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The Week In Russia: Strategy And Tactics -- Putin's 'Bleak' New Security Blueprint


Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu attend a Moscow parade marking victory in World War II in June 2020.

President Vladimir Putin has signed a National Security Strategy that takes criticism of the West to a new level, claiming that Russia's "cultural sovereignty" is at risk and that its "traditional values" are "under active attack by the United States and its allies." Analysts say the Kremlin's main motive may be self-preservation, not the security of the nation.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

'A Paranoid's Charter'

Moscow is aiding Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian government's gruesome war against its opponents, supporting separatists fighting against Kyiv in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and has no treaty with Japan formally ending their hostilities in World War II.

Other than that, Russia is pretty much at peace.

But the Kremlin's new National Security Strategy is "the document of a country at war," according to Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Numerous analysts made similar observations about the policy that was adopted by President Vladimir Putin's decree on July 2 and replaced a version that had been in place since 2015.

They noted wording like preparing for "wartime" and "mobilization readiness" of the economy, as well as many references to ways in which Russia is allegedly threatened by the West and, as author and analyst Mark Galeotti put it, by "the very processes reshaping the modern world."

The 44-page document, Galeotti wrote in a July 5 article in The Moscow Times, is "a paranoid's charter."

In some ways, this is nothing new. Over almost 22 years in power as president or prime minister, Putin has very frequently used the specter of external threats to justify restrictive actions at home, critics say, and has repeatedly raised the prospect of a new catastrophic war.

Vladimir Putin shakes hands with officers while visiting the a missile cruiser in the Black Sea.
Vladimir Putin shakes hands with officers while visiting the a missile cruiser in the Black Sea.

Other motives for this focus may be a desire to draw Russians' attention away from more immediate concerns -- which currently include a deadly new surge of COVID-19 cases and poor economic prospects -- and to remind the world, as he did following an incident in the Black Sea involving a British warship late last month, that a nuclear war is one type of confrontation in which Russia could hold its own.

'Gone Like Smoke'

But the new National Security Strategy seems to take the war footing a few steps further.

Compared to previous editions, "It reads as very closed off: more survivalist in tone and all [references] to cooperation with the West were deleted," Dara Massicot, an expert on Russian defense issues at the Rand Corporation think tank, wrote on Twitter.

Detailed provisions on relations with the United States and the European Union "have disappeared in [the] 2021 version," tweeted Igor Denisov, a senior research fellow at the Russian foreign-policy institute MGIMO.

Another difference: The 2015 strategy, while it was adopted the year after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine and fomented separatism that contributed to the outbreak of the war in the Donbas, driving ties with the West to new lows, "contained a clause on possible cooperation with NATO," Denisov wrote.

In 2021, that wording was "gone like smoke," he wrote, while "criticism of the collective West has increased substantially."

Vladimir Putin shakes hands with U.S. President Joe Biden prior to a summit in Geneva on June 16.
Vladimir Putin shakes hands with U.S. President Joe Biden prior to a summit in Geneva on June 16.

Many aspects of that criticism are old hat. NATO, sanctions, and support for civil society are all held out as tools deployed by Western powers bent on holding Russia back, if not dismantling it altogether and collecting the spoils.

The novelty in this edition, 21 years into the 21st century, is the assertion that Russia's "cultural sovereignty" faces an existential threat from the West -- that "traditional Russian spiritual, moral, and cultural-historical values are under active attack by the United States and its allies."

Along with "transnational corporations and foreign nonprofit, nongovernmental, religious, extremist, and terrorist organizations," the strategy document states on page 36, these countries are "applying informational and psychological pressure on the individual, group, and societal consciousness by spreading social and moral tenets that contradict the traditions, convictions, and beliefs of the peoples of the Russian Federation."

This assertion, made without evidence or clear explanation, may come as no surprise: Putin has and other officials have made the notion that a conservative Russia is under constant attack in a kind of culture war waged by the West a frequent topic of their remarks.

Exceptionalism, Anyone?

In an exchange of unpleasantries with U.S. President Joe Biden in March, two months before they met for a summit in Geneva, Putin claimed that Russia was inherently different from the United States and other Western countries, its citizens set apart by "a different genetic and cultural-moral code."

And Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov unleashed an over-the-top example of such rhetoric when he accused the United States, in effect, of weaponizing what he called the "liberal concept of boundless permissiveness" as part of what he described as a push to "impose its own rules" on other countries.

Citing no evidence in a June 28 article that seemed intended to be a serious statement of Moscow's case that the West is seeking to press its values and ideals on Russia and the rest of the world -- that "in a number of Western countries, students learn at school that Jesus Christ was bisexual."

In recent months, it seems to have become increasingly clear that the Kremlin is determined to use this theme -- the idea of a dangerously liberal West imposing its will on a Russian populace that is uniformly possessed of a different set of values -- as part of its effort to consolidate opinion and instill patriotism, as a rallying cry that can unite millions of Russians against a common enemy.

The ascendancy of this rhetoric seems to coincide with a stepped-up crackdown on real and perceived opponents, civil society, and democratic rights and freedoms that the state has imposed since Putin foe Aleksei Navalny, whom the authorities cast without evidence as a tool of the United States, was jailed upon his return to Russia in January after recuperating in Germany from a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin and the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Several observers have said that this focus, and the new National Security Strategy itself, seem deeply influenced by Nikolai Patrushev, the hard-line fellow former KGB officer and critic of the West who has been one of Putin's closest associates throughout his years in power -- the FSB chief from 1999 to 2008 and the secretary of the presidential Security Council since then.

"Patrushev wins," was the succinct way that Anton Barbashin, editorial director of the media outlet Riddle Russia, put it after reading the new National Security Strategy.

Has Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev (left) "won"?
Has Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev (left) "won"?

Several observers, and not just staunch critics of the Kremlin, suspect it is in fact people like Patrushev, not the country as a whole at all, that Putin and his allies are trying to protect by adopting the new document -- that it is less a national security strategy than a tactic aimed to keep them in power.

"The new National Security Concept introduces the term 'alien ideals.' This is from the most primitive Soviet ideological vocabulary, which everyone has always laughed at," Kolesnikov wrote, suggesting that what the Kremlin is really trying to suppress are "universal human values" he said were "alien" to Putin and his allies.

The policy is "not about the security of the country, but about the self-preservation technology of the narrow ruling clique," he wrote. "For them, 'unity of the people' equals the loyalty of the state-dependent population."

History Lesson

Others have pointed out that while accusing Western countries of trying to impose their ideals on Russians, the security strategy does that by asserting that the country's citizens are monolithically guided by the magnet of quite a different moral compass -- though there may be little evidence of that.

And Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, suggested that Putin and those close to him should practice what they preach.

The National Security Strategy "sets out fundamental Russian values including service to the fatherland and responsibility for its fate, high moral ideals, the priority of the spiritual over the material, fairness, and mutual assistance," Trenin wrote in a July 6 article in the newspaper Kommersant.

"It's understood that this is an ideal, but possibly the main problem with Russia today lies in the fact that its ruling elite shares these ideals only in rare cases and, according to opinion polls, possesses not even a minimum of moral authority to lead society in its path," Trenin added."

History shows that in the past, he wrote, "the Russian state has collapsed not under the blows of external enemies, but as a result of the loss of trust in it on the part of its subjects."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward, by the editor of RFE/RL's Russia Desk, Steve Gutterman.

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