Why Russia plays by its own rules

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Story highlights

  • Edward Lucas: Rules don't apply to Russia. But Russia applies rules to other people
  • But if West wants Russia to obey the rules, a good start would be to do a better job in following them ourselves, he says

Edward Lucas is a senior editor at The Economist, where he was the Moscow bureau chief from 1998 to 2002. He is also senior vice- resident at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington, DC, think tank. The opinions expressed are his own.

(CNN)Rules don't apply to Russia. But Russia applies rules to other people. That, put crudely, is the Kremlin's outlook on life, exemplified by the latest bombshell from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). In a sense, it's no surprise.

Russia has, since 1991, been at the center of an investigation into fraud involving IMF money, defaulted on its debt, flouted international human rights law in its wars in Chechnya, launched a cyberattack on Estonia, provoked a war in Georgia, annexed Crimea, and brazenly lied over the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in 2014.
WADA's report adds weight to its exposé this summer of Russian doping, which resulted in Olympic bans on scores of Russian athletes. The new material, announced Friday, highlights the sheer scale of the operation, claiming that it was authorized and implemented at the highest level.
    But it leaves unanswered the biggest and thorniest question: Why does Russia so flagrantly flout international laws, rules and conventions?
    Making generalizations about national character is risky (and these days smacks of political incorrectness). But serious scholars of Russian affairs have long wrestled with this problem. One of the most notable was a State Department official called Raymond F. Smith, whose Cold War classic "Negotiating with the Soviets" is still much pored-over by business executives wanting insights into their Russian counterparts' mindset.
    Smith explained how the imposition of Marxist-Leninist dogma on top of the czarist-era feudal mindset created a different pattern of thinking.
    First, Soviets did not believe in win-win solutions (having rarely experienced such outcomes). Second, spouting vranyo (baloney) is an essential lubricant of social and business life. Third, and most importantly, Soviet negotiators regarded rules as merely an expression of power. The rule-setting party aims to constrain and overcome the other players in the game. The rational response for the other party is therefore to break the rules. This can be done overtly or covertly, depending on the situation. Morals don't come into it.
    Conversely, if you are the rule setter, then you draft them in your favor and enforce them vigorously. You may dress them up with some independent dispute-settling procedures and other elements of due process. These are vranyo: not to be taken seriously.
    That was the way the Soviet Union worked. It preached anti-imperialism abroad, and ruthlessly crushed dissent in its own empire. At home, the constitution of the Soviet Union offered, in theory, great political freedoms and guarantees of fair treatment. In practice, the Soviet legal system was a club for beating the population into submission. Dissidents would be punished for political crimes, or (once rendered unemployable) for being parasites on society. Or they could be consigned to a psychiatric hospital where they would be zombified with powerful drugs.
    All this was strictly in accordance with the law -- yet the real decisions were made not by the judges and doctors concerned, but by their political masters, who would typically communicate the instructions by telephone.
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    The ideological superstructure has changed: Nobody in Russia studies the mind-bending and once-compulsory pseudo-philosophy of dialectical materialism these days. But the old habits remain. Russian decision-makers, like their Soviet predecessors, believe that the world is a dog-eat-dog affair, mostly run by America in its own interests.
    All the talk of a rules-based multilateral order, international human rights, or government of the people and by the people, is a sham. What matters is power. America bullied Cuba. Why shouldn't Russia do the same to Ukraine?
    This thinking applies not only to geopolitics. Russians sincerely believe that Western athletes cheat, too. They just don't get caught. Maybe this is because they are clever, or because the rules are (as is to be expected) selectively enforced. The row over doping is merely a Western sanction, imposed on Russia for the war in Ukraine.
    This worldview may be distorted, but it is not wholly fanciful. Russians who have worked in the city of London or on Wall Street are understandably cynical about the way the global financial system works. Why is it all right to launder the money of Saudi princes, or of African kleptocrats, but not that of Kremlin cronies? If the West wants Russia to obey the rules, a good start would be to do a better job in following them ourselves.