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Overcoming Russocentrism in academia

An impulse to reach for the first apparently obvious solution can be detrimental to academic analysis and to policies associated with it.

May 22, 2024 - Dzmitry Pravatorau - Articles and Commentary

An interior view of the Grand Kremlin Palace built in 1849. Photo: Shutterstock

The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine was followed by torrents of discussions, debates and arguments on how “Russian” studies in the West might be reimagined in this new context. In general, pundits agree that more focus is required on the historical context and colonial experiences of the region, as decades of Russocentrism have merely reproduced a plethora of Russian myths and representations about the country’s smaller neighbours. These ideas quickly came to be seen as the norm. While these propositions are relevant, more mundane aspects of academic inquiry, which are easy to overlook in day-to-day work, should be given more priority in research in order to retain a minimal level of objectivity. Such urgency is especially visible in the case of an uncommon academic alliance between some prominent neorealists and scholars of critical geopolitics, who claim that the war was caused by the “reckless” West.

In the fog of Russocentrism

For decades, Ukraine together with many former Soviet republics have been overwhelmingly researched from a Russocentric vantage point. This was originally introduced into the West by post-revolution Russian émigré thinkers. This led to a substantial degree of western academic and political ignorance concerning Ukraine. Before and during the early Cold War, many western thinkers and elites subsequently demonstrated their eagerness to ignore such issues and justify Soviet imperialist policies and crimes – such as the Great Famine in Ukraine. This was frequently done because of the power of the Soviet government’s propaganda.

Russia’s intellectual hegemony over Ukraine in the West was utilized to construct local hegemonic geographies of Eastern Europe, which in some cases were accepted by a wide group of researchers. According to Professor Taras Kuzio, this hegemony resulted in a palpable “crisis in Russian studies”, whereby the Soviet and then the Russian state were analysed as just another ordinary unit in the international system. Such a perspective did not take into account the imperial character of Russian nationalism, as well as an aggressive militant patriotism among Russians. This approach also demonstrated academic orientalism through a selective use of sources in line with Russocentrism, and the dismissal of the voices and national interests of Russia’s immediate neighbours.

After the breakup of the USSR, Soviet and Russian studies have been redesignated as “Slavic” or “East European” studies in many universities across the West. This, however, did not lead to a major re-evaluation of curricula, or a re-assessment of the Russian and Soviet imperial past. In this context, western research has continued to be largely informed by discourse that articulates Russia’s right to intervene in its exclusive sphere of influence. Ukraine, therefore, has been widely interpreted as an area that was destined to remain in Moscow’s geopolitical orbit for historical and security reasons. Poland and the Baltic states have warned about the risk of Russia’s renewed belligerence for decades. Despite this, Russocentric discourses found a significant presence in academia in Western Europe and the US. They can be found in a large range of academic works, stretching from conspiratorial accounts based on outright fabrications informed by Russian propaganda, to more traditional scholarly inputs, which, nevertheless, also suffer from Russocentric distortions.

Cosplaying natural scientists

Among the most prominent advocates of Ukraine’s disarmament and neutrality through peace negotiations in line with the Kremlin’s demands are the so-called “realists”. These are academics and commentators who build their arguments – or at least claim to do so – on the basis of Kenneth Waltz’s ground-breaking theory of neo- or structural realism. Enjoying a level of academic hegemony of its own, neorealism portrays international relations as an eternal fight for survival in conditions of international anarchy. As a result, the state is the basic unit of interactions – a “black box” where the nature of the internal regime does not matter in international interactions. Based on a naturalistic paradigm of inquiry, neorealism attempts to approach knowledge production in the same way as the natural sciences: via observation, evidence collection, and the construction of theories that are then tested to arrive at conclusions deemed to have a universal character. Aimed at elegance and simplicity, the theory, as Waltz himself stated on several occasions, is “not a theory of foreign policy”. Due to this, further conditions should be specified to explain a state’s specific course of action.

