The 2015 Russian Security Strategy – Comeback of the Cold War?

In Blog, English by Christoph Bilban1 Comment

At the very end of the year 2015, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed the new “Security Strategy of the Russian Federation”, an update to the prior strategy from 2009. One major difference is the aggravated antagonism towards NATO and the West. 

Interestingly, Putin signed the decree enacting the new Security Strategy on New Year’s Eve, which is when he also delivered the traditional New Year’s Address. In addition to the usual chitchat and congratulations, Putin also addressed the need for a united Russia and his concerns about the future. Both the call for unity and a quite sober assessment of the status quo are present in the recent Russian Security Strategy.

The 40-pages-long document is divided into six sections, covering a range of security-related aspects from defence to culture and education. The first section stresses the fact that Russia must seek to define its national interests as a guide to its foreign policy. The second paradigm of Russian foreign policy is the multipolar (or poly-centric) world order, an international system of several regional powers equal in economic, military and cultural strength. A constant since 2009, the significance of both national interests and poly-centric world order continue to underline Russian strategy.

Sugarcoated realism

What has changed is the assessment of the geopolitical situation. Russia sees itself as an emergent world power which has just recently demonstrated its “ability to strengthen sovereignty, independence, state and territorial integrity [and] to defend the rights of compatriots abroad” (§8). The document states that Russia has a bright outlook in economic, demographic and cultural terms despite various obstacles such as economic sanctions and a US-led containment policy geared towards the Russian Federation (§§8-12). Economy, brain drain and high rates of capital drain are identified as threats to growth in later parts of the strategy. Russia seems well aware of its shortcomings and drawbacks. Furthermore, it states the existence of enemies that are perceived as working to hamper its progress.

From a Russian point of view, the struggle for influence in the international political arena is fought with all means available. These include political, financial-economic and informational instruments and the increasing involvement of intelligence agencies. According to the Russian strategy, the geopolitical situation is changing towards a poly-centric world, resulting in rising instabilities on a global and local level. The importance of military power will therefore not deteriorate, quite the contrary: arms races around Russia can already be observed. The rapprochement of NATO towards Russia with both troops and infrastructure (e.g. missile defence systems) is seen as a serious threat to Russia’s national security. While Russia is portrayed as an island of peace, the Euro-Atlantic structures are crumbling under the pressure of migration. (§§13-16) Additionally, Ukraine has become a hotbed of instability due to the support of the “anti-constitutional revolution” (§17). Other hot spots occurred because of a “practice to overthrow legitimate political regimes” (§18), establishing zones beyond any governmental control allowing terrorist organisations to prosper.

Russia perceives the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as well as recently established US biolabs in Russia’s neighbourhood as another threat to national security (§19). Ultimately, the Security Strategy points out attempts of “some countries” (§21) to meet their geopolitical goals with means of informational warfare. Russia, on the contrary, frames its activities as part of an “open, rational and pragmatic foreign policy” and will avoid a new arms race (§27). Reading this paper, one has the strong feeling that the West has become Russia’s enemy number one again.

Russia's National Interests 2009 and 2015

Russia’s National Interest 2009 and 2015 (own presentation)

Let’s be frenemies

The above mentioned antagonistic attitude becomes apparent in the way the paper treats strategic partnerships (§87-114). Right at the beginning, Russia calls the United Nations Organization and the Security Council the “central element of the system of International Relations” (§87). The most important vectors of Russia foreign relations, however, are Asia and the global south: BRICS, RIC (Russia, India, and China), the Shanghai Organization of Cooperation (SOC), the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and Russia’s favourite project – the Eurasian Economic Union. Standing out among the others, Russia’s  “all-encompassing, comprehensive” partnership with China. Second comes India, which is only awarded with a “privileged” partnership. (§93-94) Next come various types of cooperation with actors of the Asia-Pacific, Latin America and Africa. The EU is addressed when Russia stresses its desire for a “harmonization of the integrational processes in Europe and the post-soviet space” and the formation of a Euro-Asiatic system of collective security (§97). According to the strategy paper, the USA ranks even behind the EU and collaboration between Moscow and Washington could be possible based mainly on issues of common interest in several spheres, ranging from the economy to the global fight against terrorism (§98). In regards to NATO, Russia is willing to cooperate on an equal footing and under the condition that NATO acknowledges what is described as Russia’s legitimate interests and international law (§107). Despite the tense relationship, Russia is reaching out to the West, well aware that the buck will likely stop at the status of “frenemies”.

Compared to the 2009 strategy, one may observe there has been a rhetorical shift as the language of the more recent document is considerably more inflammatory. Though, the rhetoric in the section on national defence reveals Russia’s self-assurance (§§33-41). Where the 2009 document speaks mainly of a reorganization and renewal of Russia’s armed forces (§§26-33), the new strategy restates the demands for the modernization of the military in a much more explicit tone. National defence in 2009 was and still is all about strategic deterrence and conflict prevention using “coherent political, military, diplomatic, economic, informational and other measures” (§36). The 2015 version adds “societal preparedness” and “mobilization” (§40).

Mother Russia needs you!

Russia highlights a new threat to state and social security: “informational and communicative techniques to spread and propaganda about fascism, extremism, terrorism and separatism” (§43), no longer used by extremists and terrorists only, but also by “foreign intelligence agencies and propaganda structures” (§47). Corruption, technical and natural disasters are now also explicitly mentioned items on the list.

