Unpacking Russia's New National Security Strategy
On December 31, 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a new national security strategy for his country. The timing may be part of a new pattern: about a year ago, Russia’s new military doctrine came out--on December 25, 2014. Whether the aim is to give Russia and the world a holiday gift or to avoid notice, this practice effectively ensures that not a few Russia-watchers face a choice: to push away a celebratory beverage or two to study the new document, or to decide that strategy goes better with a little celebration.
Whatever your personal preference on this point, it’s hard not to come away from the strategy with Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” playing in the back of your head. It presents a Russia focused on increasing its influence and prestige and cementing its national unity; a Russia that believes that it is accomplishing its aims, but which simultaneously feels threatened by the United States and its allies. There is also no question that Russia is concerned about its economy, which Moscow knows is in trouble (and not just because of Western sanctions, convenient as they are to blame). In short, this is the strategy document of an ambitious Russia that sees constraints on its ambitions as threats to be overcome, whether they come from within or without.
Most of this is not new. Indeed, a lot of it reiterates past Russian positions, some long-held and some crystallized over the last two years of crisis. But while there are few surprises in this document, its presentation of Russian present-day worldview makes it worth our attention.
A number of themes run through the new strategy. Perhaps the most important is that of prestige and leadership. Early on, the strategy expresses pride in Russia’s increased role in “solving the most important international problems” (all translations my own). It lists ensuring Russia’s status as one of the world’s great powers as one of the country’s fundamental long-term interests. In the section on economics, it states that Russia aims to raise its GDP to one of the largest in the world. Indeed, the final words of the document are “increase the competitiveness and international prestige of the Russian Federation.” All of this speaks to a Russia unhappy with its current level of prestige-- and very much focused on increasing it.
Russia intends to accomplish this in part through participation in international organizations, mechanisms of international law, and other partnerships. Regional organizations are particularly important, as are some bilateral relations: with China and India especially. Cooperation with the US and EU is not excluded, and may even be necessary, but depends on those entities’ appropriate respect for Russia’s interests. Russia feels it is making progress: it has already weathered assaults on its economy and demonstrated its capacity to effectively defend its interests, including the rights of compatriots abroad (presumably a nod to Crimea, if not Eastern Ukraine).
But while the national security strategy is not devoid of foreign policy goals, it is actually heavily focused on Russia itself. The strategy is divided into sections, reflecting subcomponents of Russian security. These are: national defense; state and social security; quality of life of Russian citizens; economic growth; science, technology, and education; health; culture; and ecology and environment. Note that most of these focus on Russia’s own development, and only tangentially relate to foreign policy.
In this context, it’s notable that another consistent theme throughout is values. Specifically, there are fairly frequent references (ten by my count) to “traditional Russian spiritual-moral values.” This formulation is new—prior government strategic documents referenced values, but not in quite this way, and certainly not this often. Here, these values are described as having been reborn. They are now in need of development, reinforcement, and protection from foreign values, which might spread through information campaigns and “poor-quality” foreign popular culture. The threats to these values come
from both from the West and from terrorists and extremists. Interestingly, a few times the discussion of values is paired with appeals to the unity of Russian culture and morals and the Russian tradition of ethnic, racial, and religious tolerance.
All in all, the emphasis on traditional values, whatever they are, seems part and parcel of an effort to strengthen national unity, listed as another national security interest at the outset. It is, however, a little difficult to reconcile with existing Russian policies, laws, and (especially) practices, which tend to privilege ethnic Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox Church over and above others. In this context, the document’s call to balance the needs of labor migrants and local populations, particularly in cultural and religious contexts, raises some questions.
The strategy articulates some pretty lofty goals on the home front. The section on economics, particularly, is impressive in its plans for how to improve Russia’s economy. Among other things, Russia aims to eliminate economic discrepancies between regions and mitigate those between individuals; effect growth; and improve energy security (through a laundry list of mechanisms), government policy, financial systems, budgeting, etc. It also plans to attract more foreign investment, develop new high technology sectors of the economy, create strategic mineral reserves, build a unified transportation infrastructure, stimulate the growth of small and medium-sized business, and so on and so forth. It will seek new economic partners while increasing its independence in various sectors of the economy (including, notably, agriculture), partly through “rational” import-substitution. Interestingly, Russia continues to see the military industrial complex as a driver of industrial modernization, although, as the strategy notes, this would require major changes in that sector (leaving aside the question of whether it could then have an effect on the economy as a whole).
In the national defense context, the strategy cites the existing military doctrine as covering Russian goals and plans, then goes on to discuss whole-of-government approaches to deterrence and national security, as well as societal mobilization. In this, it is almost refreshingly limited in its discussions of military power. However, the strategy also includes a set of metrics for the success of this strategy, one of which is the extent of military modernization.