Some of the most prominent neorealist arguments in favour of accommodation concerning Russia’s demands, in reality, abandon the most crucial conventions of the theory. Take Professor John Mearsheimer, for example, whose arguments about Ukraine are posited in an uncompromising axiomatic fashion bordering on dogmatism. In 2014, Mearsheimer famously blamed the West for its liberal “delusions” in allegedly attempting to draw Ukraine into the EU and NATO. More recent statements by Mearsheimer would leave an expert in the region with a feeling that one is watching another propagandistic talk show on Russian television. Russia, according to Mearsheimer, attacked in “self-defence” without any imperialist intentions, and has never articulated a desire to conquer all of Ukraine. The invasion of Donbas is called a “civil war”, and the ousting of the pro-Russian President Yanukovych a “coup”. “Ultra-nationalists” allegedly “wield significant political power” in Ukraine, according to the scholar. Putin, the professor further claims, “does not have a history of lying to other leaders”, and that is why Russia’s messages have to be taken seriously. “It is what Russia thinks that matters,” argues Mearsheimer about the alleged insecurity that Russia feels regarding the West. Europe and the US are supposedly “deeply committed that Russia loses”.

A closer reading of Mearsheimer’s texts suggests that his argument is highly problematic even by neorealist standards. First, the academic is highly ambiguous on what specific offshoot of realism he prefers for analysis. By stating that Putin worried that he could be the next victim of “Western social engineering”, Mearsheimer unwittingly opens the “black box” of the Russian state, which is more in line with neoclassical realism. Blaming the West for alleged expansion in Russia’s “backyard”, he fails to consider that such an “expansion” (if it had actually existed) would be well-aligned with his own theory of offensive realism, in which the “West” would be posited as a revisionist power expanding into Eastern Europe. Finally, blaming the West, but not international anarchy, as Paul D’Anieri rightly notes, Mearsheimer introduces visibly normative undertones into analysis. This goes against the naturalistic conventions of inquiry free from value and attitude.

Such conventions are also broken when it comes to evidence demonstrated by the conflict. Putin and his court subordinates have actually lied on multiple occasions. It is possible to recall their denial of Russian troops being in Crimea, and their dismissal of claims that they intended to attack Ukraine in 2022. If Putin, as Mearsheimer claims, had been rational, he would have received a signal from the West that no imminent or future membership for Ukraine in bodies like NATO was in sight. As of February 2024, no invitation to the Alliance has been issued to Ukraine. Moreover, Russia was clearly enjoying a high level of cooperation with the West, including trade, international events and technology. This was true even after half-hearted sanctions had been put in place following the annexation of Crimea. In no way did the West reject Russia entirely as many realist commentators claim: the annexation was tacitly accepted as a fait accompli. Even now, when Russia has effectively turned into a terrorist state, the West still retains a level of cooperation with the Kremlin via trade and diplomacy, with numerous western firms and businesses indirectly sponsoring Ukraine’s further destruction. Irregular, truncated and conditional military assistance from the West also goes against claims that the West is interested in Russia’s defeat, and rather suggests that there have been attempts to retain the status quo for as long as possible.

Mearsheimer’s claims of “ultra-nationalists” in power go against reality. The current ruling party in Ukraine, Sluha Narodu [Servant of the People], won in 2019 with a programme to negotiate with Russia and end the war. Recent waves of antisemitism in Europe contrast well with this “ultra-nationalist” Ukraine, which has expressed firm support for Israel. Finally, Putin’s obsession with pseudo-history, the eradication of all things Ukrainian in the occupied territories, and driving Ukrainians out of their homes, hardly suggest that Russia does not plan to occupy all of Ukraine, or erase Ukrainian consciousness in the annexed lands.

Using detailed references to Putin’s speeches and texts, and ignoring evidence, Mearsheimer abandons the canons of naturalism. He therefore becomes similar to an inexperienced interpretivist, uncritically scrutinizing selective Kremlin texts rather than testing arguments against evidence. This approach can hardly be deemed academic, and policy recommended on the basis of such analysis can have dangerous consequences.

Critical of whom?

