‘Be vigilant, for the enemy never sleeps’ – Soviet propaganda slogan
On the last day of 2015, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree approving a revised National Security Strategy. As the document contains the latest definitions of Russia’s national interests as perceived by Putin and his lieutenants, and sets out measures by which they say they’ll be protected and advanced, it behoves countries affected to try to understand what the Strategy says, and doesn’t say, and what its goals are.
Comparing the new text with its predecessor from 2009 illuminates a marked shift. Depicting ‘the US and its allies’ as ‘striving for world hegemony’ and NATO as an ‘inherently aggressive alliance’ isn’t new. But accusing the US of constructing ‘a network of biological-warfare laboratories in territories contiguous with Russia’ is. It exemplifies bellicose language that makes the text the most starkly anti-American and anti-NATO Russian document since the late Soviet period.
The paper identifies eight primary threats to Russia’s security. Of those, the most pressing are: the US and NATO; foreign espionage activity (ranked first in a separate list of ‘threats to state and public security’); terrorists and other extremists; and the activities in Russia of foreign and international NGOs. Corruption is ranked seventh, just ahead of emergencies, natural disasters, and climate change.
Students of Russian history will note a recrudescence of Soviet-era terminology: ‘sharpening contradictions’ and ‘economic growth rates surpassing those of the West’. Other formulations, such as ‘Russia’s spiritual potential’ and ‘the rebirth of traditional Russian spiritual-moral values’, are from the ideological armoury of Tsar Nicholas I (‘the Gendarme of Europe’), with whom Putin is said to enjoy being compared. This pseudo-religiosity also owes much to Putin’s cooptation of the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Strategy exemplifies what James Sherr has called an ‘obsession with the connection between events abroad and events at home’. Asked to formulate its fundamental idea Nikolai Patrushev, the Secretary of Russia’s National Security Council, said ‘the essence is strengthening the unity of Russian society and ensuring social stability…’ In other words, with ‘the US and its allies’ seeking to ‘contain’ and subvert Russia by ‘eroding its traditional values’, Russians must unite behind their president.
Patrushev is the KGB/FSB general responsible, under Putin, for the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. In June 2015 he claimed that ‘the US would like Russia not to exist…because we have a lot of resources which the Americans think we don’t deserve or have rights to…Madeleine Albright claimed that neither the Far East nor Siberia belonged to Russia.’ Albright, former US Secretary of State, said no such thing, but in 2007 a Russian intelligence officer claimed that FSB psychologists had read her mind. Patrushev now presents this feat of psychic espionage as a fact.
The accusation about US biological warfare is made without supporting evidence. But the claim serves an instrumental function of telling the military establishment, the officer corps, rank-and-file servicemen and the general Russian public, that the US represents a kind of radical evil that’s preparing a genocidal plague to exterminate the Russian people. In this sense, the Strategy is an exercise in mobilisation and information warfare.
The Strategy’s measures to counter this putative assault on Russia include: enhancing ‘informational security at home and abroad’ i.e. control of the Russian internet and cyber warfare; the ‘consolidation of traditional Russian spiritual-moral values through patriotic education’; and ‘the preservation and development of an all-Russian identity’.
We don’t know why the document has been released now. The Kremlin’s explanation is that a law adopted in 2014 requires the President to review the country’s national security strategy every six years. In other words, revising the strategy was just a bureaucratic exercise. But the document’s content makes clear that it is, in fact, an exercise in crisis management and mobilisation.
Context matters. Russia is in a recession. GDP is down by 4% and household consumption by 9%. Fixed investment, falling since 2011, fell 8% in 2015. In 2015 the CPI climbed 12% year-on-year, and the average wage fell by about 8%. Those two figures in particular should worry the Kremlin.
Sanctions have played a role but the key cause is the falling price of oil. If indirect contributions are included energy exports contribute 20 or even 25% of GDP. Russia is pumping oil at a record post-Soviet level of about 10.7 million barrels per day, to keep production high in order to maintain market share.
Respected Russian commentators, such as Dmitry Trenin and Konstantin Remchukov, have written of an erosion of the Putinist consensus and Putinist stability. They warn that unless the Russian economy is ‘modernised’—code for ‘reformed’—a new outbreak of unrest is inevitable. From the Kremlin’s viewpoint, a National Security Strategy depicting threats to the Fatherland in apocalyptic terms, diverting attention from the economy and ‘strengthening the unity of Russian society and ensuring social stability’ is sound policy.
The final part of the revised Strategy expresses Russia’s willingness to ‘cooperate with other countries on the basis of respect for Russia’s interests and international law’, that is, as they’re defined and interpreted by Russia. Therein lies a big difficulty: ‘the US and its allies’ and Russia have fundamental differences about what such a basis for cooperation would mean in practice.
Leaving to one side Russia’s role in the Middle East, ‘respect for Russia’s interests’ presumably means, at the very least, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea; forgetting about MH17; acquiescing in the status of east Ukraine as a de facto Russian protectorate; recognising Russia’s right to limit the sovereignty of other former Soviet republics; and lifting economic sanctions.
It’s hard to see how the norms of Putin’s Russia and those of the liberal democracies can be made compatible. As Angela Merkel put it: Putin is ‘living in another world’.