“Only a harmonious combination of strong and human well-being will ensure the formation of a just society and the prosperity of Russia. This requires concerted action to implement the strategic national priorities of the Russian Federation, aimed at neutralizing external and internal threats and creating conditions for achieving national development goals”.
The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation, July 2021
The Lubyanka complex
July 21st. It is the Lubyanka complex in action! The new Russian National Security Strategy is nothing if not a Siloviki-inspired exercise in self-serving Kremlin elite paranoia in which the weak get beaten and only the strong prevail in some endless race down to the zero sum. It is a manifesto for a no-rules based international order in which only Russian might is right abroad whilst Russia's latest Strong Man is infallible at home. As a European I read the thing both little surprised and disappointed at one and the same time.
The greatest irony about the ‘Strategy’ is tragic for it only implies what the Kremlin regards as the greatest threat to ‘their’ Russia, the Russian people. Indeed, reading the document what jumps out from the pages is not the strength of Russia or the regime, but rather the dangerous mix of profound insecurity and nihilistic cynicism that is the Kremlin world-view. A cynicism now leavened by a belief that Russia can prevail over its own myriad contradictions by systematically exploiting the openness of democracies through the sustained application of emerging and disruptive technologies in what they see as a form of grey zone ‘perma-war’ across the spectrum of information war, cyber war and the complex strategic coercion that is the threat of hyperwar.
As such the strategy comes dangerously close at times to being delusional in that Russian might could be successfully combined with Moscow’s narrative of injured historical right to salami slice NATO and steadily force those in its self-styled sphere of influence into compliance. It is that desperate sense of a regime desperate for control that comes across most lucidly in the strategy: control of the Kremlin; control of what exists of the Russian body politic; control of Russia’s resources; control of the money; control of the Russian people; and, by extension, control of Russia’s world, with its fake security organisations and alliances. If there is a vision it is one born of a sense of being under perpetual attack, of needing enemies for the Kremlin to justify to themselves and others why the Russian security state is slowly crushing what is left of civil society and taking over all levers of power – political, economic, security, military, even intellectual. In other words, it is the world-view of a tired regime and a tired leader who offer little hope to the Russian people, little ability or, indeed, inclination to manage inevitable change, and prepare Russia for a successful future, and, critically, no mechanism when the time comes for the peaceful succession from one leader to another. In other words, it is an exercise in desperate cynicism in which the very idea of ‘power’ at its core reveals deep weakness and which in damning Russia to a future (again) of authoritarian incompetence guarantees its own failure and future danger.
To assure and ensure control at home this distinctly nineteenth century strategy routinely exaggerates enemies and threats both foreign and domestic. Indeed, it could have written by the anti-reform Tsars Alexander III or Nicholas II. At best, it is Alexander Gorchakov reborn, at worst the Okrhana or KGB at their worst, such is its depressing thesis. The very threats it claims to counter justify ever more control over all aspects of Russian life, a pre-revolutionary, pre-rupture statement. A rupture that will not happen tomorrow but one could now imagine another 1905-style Bloody Sunday as the regime moves to suppress all and any dissent in the name of 'cohesion'. President Putin is determined there will be no Russian Spring under President Putin even if his security strategy is a tacit acceptance of that very danger.
Thus, the Russian National Security Strategy of July 2021 marks the beginning of another old chapter of Russian tragedy in the style of a Dostoevsky or Pasternak, leavened, as so often in the past, with bucket loads of dark Chekhovian irony. The strategy is, indeed, a Russian tragedy for it implies the fate of Russians and Russia’s unique genius will be forever tragic because ‘order’ can only ever be guaranteed by extinguishing freedom for freedom is chaos. And, by simply being free Russia’s Western neighbours are a threat to Mother Russia whether they have intent or not. For the Kremlin Mother Russia’s eternal Rasputin is chaos and the West IS Rasputin, seductive, dangerous and seditious.
The strategy also reveals Putin’s wilful lack of understanding of the Western liberal order. For him Russians must be protected from a West that offers snake oil for fear they will be seduced and only by repeatedly demonstrating the moral, spiritual, and eventually power ‘superiority’ of traditional Russian values over the Western vacuity can such seduction be prevented. A West which to Putin has abandoned any pretence to righteousness or rectitude by embracing what Putin regards as a toxic post-identity, post-patriotic post-modernism. Post modernism in which the manly values of which Putin sees himself the very embodiment have been abandoned by the Western democracies for what he regards as a disastrous mix of wokeism and multiculturalism which in its assault on patriotism poses as a great a threat to Russia as any NATO weapon system.
He also believes such fissures in Western society provide him with the Great Opportunity to be the Great Equalizer whereby an ostensibly weaker Russia can keep the Western democracies permanently off balance just enough for him to exert the pressure of concentrated Russian power to effect around the margins of both the EU and NATO via the super-highways and byways of Europe’s diffuse power. An information putsch here, a hard military pull there and decadent Western Europeans will do what Western Europeans always do – talk a lot, do very little, and eventually accommodate Russian in the vain hope that Russia will be different. Indeed, Russia’s National Security Strategy might well have had a by-line, “sponsored by Gazprom and Nordstream 2: coming to home near you”. Merkel’s disastrous abandonment of nuclear power in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster so critically undermined Germany’s energy mix that Berlin has walked straight into a Putin trap which the Kremlin will exploit ruthlessly at the appropriate ruthless moment because that is what the Kremlin does. For Moscow exerting control over its ‘Near Abroad’ remains its number two priority (the real priorities are not in the order cited in the strategy) because it makes its number one priority so much easier: exerting control over the Russian people. Germany is about to make that a whole lot easier.