In a separate section on economics, Russia formulates magniloquent goals for its economic development. These include agricultural independence, increased attraction of foreign investments and the reduction of critical dependencies on foreign technologies and industrial products. The military-industrial complex is supposed to become the motor of modernization, yielding new technologies not only for the army but society as a whole. (§55-66)

It is the culture section however that might just be the most fundamental revision in the document (§76-82). In 2009, the stated goal was to strengthen the development of Russia’s cultural diversity and “provide access for large parts of the population to the best pieces of national and foreign culture”  (the reference of ‘foreign’ being the author’s emphasis here, §79). Today, Russia aims at establishing national unity based on traditional Russian spiritual and moral values. These values encompass “the priority of spiritual over material, protection of human life, human rights and freedom, family, creative labour, service for the Fatherland, ethical and moral norms, humanism, charity, justice, mutual help, collectivism, historical unity of nations of Russia, continuity of our Homelands history” (§78). Hence, threats to Russian culture are propaganda, foreign cultural and informational expansion, the impairment of teaching Russian as foreign language abroad and the role of Russian language in the world, as well as (the already in 2009 described) attempts to “falsify” Russian and world history (§79). Compared to former documents, the new focus on values, especially the listing of national ones, shows how Russia seeks to streamline and unify its population under a conservative-nationalist moral agenda.

Clash of cultures?

For the most part, the new 2015 Russian Security Strategy reiterates the statements of the 2009 document, especially in its economic, scientific/academic and demographic/health sections. The assessment of Russia’s current role in the International system is quite realistic, although it uses the well-known narratives of a deceitful West and an unlawful coup d’état in Ukraine.

Given the fact that Russia’s actions in Ukraine contributed to the current hype and mainly helped coin the term of hybrid warfare, it is informational security and intelligence agencies acting against national unity that are the new major concern. Their depiction in the document doesn’t reflect their relevance. Russia increasingly fears that its system may not be competitive with liberal democracies of Western type in terms of public appeal. Since 2014 more people than in the other years under Putin’s rule have emigrated from Russia. Furthermore, 36 percent of Russians answered in a survey by the Levada-Centre that they wanted to see Russia develop more similarly to Western countries in the future. Therefore, it pushes the formation of a unified national culture based on an almost religious value system.

The West as a partner is definitely not an option anymore, but Russia leaves possibilities for cooperation. Russia’s main partner has become China, followed by India. Like the US, Russia is pivoting towards Asia.

What does this mean for the EU?

Drawing deductions of what Russia might fear most, I expect Moscow to further tighten its grip on so-called foreign agents (NGOs, funds, civil society organisations). Perhaps the censorship agency Roskomnadzor, which was established in 2008, will enhance the censorship in RuNet, the Russian Internet, and block more foreign websites. Certainly the information warfare within Russia won’t halt and the Kremlin-controlled media outlets will continue to defame and disavow the West.

Russian StratCom (Strategic Communications means, following NATO’s definition, the appropriate use of communications activities and capabilities in support of policies, operations and activities) and propaganda activities against European countries with the help of national media outlets as well as the international channels of Russia Today and Sputnik are not likely to stop. Subsequently, the EU and its member states need to establish a reliable Russian language media source for the Russian-speaking minorities within its borders, or make better use of the existing ones, including Radio Free Europe, Deutsche Welle or BBC Russia. This will result in the need for an increase in their respective budgets too. Like the increase of funding for Deutsche Welle by the German government shows.

In addition, the EU needs to further develop and strengthen its own StratCom capabilities. A first step has been made already with the foundation of a StratCom Task Force tasked with:

  • “proactive strategic communications campaigns, based on focused analysis that explains key policy areas and creates a positive EU narrative;
  • ad-hoc communication on topical and relevant EU policy issues;
  • myth-busting by analysing trends, explaining narratives and addressing disinformation;
  • supporting projects by highlighting EU activity in key policy areas in the region.”

If the EU wants to keep Moscow from becoming the main donor for organizations doing research on Russia, and more importantly still, teaching Russian and/or organizing Russian cultural events, a European Fund has to be established. The fund Ruskij Mir (Russian World) established by decree by Vladimir Putin in 2007 together with Russia Today and Sputnik is one of the most important instruments of Russia’s soft power in Europe, present all over the world. In Austria, the fund established two Russian Centres at the universities of Innsbruck and Salzburg.

Still, one danger remains. Moscow is constantly wooing European right-wing parties like the Austrian Freedom Party, French Front National or Hungarian Jobbik. These parties share some common values with Russia’s conservative-nationalistic mind-set. Both Russia and these movements, more often at the fringes of their respective national political spectrum than not, criticise what they perceive as double standards and inconsistencies in the European moral system. Morality, however, is not and cannot be a uniform good in liberal democracies. Countering these notions, a hard look at the moralities of Russia, its double standards and unyielding compliance with a European set of core values is essential.

Finally, the European Union will have to create a new Security Strategy of its own. To provide a guideline for coordinated future efforts of its 28 member states and achieve comprehensive preparedness for a wide range of possible contingencies, such a document also should mirror the Russian strategy paper in at least one aspect: Its broad understanding of the term ‘security’, encompassing political, economical, societal and cultural issues, to name but a few. If recent history is any indicator for how agile and fast-changing 21st century geopolitical settings can be, plans and notions for situations seemingly remote should be made. They might come in handy in the now seemingly unlikely case of a rapid and possibly violent shift of power away from the Kremlin’s current occupant.

Featured image (top): kremlin.ru

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Christoph Bilban

Christoph Bilban

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Christoph is a graduate student of political sciences and slavonic studies in Vienna. His interests lie with matters of security policy, peace and conflict research. In his studies, he focuses on Russia, Belarus and other CIS members. He is a reserve officer in charge of a repair and maintenance platoon within an infantry battalion.

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