January 13, 2016 | Commentary on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia and Eurasia, Russia, People

Russia’s Insecurity Strategy

Russia’s new National Security Strategy, signed by Vladimir Putin as last year came to a close, isn’t shy about naming its enemies. From the U.S. to the European Union, from NATO to the varying-colored revolutions, Russia sees foes everywhere.
That’s understandable: the treacherous are always distrustful. But the strategy’s biggest surprise is that it shows Russia has met its actual enemy: Mr. Putin himself.

In some respects, the new strategy’s not that much different from the previous one, which dates from 2009. The 2009 edition condemns “the policies of a number of leading foreign countries,” while the latest version explicitly names the U.S. It’s a distinction, but it’s not much of a difference.

The continuities between the two strategies are revealing. Mr. Putin’s regime needs enemies to justify itself, so efforts to placate him — like President Obama’s ill-starred “reset” of 2009 — will always fall foul of the reality that the problem isn’t us. The problem is Russia.

The latest strategy squawks that the U.S. and the EU supported “an unconstitutional government coup” in Ukraine. But Ukraine did not alienate a previously friendly Russia. The 2009 strategy illustrates that Russia had defined itself as an enemy of the West well before it invaded Crimea.

Like Georgia and Chechnya, the only mistake Ukraine made was showing an ounce of independence. Chechnya was small enough for Russia to crush and consume. It obviously galls the Kremlin that Georgia and Ukraine survive, through illegitimately occupied and torn apart.

Mr. Putin’s regime sees revolutions in nations like Georgia as a threat because they might inspire similar discontent in Russia itself. What Mr. Putin wants is quite simple: he wants to be charge, and he views any independent power — inside Russia or near it — as a threat to that goal.

What is new and interesting about the 2016 strategy is the emphasis it places on Russia’s economy, health, corruption, education system, and social order as security risks. It’s true, of course, that all of these issues affect national security.

For example, Russian men have a lower life expectancy than their counterparts in North Korea, which makes it tough to find new army recruits. The collapse in oil prices has slowed Moscow’s revenue stream to a trickle, which makes paying the army harder.

And though the years have shown that the Russian people are able to endure remarkable levels of hardship and misgovernment, there are limits. The massive protests following the stolen elections of 2011, and the smaller ones that continue today, are the omens that Mr. Putin finds truly frightening.

But Mr. Putin — and his place-holding puppet Dmitry Medvedev — have been in power since 1999. By focusing on the domestic challenges to Russia’s security, the strategy acknowledges — doubtless unintentionally — that Mr. Putin has failed to resolve any of Russia’s long-standing problems.

Indeed, he and his cronies have compounded them with their own misgovernment. When Mr. Putin’s hack mouthpiece, Russia Today, names “corruption” as one of the key threats facing Russia, you have to laugh. Yes, corruption in endemic in Russia. But the most corrupt people in Russia sit in the Kremlin.

But a strategy that treats the economy, health and education as security issues has a larger, more fundamental, problem: It’s inherently a recipe for yet more intensive state dominance in all those realms. But over the long run, you cannot have a vibrant economy without a reasonable degree of domestic independence.

Unfortunately for Russia, independent actors are the one thing the Putin regime cannot afford to tolerate.

The 20th century demonstrated that the Russian state could not fix Russia’s problems as effectively as it could build missiles. A 21st century strategy that brings more issues into the realm of national security policy will not improve the state’s ability to handle them. Nor is it a sign of Russia’s strategic sophistication. It is only going to make things worse.

Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times.

About the Author

Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom