-Soviet republics, acknowledges Russia’s right to interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbours to this day. The idea of a ‘triune’ Russian nation downgrades the uniqueness of historic indigenous cultures. Moreover, in questioning the authenticity of Ukrainian identity and the viability of ‘Belarusianness’ as national building-blocks, it seeks to entrench in international public opinion stereotypes that would make it harder for the two countries to pursue greater integration with Europe.

Myth: ‘Crimea was always Russian’
“The Kremlin propagates the fiction that Crimea legitimately and willingly ‘seceded’ from Ukraine and ‘rejoined’ Russia in 2014. If unchallenged, this myth risks further undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity and encouraging expansionist powers elsewhere. The subsequent drastic militarization of Crimea by Russia, and the latter’s unlawful restrictions on navigation in the Sea of Azov, increase the vulnerability both of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean to Russian security threats.

“Yet the reality is that Crimea has been in Russian hands for only a fraction of its history. Historically (before 2014), Crimea belonged to Russia for a total of only 168 years, or less than 6 per cent of its written history. Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, no major separatist movement has existed in Crimea. Ukrainians, Russians and Crimean Tatars co-existed peacefully, with wide-ranging autonomy provided by the constitution of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. The ‘referendum’ organized by Russia and held under duress on 16 March 2014 was in fact merely a smokescreen to formalize Russia’s military takeover of the peninsula.”

Included among its recommendations is a section entitled: Supporting Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space. It states the following:

“Insist that Russia is not entitled to an exclusive sphere of influence at the expense of the sovereignty of its neighbours. A Russian veto on the foreign and security policies of independent countries around its periphery should be publicly deemed unacceptable, not only because it is antithetical to Western values and priorities but because it is destabilizing for the security of Europe.

“Reject the concept of a single Russian nation encompassing Ukraine and Belarus. Russia’s contention that the core Slavic nations are ‘one people’ is an attempted legitimating device for intervention in those nations’ affairs. The idea must be contested because it is a serious obstacle to both countries’ stable development.

“Maintain commitment to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Russia’s neighbours, including Ukraine, and clearly communicate this to Russia. The illegality of the occupation and annexation of Crimea must not be glossed over or no longer discussed simply because it is inconvenient to do so.

“Build on the success of NATO security programmes in the Baltic Sea region by expanding these to the Black Sea. Such measures should include a reinforced forward presence in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, and should also utilize the new Enhanced Opportunities Programme for Ukraine as a vehicle to increase Black Sea security.”

As mentioned earlier, there is a lot more in this document than what we have referred to in this editorial. All of it, however, is very well thought out, remarkable in its historic accuracy and detail, and very relevant to the current state of world affairs. Chatham House’s objective in citing these myths is to “encourage a reappraisal by Western policymakers who have misconstrued the nature of the relationship with Russia for too long. By challenging incorrect assumptions about Russia, and the flawed policy arguments that are based on them, this report urges Western politicians and officials to re-examine their positions on Russia and the effects of their assumptions on policy.”

We, therefore, encourage our own Canadian decision makers, as well as those in the rest in the Free World to give careful consideration to this report.