If one pairs Russian military modernization plans, even if these are not dwelt on here, with the promises of improvements in technology, science, education, and health care, as well as general goals for Russians’ quality of life, implementing this strategy seems like an expensive undertaking, particularly given the state of Russia’s economy and the need for all the fixes discussed above. Indeed, among the other metrics for the strategy’s success are the percentage of GDP spent on health, education, and so forth. But I, for one, wonder what the actual spending goals might be, and where the money might come from. It is notable that unlike military modernization, these metrics measure inputs, not outcomes. Percentages of GDP can vary widely, and
What Worries Russia
The new strategy lists a broad range of threats, both in general and specific to the various components of Russian national security. Some of those related to foreign policy are familiar from Russia’s last strategy, published in 2009, and the military doctrine: global instability, proliferation of conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction, information warfare, corruption, subversion, and a range of transnational threats. Russia is also concerned about U.S. missile defense systems stationed abroad, Global Strike capabilities, and “strategic non-nuclear high-precision weapons,” as well as the militarization of space, all themes that came up in the military doctrine.
Russia is also worried about what it terms Western efforts to create flashpoints of tension in Eurasia, which pose a challenge to Russian national interests, the overthrow of legitimate regimes, and provocation of domestic instability and conflict abroad. These also fit with past Russian strategy documents. Other listed threats and worries may be new to official strategy, but not to Russian rhetoric over the past two years. This document, for example, lists Western support for the overthrow of Ukraine’s government and the rise of the Da’esh (termed the Islamic State) as challenges to Russian interests. Western sanctions are described as at least a partial cause of Russia’s economic woes, but are not tied to Ukraine, and, indeed, given no particular background, leaving the casual reader to interpret them as simply one component of Western perfidy.
But while past strategic documents implied a threat from the United States, last year’s military doctrine preferred to term U.S. and NATO activities as dangers (in Russian military parlance, a danger is a concern, while a threat could spark conflict), although a number of specific capabilities (e.g., Global Strike) were classed as threats. This strategy asserts that the U.S. and its allies are seeking to contain Russia in order to maintain their dominance of world affairs, which Russia’s independent foreign policy challenges. It describes NATO as a threat because the alliance is expanding its military infrastructure towards Russian borders (a phenomenon noted as a concern in the 2009 strategy). In sum, the strategy depicts a United States which is leading its allies in undermining the global order, and a Russia at risk because of its opposition to those policies.
The strategy also makes the somewhat puzzling assertion of the spread of U.S. “military-biological” labs near Russia’s borders. This most likely refers to a number of cooperative biological defense facilities set up with the governments of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, which some in Russia have viewed as a means to continue the development of biological weaponry, under cover of efforts to seek antidotes and defenses. The inclusion of this new “threat” in the doctrine may be an effort to lay the groundwork for countering U.S. accusations of Russian violations of other treaties, notably the INF treaty, with counter-accusations of its own.
Aside from the United States and its allies, Russia is also quite concerned about subversion, from without and within. Most of this discussion echoes that in the military doctrine, including concerns about protecting the domestic population from extremist propaganda and so forth. Interestingly, the strategy’s discussion of so-called “Color Revolutions” is a bit different from past documents, which tended to blame them on foreign agents. While foreign agents are prospectively to blame for a great deal in this strategy, the revolutions themselves are here described as the possible work of “radical social groups, foreign and domestic nongovernmental organizations, financial and economic structures, and individuals” who seek to destabilize Russia.
In sum, the strategy presents the world as dangerous for Russia, a world that the U.S. and its allies are actively making more dangerous, in part to limit Russia’s power. The broader dangers of terrorism, instability, and proliferation make cooperation with these countries necessary. However, they are also part of the problem, and cooperation is only possible if they accept Russia’s leadership role.
What It Means
As I said at the outset, little in this strategy is particularly new. But rarely has it all been put together so clearly, and in an official government document, no less. The new National Security Strategy may not make clear what Russia’s actual strategy is: the goals are too lofty, and the implementation plans too vague. But it nonetheless cogently describes Russia’s current perspective: Russia remains unhappy with its current place in the world, but pleased with its progress to date in remedying that situation. It is confident that the United States is the problem and is looking for ways to counter its influence; but Moscow also doesn’t see solutions without some cooperation from Washington. Importantly, it sees a large part of its national security as beginning at home, and the threats from within as at least as important as the threats from without. The solution is unity, development, and investment.
This means that Russia will continue to be activist in its foreign policy and will continue to refuse to “back down,” though it is also aware of its limitations, and may temper near-term goals accordingly. But this strategy also indicates that while Russia knows that its ambitions are limited by both internal and external factors, it sees those factors (whether they are foreign opposition or resource constraints) as threats and its mission as overcoming those threats. Russia’s strategy is about increasing Russian power, at home and abroad.
Please note that all of the texts linked to in this article are in Russian.
Olga Oliker is a senior adviser and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.
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