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Russia’s updated National Security Strategy

  • Last updated: 19 Jul. 2021 14:55

Russian Studies Series 2/21


by Julian Cooper 1

Russia’s updated National Security Strategy

On 2nd July 2021, President Vladimir Putin signed into law an updated version of one of Russia's most important documents of strategic planning, the National Security Strategy (NSS 2021). This replaces the version adopted on 31 December 2015 (NSS2015) which itself had updated the one of December 2010.2 In the hierarchy of documents, the NSS is one of the most important, indeed, as Dmitri Trenin has observed, it is a kind of 'mother' strategy, the basis on which other important documents are framed and will be updated, including the military doctrine and the foreign policy concept.3 In this sense, the NSS sits alongside the Strategy of Socio-economic Development and the Strategy of Scientific and Technical Development. The basis for these documents and the process of strategic planning, including the schedule for their periodic renewal, was set out in the law “On Strategic Planning in the Russian Federation” (June 2014), and is related to the Strategic Forecast of the Russian Federation to 2035.

The process has not been smooth. The Strategic Forecast to 2035 was originally to have been drafted by the beginning of 2017 but problems were encountered and it was finally approved, not as expected by the President, but by a meeting of the Security Council (SC) in February 2019. It is not published, and all that is known of its content are some details revealed by the SC secretary Nikolai Patrushev. It apparently sets out scenarios for the developing global situation.4 The Forecast has an anti-US orientation, a policy stance that has become characteristic of Patrushev in recent years. The socio-economic strategy is also overdue: it has proved difficult to draft because there is no long-term economic forecast on which to base it. It now appears that Prime Minister Mishustin’s government is preparing a new forward looking economic strategy based on a set of priority national projects, but is not clear whether this will be treated as a formal document of strategic planning.

Indeed, the NSS itself was also delayed, having originally been scheduled for 2020. According to Russian foreign policy specialist Igor' Denisov, its preparation took about a year with several iterations. The SC submitted the text to Putin at the end of May, which would explain why it does not reflect in any way the possibilities for dialogue with the United States on matters of mutual concern opened up by the Biden-Putin summit in June.5

In examining the new version of the NSS, it is instructive first to consider any significant changes compared with the 2015 document. Like the earlier version, the new one states firmly that “the present Strategy is founded on the inseparable interconnection and mutual dependence of the national security of the Russian Federation and the socio-economic development of the country”. But the developmental thrust that was present before, with a section on the importance of economic growth, has given way to concern for 'economic stability' and “economic security”.

In its assessment of the state of the world today there is a new emphasis. The 2015 NSS spoke of an emerging polycentric order, but now an increasing number of new centres of world economic and political development have appeared, and the strengthening position of new global and regional country-leaders is forming a new architecture, rules and principles of the world order. At the same time, with the countries of the West striving to maintain their hegemony, there is increasing instability in the world.

If Russia faces “unfriendly countries”, curiously the USA is mentioned in passing only twice and Europe not at all. In the 2015 NSS, interest was expressed in developing a partnership with the USA on issues of shared interest and a desire to strengthen mutually advantageous cooperation with European countries and the European Union. There was also a willingness to develop relations with NATO with the aim of enhancing security in the Euro-Atlantic region. Now, partnership and cooperation have disappeared, replaced by a more transactional view of international relations. On military issues, it is claimed that the US is intending to deploy medium range missiles in Europe, although this has been firmly denied by NATO, and fears are raised once again that the US is intent on developing a global system of anti-missile defence, an issue that appears to haunt Putin. Ukraine this time is not mentioned at all.

In both versions of the NSS, there is a list of strategic national priorities considered essential to ensuring Russia's national security, nine in both cases, but they are not the same. New in 2021 is the first “saving the people of Russia and the development of human potential”; the 2015 equivalent was “raising the quality of life of Russian citizens” plus “health”. The term “safeguarding the People” (sberezhenie naroda) has been used by Putin on several occasions when addressing the issue of measures to increase the country's population. Now, with large losses from the coronavirus pandemic and the return home of many migrant workers, it is more than ever regarded as a top national priority.

The defence of the country is now second (having been first in 2015), followed in both by “state and public security” and in 2021 “information security” and “economic security”. The “science, technology and education” of 2015 has become “scientific-technological development”. The “ecology of living systems” has become “ecological security” and in the text of the strategy there is now discussion of climate change and its impact, mentioned only in passing in 2015. Before the final strategic priority, in both cases “strategic stability” (though in 2015 plus “equal strategic partnership”, now “mutually advantageous international cooperation”), there is a new priority “the defence of traditional Russian spiritual-moral values, culture and historical memory”. In short, “securitisation” has been extended to more spheres of life, a process that has been underway in Russia for years.

A feature of NSS 2015 was a list of ten basic indicators for evaluating the evolving state of national security, including per capita GDP, life expectancy, the shares of GDP devoted to science, education and culture, and the share of modern weapons in the armed forces. These are missing from the new version of the strategy and it is not difficult to see why: apart from the share of modern weapons which increased sharply between 2015 and 2020, almost all the other indicators showed little (if any) improvement, and in some cases, notably per capita GDP, actually declined.