Unlike neorealism, critical geopolitics is a relatively new discipline that has quickly gained prominence over the last three decades. This theoretical approach engages with geopolitical representations, imaginations and discourses expressed through the media, popular opinion, academia, and by state leaders. Many scholars in the discipline have undertaken the deconstruction of hegemonic discourses in various fields of social interactions. It is then puzzling how Russocentrism, accompanied by an uncritical use of Russia-generated discourses, has managed to slip into this academic field.

One prominent example can be seen in the books and other academic contributions by Professor Gerard Toal, one of the founders of the field and a creator of the critical geopolitics theoretical framework. His 2017 book on the causes of the wars in Georgia and Ukraine, for instance, is based on official Russian translations of the Kremlin’s messages with the aim of investigating Russia’s geopolitical culture and the reasons behind its expansionism. Such a restrictive approach to interpretation is curious given that Putin and his subordinates have a history of lying to international audiences, and have continuously tailored the content of their messages for specific situations. It is more detrimental to the analysis, though, that no intellectual hegemony over Ukraine is acknowledged, and the author gravitates analytically toward Russia as the main object of interpretation. In fact, at one stage Toal explicitly dismisses Ukraine’s narrative of a “bastion of freedom” in the post-Soviet area without any investigation of the country’s geopolitical culture.

A solution to the end of the conflict, which Toal shares with neorealists, is Ukraine’s neutrality. The West, according to the author, should abandon its alleged attempts to expand into Russia’s backyard. The fate of any disputed territories, including recently occupied Ukrainian regions, should be decided through “referendums”. Curiously enough, like Mearsheimer, Toal does not pay attention to the mutual character of security perceptions, and to the legitimate security concerns of Ukraine and other states in the region. While he acknowledges the brutality and genocidal actions of the Russian army, no insights are put forward on how a neutral Ukraine can be safeguarded from a new potential Russian invasion, especially when Moscow has violated all relevant treaties signed before with Ukraine.

Recent academic viewpoints from Professor Nick Megoran are similarly impacted by Russocentric narratives. The artefacts of interpretation here are represented exclusively by scattered quotes and references from the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the head of Russia’s war propaganda machine Margarita Simonyan, and Putin himself. Megoran, following the neorealist argument in relation to Ukraine, visibly exaggerates the power of NATO, viewing it as a self-expanding hegemonic bloc. This is done while ignoring recent evidence, such as Turkey and Hungary’s derailment of Sweden’s swift accession. Some curious self-invented collocations such as the “Ukrainianization of language” suggest that the author has not engaged with Ukrainian sources much, if at all.

As shown above, introducing neorealist arguments into critical geopolitics only further shows the problems of this outlook. Such beliefs impose a universal causal logic on the chosen case, depriving interpretative inquiry of its context-specific character, and the actors (including Russia itself) of agency. By focusing on Russia as an exclusive object of interpretation and emphasizing alleged NATO expansion as the main trigger for the conflict, it is easy to disregard many other potential variables in the equation. These include Russia’s barely hidden imperial drive and Ukraine’s status outside NATO, which made the state easy prey for the Kremlin and others.

Moscow speaking

An impulse to reach for the first apparently obvious solution can be detrimental to academic analysis, and what is more crucial – to policies based on such analyses. Abandoning tried-and-tested conventions of academic inquiry; failing to acknowledge academic hegemonies; ignoring negative cases; and neglecting additional research informed by different sources, actors, or scholars, can instead restate and reinforce Russia’s geopolitical discourses about Ukraine in academic texts. Like the self-proclaimed anti-imperialist countries of the “Global South” that effectively support Russia’s war against Ukraine, in academia one may similarly end up on one particular side rather than retain objectivity. It is easy to imagine the outrage that would emerge if the Iraq War of 2003 was researched from an exclusively pro-American angle. Yet, in relation to Ukraine, a certain academic orientalism persists. Do we really want academia to plunge into the realm of post-truth alongside the media and politics, where, in Peter Pomerantsev’s words, “nothing is true, and everything is possible”?

Dzmitry Pravatorau is a Brisbane-based researcher in Baltic and post-Soviet studies.

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