However, the greatest deceit (self-deceit?) in the strategy is the way it describes and justifies the Great Power Competition geopolitics it needs to impose such a security burden on the Russian people in their name. The United States is now Russia’s Great Satan responsible for much of the world’s ills and defaming noble Russia in what the strategy describes as Washington’s continuing but doomed efforts to preserve American hegemony. Paradoxically, the way the strategy describes the Americans is perhaps the strongest metaphor of all for how the Kremlin really sees Russia. Alright, Russia lacks the ‘corrupting’ cultural influences of the Americans because its soft cultural power does not travel well. However, to accuse the US and wider West of constantly interfering in Russian internal affairs whilst feigning injured pride that the West should accuse Moscow of such dark arts is almost beyond parody.
The third priority of the Putin regime, beyond controlling the Russian people and Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’ (including its NATO and EU ‘Near Abroad’ if allowed to get away with it), is the “comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction with China”. This is the stuff of Machiavelli, a reverse Nixon-Kissinger if you will, my enemy’s enemy is my friend. China is more than happy to instrumentalise and exploit Russia’s efforts for geopolitical gain, as Beijing’s July 2021 support for the Assad regime in Syria demonstrates. However, at the same time Beijing also despises Moscow and Russia is only too aware of China’s long-term, ambitions for the Russian Far East. Putin’s wet dream of Russia being at the heart of an aligned non-aligned ‘privileged’ relationship with India is also completely paradoxical because the closer Moscow is to Beijing the further from New Delhi. Today, the Indian Navy is exercising with the Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike Group in the Indian Ocean to “forge closer defence relations”.
The Russian National Regime Survival Strategy
The consequence of this most opportunistic of self-serving, self-interested and self-preserving ‘national’ security strategies with its mono-maniacal obsession with an imagined ‘West’ is yet more engineered emergencies on and around Europe’s borders, yet more provocation as Russian aircraft and submarines breach the territorial airspace and waters of NATO allies and EU member-states, yet more information warfare, cyber-attacks and espionage, yet more diversion of Russia’s resources away from civil society to the security state in all its Hydra-headed forms, yet more use of The Wagner Group and its not-so-mercenary mercenaries, yet more attacks on 'traitors' living in foreign countries like the March 2018 Salisbury Novichok poisonings by the GRU's Unit 29155, yet more massive offensive military exercises such as the forthcoming ZAPAD 21 that both ‘celebrate’ Russian power at home and intimidate those abroad, and yet more showpiece hyped up space and artificially intelligent hyper-weapons. All and anything the NATO allies do to legitimately deter and defend themselves against such behaviour will be routinely presented by the Kremlin as ‘aggression’ or ‘containment’ precisely because it is that narrative which is central to the regime’s survival.
How should the Western Allies respond? It is clear that Moscow will continue to push peace to the very limits with all sorts of extra-jurisdictional action. It is also clear that China and Russia in concert will seek to make geopolitical life as hard as possible for the Americans. First, in spite of the many post-Covid 19 pressures faced by the European Allies they must collectively recognise they are in the front-line of Great Power Competition. Second, Britain, France and Germany must overcome their post-Brexit differences and lead Europe towards a new form of credible ‘independent’ minimum deterrence across the 5Ds of perma-war – deception, disinformation, destabilisation, disruption and destruction. Third, NATO’s Next Strategic Concept must be a determinedly proportionate response to all the acts of intimidation and threats faced by the Alliance. Fourth, NATO leaders must understand what they are signing up to and mean it. It is not at all clear that some of them understand the deterrence and warfighting concepts in the June NATO Summit Communique or mean them. Fifth, remember Harmel and somehow keep talking with and to Russia because deep in my consciousness there is still the hope that one day Russia will decide that a rules based order is in the Russian interest and that arms control is an essential part of Russia’s legitimate defence strategy.
Rather, reading the Kremlin’s National Regime Survival Strategy is an extremely depressing exercise in ‘here we go again’ politics in which nothing is what it seems. It is to read history and futures bound up in one in which no lessons have been learned that are worth learning. In which the needs of a narrow oligarchy are presented as the interests of a Great Power. Russia IS a Great Power but the very manner by which THIS National Security Strategy defines ‘greatness’ is a sure-fire way to ensure Russia’s greatness is greatness denied. That, perhaps, is the most depressing aspect of this strategy because it reveals a leadership that deep down does not believe in Russia nor its people, least of all in what Russia could become if even half decently led. Rather, it is the manifesto of a fearful Kremlin that having lost an empire has still to find a role beyond almighty, bloody spoiler. As such, the Russian National Security Strategy actually says very little about Russia and its future, but everything about the regime which runs it. The best that can thus be said of it is that the Russian ‘emperor’ has new clothes.