On July 2nd, Putin signed an updated version of the “National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation.” However, updated is only a technical term, merely characterizing the fact that the strategy is formally revised every six years (with the previous document adopted in 2015). By any other merit, the “strategy” is nothing less than completely outdated and offers a glimpse of a weird salad of conspiracies, prejudices and medieval worldviews that thrive in the minds of the Kremlin rulers.
Make no mistake, international attention to this document is hardly worth its actual practical importance, or lack thereof. Such “strategies” is a specific genre of the Russian bureaucracy – the purpose is to show themselves that “yes, we do have a plan” (to address the key challenges and issues Russia is confronting). But in the real world, these thick “strategic white papers” usually end up quickly forgotten and sidelined by tactical issues of the day. So was the fate of the “national security strategy” adopted in 2015 (and before that – in 2009), which had zero relevance over practical Russian policies and, inevitably, the current version will end up in the same historic trash dump.
What is interesting though, is that the document opens the door into the Kremlin’s strategic thinking, and allows a bit more understanding of how Putin and the top decision makers truly view the world. The National Security Council (NSC), which was responsible for preparing it, arguably became the top influential Russian authority presiding over decision-making both on domestic and international politics in the recent period. The meetings of the Permanent Members of the NSC happen in a weekly format, and it is there where key decisions on new domestic repressions and foreign policy adventures are being made. The NSC Permanent Members council includes 13 top officials in the country and can be easily considered a modern-day Politburo. Nikolay Patrushev, secretary of the NSC, has become Putin’s top policy adviser on strategic issues and a mouthpiece of the Kremlin’s worldview.
So, obviously, the main “strategic” document coming out of the NSC is somewhat interesting because it comes directly from the top folks defining the Kremlin’s strategy with the exact purpose to publicly outline one. And, demagoguery aside, it offers very important – and often scary – insight into the mindset of the current Russian rulers.
First and foremost, the document outlines multiple problems and challenges for Russia, but strikingly avoids any analysis of what went wrong in the past 20 years of Vladimir Putin’s rule. That’s a big contrast with any normal strategic policy concept paper – particularly the one which is re-adopted and adjusted every 5-6 years. Usually, such documents begin with a cross-check of which previous goals were achieved since the last adopted strategy, which were not, and why. That helps provide an understanding of the shortcomings and correct the mistakes.
Not in the case of Vladimir Putin – who, obviously, never makes any mistakes. This has become one of the most unquestioned narratives of Russian officials of late – be it speeches by Vladimir Putin, articles by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, or any other official documents. To these leaders ensconced in the Kremlin, they are always right. If something is wrong, it’s only someone else’s fault. The same is the case with the NSC strategy: you read it and wonder – wait, but extraordinary leader Putin is more than twenty years in power, and we still have to fight poverty (paragraph 32)? There’s still high crime (paragraph 42)? Still mounting social and economic problems (paragraph 45), etc., etc.? How could this be? Whatever happened to the $4.2 trillion that we received in revenues from exports of oil, gas and petroleum products from 2000-2021? What happened to that money? Some countries have managed to achieve a much better standard of living, security and prosperity with far, far less.
But no, $4.2 trillion in revenue is not mentioned in this “strategy” at all – almost as if it never arrived. Instead, the document puts forward the concept of “conservation of population” (paragraphs 28-33) as the key priority – like we, Russians, are an endangered species. The concept of “conservation of the population” goes back to the ideas of conservative writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn – who had many questionable ideas about Russia and its future, but that “conservation” theme was promoted when Russia was really in dire straits at the time of the collapse of communism and the beginning of difficult reforms.
However, that was three decades ago, and Russia has enjoyed more than 20 years of Putin’s governance genius and a $4.2 trillion paycheck – so why is “conservation” still so hot on the agenda? What predators dare to endanger that vulnerable species? In early 2000s, Putin’s speeches and strategic documents were all about development and positive prospects – life was good, the worst was over, we were rapidly integrating into the world, and his administration had launched many reforms to solve the remaining problems. There was much more optimism and forward thinking in the Russian government’s rhetoric back then. But now we’re in 2021, and the key task seems to be “conserving the population” on the background of poverty, crime, various social, economic and environmental problems, among others. What happened?
The strategy gives a straightforward hint: it is predatory, hostile foreign powers that can’t hold back the multiple crises of a liberal system, yet are still hungry for destabilizing others and , therefore, are to blame for everything. There is no mention of Chinese ballistic missiles at our borders or a North Korean projectile falling in the sea a short distance from the Russian city of Nakhodka. Of course these are not mentioned as security threats because we’re all friends, you know? It is the West, with its immoral decaying liberal values, that is the biggest threat – using the Russian “objective social-economic difficulties,” in the phraseology of paragraph 44 that the West is launching an information war against young, unstable Russian minds only but to destroy and conquer our proud sovereign state. Objective difficulties? after $4 trillion in oil export windfall? This isn’t a strategy written by serious people other than to shift blame from their own incompetence. Perhaps it’s better to ask, where’s the money, Putin?.
The treatment of “sovereignty” question by the Kremlin’s thinkers is also very interesting. In the official Russian rhetoric of the recent period the issue of “sovereignty” is always central. But in reality, the Kremlin has a very special, medieval view on sovereignty; more like a sultan’s right to do what he will once he’s in the monarchic chair. The Russian Constitution and Criminal Code both envisage a very different concept of sovereignty – as the right of the Russian people to freely choose their rulers through democratic procedures. Anyone who interferes with that right (i.e. kills opposition leaders or jails them, prevents freedom of speech, free assembly, bans candidates with opposition views from running in elections) is seen as a criminal, subject for up to 20 years in prison (article 278 of the Russian Criminal Code “Illegal seizure of power”).
The Kremlin nominally repeats that Constitutional definition of sovereignty as a “power of the people” in paragraph 28 of the “national security strategy” – but otherwise, throughout the document, treats the Russian people as stupid, unable to solve their own problems, prone to degrading foreign influence, and therefore subject to guardianship and “conservation efforts” by the Big Brother state, which reserves the right to dictate every aspects of peoples’ life, from access to information to culture and moral values.
To drive attention away from that clear aim at total control over society, NSC thinkers portray the modern-day reality not as a postwar and post-communist democratic rules-based order challenged by autocrats and dictatorships for their selfish purposes, but as a medieval dog-eat-dog world, where people need a strong Big Brother guardian to be “conserved.” Without such protections, the Russian people will be wiped away by a shockwave of “Western liberal values” – obviously the utmost threat in the history of mankind. How Western nations achieved the outstanding living standards for their citizens that Russians can only dream of remains an open question.
The medieval reference is also interesting. On one hand, Russian leadership is blaming the West for a return of the medieval “might is right” principle into international relations – as directly said in one of the Patrushev’s speeches right before the adoption of the “national security strategy”. On the other hand, they seem to be fascinated both with “traditional and historic values” – which can’t be translated other than medieval, particularly when contraposed against “Western liberal values” – as well as with the concept of making Russia a “strong power” (“сильная держава”) at any cost, central to the “national security strategy.”
The “strong power” concept brings us to the “Back to the Concert of Nations” trope, put forward earlier by Vyacheslav Nikonov, a powerful foreign policy thinker under Putin, and the grandson of ex-Stalin’s foreign minister Molotov, Ribbentrop’s counterpart in the infamous Soviet-Nazi pact of 1939. Nikonov argues that the Twenty First Century style “concert of nations,” when strong powers have decided the world’s fate on a transactional basis without any liberal rules-based order getting in the way – is a much better alternative to the world where strong democratic powers keep asking Russia about its constant violations of human rights and international law. Make no mistake: that dream of return to pre-democratic world order is what is hidden behind a “strong power” paradigm. Putin wants a stake at the roundtable of global powers and is ready to sacrifice a lot for it.
Generally, reading through all these descriptions of Russia as a “besieged fortress surrounded by enemies” and “chaotic world undermined by Western liberal powers” can’t help but make you sick. Twenty years ago, when Putin just came to power, he talked about democracy, integrating Russia into the world, enjoying the benefits of globalization and international division of labor but you won’t find these words in this “security concept” now. Foreign investment? Forget it, we put an emphasis on “internal potential” in the North-Korean juche style (paragraph 65). Threats, enemies, an unstable world rattled by the Western powers, traditional values, total mobilization, endangered population in need of “conservation” – makes one think you’re reading a Warcraft game scenario, not a description of a Twenty-First Century world.
All this is beyond archaic. It doesn’t reflect the current global realities even to a smallest bit. If only the humanity wasn’t held back by greedy dictatorships who would go to great lengths to oppress, disrupt, obstruct, and corrupt in order to preserve their power, the world – and Russia – would have been a totally different place by now. Needless to say, none of Putin’s archaic views reflect the aspirations of Russians – not only those who took to the streets in recent months to protest against Putin’s oppression, but more generally: according to recent Levada Center opinion poll, there’s a clear majority of Russians aged 40 or younger who simply don’t want to see Putin in power beyond 2024. They want modernity and global integration, not isolation and backwardness. More and more people feel how obsolete Putin and his system are, and what a source of insecurity the Kremlin’s policies have become for Russia. They understand that Putin’s “security strategy” in reality is all about preserving and “conserving” himself and his grip on power, and has nothing to do with the interests of the country.
Listen, Putin and Patrushev – I, Vladimir Milov, am one of the Russian people, and I don’t need any “conservation” efforts from you. You are as good at “conserving” as a poacher with a gun looking to hunt down an endangered animal and to sell its horn to China for a bargain price. I, among many forward-looking and truly patriotic Russians, need you gone for good – the faster, the better. You have wasted all the chances that the history have given you – and, instead of development, have thrown Russia into endless economic stagnation and decline, rampant corruption, vassal dependency on China, and international isolation. We are paying this price for your limitless hunger for power and stolen billions – and that is the one and only threat that stands in the way between Russia and prosperity. You bring insecurity to Russia – and double down on it with your medieval, dog-eat-dog worldviews. The Twenty First Century has no place for backward so-called leaders like you. Be gone – that’s the least you can do to make Russia secure, once and for all.