In-Depth Interview with Nicole Jackson

December 16, 2022

What originally drew you to study security and international studies, and why did you decide to focus on Russia and Central Asia?

As a child, I travelled widely with my parents, who researched and wrote on political and international issues. I loved languages, different cultures, history and politics, and was drawn to courses in in these disciplines when I arrived at U of T. Initially, that attraction was primarily to Western Europe, as I had attended schools in Berlin, Paris, Vienna, and Canberra. However, I was also fascinated with Central Asia, having visited the district around the Khyber Pass and Peshawar in Pakistan which was, even then, a refuge for Afghans. From an early age I was a shy observer, always trying to understand and reconcile different local and global perspectives. I grew up constantly on the move, but also spent time at a primitive summer cabin in rural Quebec. My parents were passionate, prolific, and worldly educators, the first generation in their families to attend university.

My ancestors had arrived in Canada in the mid 1800’s, among the first European settlers, to set up homesteads in the woods of Southern Ontario. Children in my father’s family were raised by Indigenous people after a family tragedy. Some of my mother’s family were Huguenots who escaped religious persecution in continental Europe for Ireland only to be forced to migrate again during the Potato Famine.

My interest in Russia, post-Soviet Central Asia and ‘security’ began in earnest during my BA. While I was a student at U of T (88-92), the Soviet Union collapsed. It was a momentous time, with enormous geopolitical repercussions for peoples and states.  I remember a course on Soviet Politics in which, in every class, we would discuss the impact of fast-moving events.  In the third year of my degree, I took a graduate course on ‘Soviet Nationalities Policies’ where we investigated Moscow’s policies and practices to keep control of the Central Asia and other republics and peoples in the Soviet Union.  As the Soviet Union  disintegrated, I was extremely excited to watch how Russia and the other 14 then-republics would develop their independence;  especially how Russia would evolve and create ties and relations with the newly independent states that now straddled Europe and Asia. Today, I am still studying the unravelling of this empire, and assessing its regional and global implications.

 At the U of T, I had the opportunity to study with Franklin Griffiths, one of the very first academics to use the term human security. In the early ‘90s, he was already writing and teaching about individual, environmental, indigenous, and state security in Russia and Canada’s Arctic. Investigating the contested concept of security has been central to my research ever since. I was hired to teach traditional and critical security studies to graduate students in my first tenure-track position at Warwick University in the UK.

From U of T, I went to the LSE to take an MSc in comparative government, specializing Soviet and Russian history, politics and policies. I wanted to be outside North America at a global university committed to engaging with other countries and peoples. I wanted to develop deep context, but also learn how to hold governments accountable and to help shape more equitable and effective policies. LSE was somewhat of an anomaly at the time. Elsewhere, it was quickly assumed that the ‘new Russia’ was no longer worthy of sustained scholarly and policy interest. Soviet studies began to disappear at universities and many professionals working on Russia even lost their jobs. More generally, what was then called “area studies” were replaced by more theoretical international relations programs. I persisted and found experts, and scholars and students who shared my views that studying Russia’s evolving politics and foreign policies, from many  perspectives, was more important than ever.

Halfway through my MSc I accepted an invitation to do a PhD with Prof Dominic Lieven, an eminent historian, expert on Russia and empires. He and Prof Margot Light, a well-known foreign policy and IR theorist, with expertise on the Soviet Union and Russia, co-supervised my dissertation. At this late point, I began years of Russian language training in London and Russia where I lived with Russian families and in university dorms across Moscow. From 1994-6, I made my first contacts with the Russian politicians whom I would later interview as part of my research. These first contacts happened thanks to a ground-breaking initiative focused on Russian politics and foreign policy developed by Harvard University and Moscow Social and Political Studies Program.

The mid 1990s were very exciting years in Russia when many ideational, political and economic alternative paths seemed possible. I was drawn into an increasingly rigorous and free political debate, and was fascinated to watch as Russians began a partial push away from empire and towards alternative political, economic and foreign policies. During these years, Russia also became involved militarily in a civil war in Tajikistan and other separatist conflicts in the former Soviet space. How exactly was Russia exerting its political, economic, military and ideational influence? Why and how were identities, ideas and policies changing over time? What justifications was the new state giving? I also asked myself why so few in the West were paying much attention to what was happening in the former Soviet territory, whether they should be, and if so, what could be done? These were all questions I would go on to research and write about.

