In with the Old: Russia’s New National Security Strategy


On December 31st 2015, while most of the world was focused on plans to welcome in the new year, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled an updated National Security Strategy (NSS). While it builds on some long-running themes in Russia’s foreign and security policy, it also makes it clear that Moscow has a clear understanding of the broad security challenges facing the country, from its low economic competitiveness to corruption, poor healthcare, interethnic tensions and extremism.

Although the update was expected (by law the NSS is required to be updated every 6 years; the last iteration was published in May 2009), the timing of its publication on New Year’s Eve seems to have been designed to attract as little attention as possible. Putin took a similar approach with the release of the updated military doctrine on 26 December 2014. The 2015 NSS builds on some long-running themes in Russia’s foreign and security policy rhetoric, notably continued opposition to NATO’s global reach and enlargement, the perception that global competition is intensifying and a desire to strengthen relations with its fellow BRICS. Other themes include an assertion of Russia’s strong posture, capable of influencing events within the international arena, the importance of nuclear weapons as a symbol of power and an emphasis on partners in the East, including countries such as China and India, as well as organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Whilst there is little of surprise in the 2015 NSS, it is a useful snapshot of the Kremlin’s world-view, as well as its perception of threats, both internal and external.

The 2015 NSS makes it clear that the Kremlin considers Russia to be a major power within the global system, one that has a key role to play ‘in tackling major international problems, the resolution of military conflicts, the maintenance of strategic stability and of leadership in international law and inter-state relations.’ A common refrain throughout is that of equal partnership: Moscow is looking to develop its relations with a number of actors around the world as ‘equal partners’, including the US and NATO, as long as its interests are taken into account. Interestingly, there are calls for greater cooperation with the EU and other European states, the ‘harmonisation of integration process in Europe and the post-Soviet space’, as well as the establishment of an ‘open system of collective security with a clear legal basis’ in the Euro-Atlantic region.

The document is divided into five sections, including ‘Russia in the modern world’, ‘National interests and strategic national priorities’, ‘Maintaining national security’, and the ‘Organisational, legal and informational basis’. ‘Russia in the modern world’ sets the context, outlining the Kremlin’s view of the world and the role the country’s policy-makers believe it should play within the international system. It notes that Russia has a solid foundation from which to develop its ‘economic, political, military and spiritual potential’ and to increase its role in the establishment of a multipolar world, a long-standing objective of Russian foreign policy. However, there is anger at what is seen as the West’s rejection of partnership with Russia, as well as its destabilisation of the international system. According to the strategy, the conduct of Russia’s ‘foreign and domestic policies are being challenged by opposition from the US and its allies, who are seeking to maintain their dominance of international affairs.’ This reflects Moscow’s unhappiness with what it views as the existing Western-centric order, as well as its opposition to US dominance of the international system, which it feels is destabilising. The 2015 NSS is vocal in its criticism of both the US, NATO and the West, which it accuses of creating ‘centres of tension’ in Eurasia that threaten to undermine Russia’s national interests; in particular, the document identifies support from the US and the EU for the ‘anti-constitutional overthrow’ of the Ukrainian government.

Unsurprisingly, NATO gets a lot of attention in the strategy: the alliance’s global reach and enlargement have been consistently criticised by Moscow. The 2009 NSS stated that ‘plans to extend the alliance’s military infrastructure to Russia’s borders, and attempts to endow NATO with global functions that go counter to norms of international law, are unacceptable to Russia’, opposition that was echoed in the 2013 Foreign Policy Concept, which states that ‘Russia maintains a negative attitude towards NATO’s expansion and to the approaching of NATO military infrastructure to Russia’s borders in general as such action violates the principle of equal security and leads to the emergence of new dividing lines in Europe.’ Furthermore, NATO’s enhanced capabilities, global scope and enlargement were identified as the principal risk to Russian national security in the 2014 military doctrine. The updated NSS makes several references to NATO’s global reach and interests, its ‘violation’ of international norms, further enlargement and the advance of its military infrastructure towards Russia’s borders – all of which are considered as threats to Russian national security.

Echoing sentiments evident in the 2013 Foreign Policy Concept and 2014 military doctrine, the NSS highlights a sense of vulnerability, that Russia perceives challenges to its national security everywhere, and that it will take steps to defend itself against this array of apparent threats. The document expresses concern about the spread of US ‘military-biological’ laboratories near Russia’s borders, as well as the proliferation of WMD. The activities of foreign intelligence services, terrorist and extremist organisations, and criminal groups are also classified as threats.

Russia’s relations with its post-Soviet neighbours are identified as a principal direction of its foreign policy, notably the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), ‘the republic of Abkhazia and the republic of South Ossetia’. Moscow also expresses its intention in the 2015 NSS of transforming the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) into a ‘versatile, international organisation capable of dealing with regional challenges’ and threats such as international terrorism and extremism, trafficking and illegal migration.

While a lot of attention has been focused on the foreign policy aspects of the 2015 NSS, the majority of the document is actually concerned with domestic challenges to national security, which are dealt with in the fourth (and longest) section, ‘Maintaining national security’. Reaching nearly 30 pages, this section deals with nine strategic national priorities: national defence; state and social security; the quality of life of Russian citizens; economic growth; science, technology and education; health; culture; ecology and the environment; and strategic stability and partnership. It identifies an array of domestic threats to national security including demographic problems, poverty, poor health care, drug addiction and alcoholism, a lack of economic competitiveness, terrorism, radicalism and extremism, organised crime, corruption and pandemics. The document makes it clear that Russia’s national security is dependent upon economic growth, which underpins the country’s development.

Of particular note is the sub-section on ‘culture’. Throughout the document, the phrase ‘traditional Russian spiritual-cultural values’ is very prominent and over two pages are dedicated to cultural aspects of Russia’s national security. The NSS identifies the need to protect the country’s ‘cultural sovereignty’ from ‘external expansion’ and the ‘destructive’ activities of others, noting that ‘traditional Russian spiritual-cultural values’ include spirituality over materialism, protection of human life, individual rights and freedoms, family, moral norms and values and the historical unity of the peoples of Russia. It includes an appeal for national and religious tolerance, implicit recognition that the country’s ethnic composition is potentially a significant source of instability: a multi-ethnic federation, Russia suffers from significant problems in terms of its inter-ethnic relations.

The updated NSS confirms that Russia is likely to take an even more assertive line on the global stage over the coming years and will seek to boost its international influence using all the tools at its disposal. Moscow perceives the West, and especially the US, to be the source of many potential challenges to Russian national security. Its continued opposition to the predominance of US power within the international system will find support with many states around the world, including China, which is becoming an increasingly important partner for Russia. However, as the 2015 NSS makes clear, Russia faces a series of domestic challenges, which could undermine its desire to play a leading role on the international stage. The rouble and the price of oil have continued to plummet, knocking millions off the value of the Russian economy, inflation and unemployment are on the rise, highlighting the vulnerabilities associated with an economy that is over-reliant on energy exports. Whilst the Kremlin’s rhetoric tends to focus on threats to the country’s vital national interests from ‘outside’, the updated NSS highlights the broad array of security challenges facing the country, including extremism, the need to modernise the economy, demographic pressures, interethnic tensions, and growing economic, political and social disparities.

Image: Moscow Victory Day parade, 2015, via wikimedia commons.


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