On the last day of 2015, Vladimir Putin put his signature on the decree adopting Russia’s new National Security Strategy out to 2020. Inevitably it is something to pore over looking for clues about Putin’s future intentions and the Kremlin’s assessment of the risks and opportunities ahead. The document can be downloaded as a PDF from the Kremlin website, and there is a pretty decent overview of the main points from RT.
In comparison with the last strategy, adopted in 2009, it comes across at first blush as pretty extreme. The new document contains fiercer and more explicit criticism of the West. The key issue is what Moscow calls the West’s efforts to “levers of tension in the Eurasian region” in order to undermine Russian national interests. In particular, the strategy condemns “the support of the United States and the European Union of an unconstitutional government coup in Ukraine which has led to a deep schism in Ukrainian society and the outbreak of armed conflict.”
More generally, “Russia’s independent foreign and domestic policy has been met with counteraction by the US and its allies, seeking to maintain its dominance in world affairs.”
Overall, the 2009 document was much more aspirational about opportunities and plans for development, while its successor is much more focused on challenges, problems, and threats — and it is not afraid to point the finger at where they come from.
However, beneath the gaudy patina, it is less fearsome and indeed more sensible a document than might otherwise appear.
First of all, the national security strategy remains essentially the same. In 2009, there was less reason to be so inflammatory and outraged, but even so the same concerns were there, in more measured tones. Consider, after all, paragraph 30 (the translation by Rustrans is here, slightly edited, with my emphases added):
Threats to military security include the policies of a number of leading foreign countries, directed at achieving predominant superiority in the military sphere, primarily in terms of strategic nuclear forces, but also by developing high-precision, informational and other high-technology means of conducting armed warfare, strategic non-nuclear arms, by unilaterally creating a global missile defense system and militarising space, which could lead to a new arms race, and likewise policies directed at the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological technologies, and the production of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems or components.
Negative influences on the military security of the Russian Federation and its allies are aggravated by the departure from international agreements pertaining to arms limitation and reduction, and likewise by actions intended to disrupt the stability of systems of government and military administration, rocket attack warning systems, control of outer space, the functioning of strategic nuclear forces, nuclear weapons storage facilities, nuclear energy, nuclear and chemical industry, and other potentially dangerous sites.”
While we don’t get the United States and NATO explicitly name-checked in this passage, at heart it is not too far from the 2016 document’s claims that “the US and its allies are seeking to maintain dominance in world affairs.” Likewise, before the Arab Spring uprisings in Libya and Syria as well as the civil war in Ukraine the “actions intended to disrupt the stability of systems of government and military administration” were less about manufactured color revolutions and regime change, but the fear of Western political interference was still present. The essence of the perceived threat is much the same, it is just the urgency and the idiom that is new.
The prescriptions for Russia’s future security are also the same. Russia needs to be able to protect its own interests and borders, of course, but there remains a formal commitment to use military methods only when non-military ones fail, and nuclear weapons only in the face of an existential threat. The prescriptions stretch far beyond the usual realm of guns and geopolitics, though.
Perhaps one of the most interesting and distinctive aspects of how the 2016 document frames security, like the 2009 one, is the use of broad definitions: Security is as much about economics, health, and social order as anything else. In this context, the Kremlin sounds (rightly) much more alarmed about the situation today. Obviously the Russian economy is in crisis, but beyond the immediate impact of the oil price slump, the country is at risk because of
… a lag in the development of advanced technologies, the vulnerability of the financial system, an imbalance of the budgetary system, the economy going offshore, the exhaustion of the raw materials base, the strength of the shadow economy, conditions leading to corruption and criminal activities, and uneven development of the regions.
As if that were not bad enough, the Kremlin believes the world context is changing as these problems are being weaponized, with
political, financial, economic and information instruments brought into struggle for influence in the international arena … [with] attempts by individual states to use economic methods, tools of financial, trade, investment and technology policies to solve their geopolitical problems.
To this end, the 2016 document — like its 2009 predecessor — spends over a third of its content on such issues as health, education, and financial stability. This is because the Kremlin understands full well that these issues have security dimensions: Bad health undermines the conscript pool, cultural security means keeping out challenges to state propaganda, economic instability drains defense budgets and generates public unrest, and so on.
It also once again demonstrates that in so many ways Moscow is conceptually ahead of the West in realizing that security and governance are essentially indistinguishable. Russia’s new style of so-called “hybrid warfare” is in so many ways simply a logical reflection of that understanding, and suggests that — even if out of political constraints, economic shortage, inefficiency and downright stupidity in some cases — they may not be able to pull it off, they are also well aware that Russia needs also to be considering “hybrid defense.”
There are three takeaways for the West. First of all, do not get too worried about the strident new language; the tone reflects Russia’s new antagonisms with the West, but the underlying strategy is the same. Second, the Kremlin’s real security concerns are not so much military threats as political, economic, and technological challenges. Third, while the Russian economy may be in trouble and their geopolitical aspirations disproportionate to their actual capacities, the Russian state still has sharp strategic thinkers and their understanding of the modern “full spectrum” political-informational-economic battlespace is still unappreciated by their Western counterparts.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and director of its Initiative for the Study of Emerging Threats.