What have been some of your proudest scholarly achievements?

Those early developments and questions led to my first major project and early fieldwork. My interviews in Russia focused on the Russian state’s multifaceted involvement in civil and separatist wars in the former Soviet Union. This work culminated in the publication of Russian Foreign Policy and the CIS; Theories, Debates and Action which examines the role of ideas and elite political and military debates in Russia’s military involvement in Georgia, Moldova, and Tajikistan during the 1990s. To date, this is still one of the few books that examines these wars, and it shows how ideas and identities inform foreign policy orientations, debates and, ultimately, Russian actions.

 Over time, I have continued to write about Russia’s involvement in wars in the former Soviet region, investigating the dramatic narrowing of political debate and more extreme ideas that have dominated the discourse and informed and justified Russian actions. In June 2022, I testified to the Senate of Canada on Russia and the current situation in Ukraine . One of my next projects will be to write a chapter on the evolution of Russian debates and actions in military conflicts for Routledge’s forthcoming Handbook on Russian and Soviet Military Studies.

What are the other major lines of inquiry in your work?

After my PhD, I held fellowships at Carleton University and the Liu Institute at UBC. There I began to focus on how, why, and with what results, actors securitize non-traditional issues. Much of this research examined security perceptions, norms and challenges in post-Soviet Central Asia. After 9/11 there was a lot of interest in Central Asia, but my work on the region had begun much earlier with my dissertation’s chapter on the civil war in Tajikistan which was critical of international policies. I conducted field work in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan from 2003-6 which resulted in publications that examined misperceptions and the ‘discourse of danger’ of human trafficking, narcotic trafficking, and terrorism. I critiqued the Copenhagen Schools’ securitization framework in my analysis of the role played by international organizations seeking to counter the trafficking of narcotics and persons in Central Asia. This article, published in Security Dialogue, develops the idea of ‘security dichotomies’ and argues that these dichotomies need to be considered in a comprehensive analysis of why attempts to securitize succeed or fail.

Building on my dissertation’s research into Russia’s involvement in Tajikistan’s civil war, my further research on security challenges has focused mostly on Russia’s security role in Central Asia. In a publication examining Central Asian regional security organizations, I showed how shared security norms in Eurasia resulted in ‘statist multilateralism’, which in turn informed the institutional design of two main security organizations, thereby directing the nature of cooperation. In another highly cited article on the role of external factors and authoritarianism, I examined of the role of ideas, norms and ‘regional authoritarian learning’ in strengthening Central Asian regimes (their management of political contestation, use of coercion, containment of civil society and degree of legitimacy). I have continued to address the role of ideas and security perceptions on the evolution of Russia’s identities, most recently examining how they inform Russia’s diplomatic and security policy on the use of force in outer space.

What has been your most recent research focus?

My third and most recent line of inquiry combines my interests in securitization and Western responses to Russia.  I began work in this area because as a Canadian expert on Russia I believe I have an obligation to also understand and critique Canadian and Western foreign policy. Moreover, over the last several years, it has become increasingly difficult for me to conduct research on security issues inside Russia. I therefore examine how Canada and NATO securitize rhetoric and policy in response to Russian military and hybrid (non-military) challenges. This research began with my 2017 SSHRC-funded report which synthesized and evaluates existing knowledge about Canadian and NATO responses after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. (Earlier in 2002 I published a report on Russia-NATO relations for the Canadian Dept. of Foreign Affairs). Subsequent published research has addressed knowledge gaps highlighted in the report and has contributed to (conceptual and theoretical) academic and policy debates about the evolving role of deterrence and resilience in relation to hybrid challenges. My most recent article in International Journal (2021) investigates how and why Canadian government actors have securitized foreign ‘disinformation’ through discursive framing, stated policy intentions and actions. I am currently considering how to best to expand this research to examine the implications of Russia’s war in Ukraine on Canada’s evolving security and defence discourse and policy.

Other things you would like to share with SIS community?

My aim has been, and continues to be, to contribute to academic debates and contextualized empirical studies, as well as to the practical consideration of existing and alternative policy options for a more secure and peaceful world.

I love teaching, and all my courses incorporate insights from my research and combined theory, contextualized and complex empirical studies and the consideration of ethical and policy implications. My dream is for the School for International Studies to become a preeminent home for open-minded research which embraces multiple traditional and alternative perspectives and engages with, and contributes to, local and global communities as well as policy and practitioners worlds.