The sections on the economy and science-technology in the new version of the NSS have a curious character. One significant measure is highlighted: the reduction in the use of the dollar in foreign trade. Beyond this, there are many claims, some of a curiously complacent nature, but very few details on how performance is to be improved, goals being simply asserted. It is stated that Russia has already achieved leading positions and competitive advantages in aviation, shipbuilding, missile-space industry, engine building, nuclear power and information-communications technologies, claims that are open to question. If serious problems were frankly acknowledged in NSS 2015, including an inadequate rate of growth, lack of competition, a too low rate of investment and poor innovation, and clear recognition that national security would be enhanced by appropriate economic measures, this is less the case in NSS 2021.

In NSS 2021, it is stated at the outset that the world economy is making a transition to a new technological basis making the development of science and technology crucial to raising competitiveness and ensuring national security. It is asserted that Russia has significant potential in the fields of fundamental and applied research and that advantages in a number of (unspecified) technologies create the conditions for accelerated technological development, one of the goals being technological independence. This requires appropriate policies, increasing spending on science and technologies to the levels of leading countries, and the creation of a state management system for science, technology and innovation. This is followed by a lengthy list of good intentions.

Significantly, one statement of intent of NSS 2015 has been dropped: reference to the development of international links in the fields of science and education. There appears to have been little, if any, account of the detailed research undertaken in recent years by Russian economists and science policy specialists into the actual state of the country's R&D base, a declining number of researchers, the level of R&D spending (stagnant at just over 1 per cent of GDP compared with the OECD average of about 2.5 per cent), and Russia's serious problems in advanced, competitive, technologies.6

The two sections of the NSS on economic and information security follow the recent publication of strategic documents on these topics, and in NSS 2021 information security is now given much greater priority than it was in 2015. It is noted, for instance, that the use of “foreign” IT and telecoms makes Russia's information infrastructure vulnerable to external interventions. The West is not specified here, leaving the reader to judge for themselves from where these interventions might originate.

In the section on culture in NSS 2015, there was discussion of “the retention and multiplication of traditional Russian spiritual-moral values as the foundation of Russian society” and the need to counter external cultural and informational “expansion”, including low quality “mass culture”, and attempts to falsify history. But in NSS 2021 these issues occupy a much larger place, almost four pages. The terminology is now more strident and in this section the USA and its allies are explicitly identified as the source of attacks on Russian values, together with transnational corporations, NGOs, religious, terrorist and extremist organisations. Indeed, it is claimed that “Informational-psychological diversions” and the “Westernisation” of culture intensify a threat of the loss of Russia's “cultural sovereignty”.

What are traditional Russian spiritual and moral values? We learn that they are “life, dignity, the rights and freedoms of man, patriotism, feelings of citizenship, service to the Fatherland and responsibility for its fate, high moral ideals, strong families, dedicated labour, the priority of the spiritual over the material, humanism, mercy, justice, collectivism, mutual aid and mutual respect, historical memory and the continuity of generations, and the unity of the peoples of Russia”. But as the journalist Aleksandr Golts observes, these are largely general human values shared by many peoples and by no means unique to Russia.7 And, as Trenin notes, this is all very much an ideal, “but it is likely that the main problem of modern Russia is precisely that its ruling elite only rarely shares these values and, according to public opinion polls, does not have the minimum moral authority to lead society. For this elite, in the foreground are other values, mainly measured in monetary units – Russian, but more foreign”.8

In the NSS 2021’s final section on strategic stability there are the usual mentions of the United Nations, and very brief references to the CIS, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, Union State (with Belarus) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, but the only real partners identified are China and India. However, recent research by leading Russian China specialists suggests that relations with China may not be quite as close as appears on the surface.9 Overall, the document conveys a distinct impression that Russia has few friends and allies.

So NSS 2021 is a curious document in many respects. As Golts observes, it is poorly written and edited, and the sections, evidently drafted by different government agencies, at times contradict one another and fail to pursue a coherent common line. A problem its authors clearly faced is the unwillingness of Russia's leadership to accept any responsibility for the country's tense relations with the West. The treatment of sanctions is typical, they have been imposed not as responses to actions by Russia, but to limit access to markets and undermine her competitive advantages.

Golts thinks that NSS 2021 conveys the “Kremlin's senile fears”, probably referring to the age of its main authors and recipient – Patrushev, 69, his first deputy Yurii Aver'yanov, over 70, and Vladimir Putin, 68. Indeed, there does appear to be little appreciation of the aspirations and values of today's youth, seemingly regarded more as potential threats to security than constructive citizens of a flourishing Russia in the future.

But is the NSS really a Strategy? It reads like a defiant manifesto from the occupants of a besieged fortress. The publication of the NSS with its horizon of five years suggests that this defiance looks set to remain for the rest of Putin's presidential term. It is not at all clear that his successor will necessarily start a process leading to better relations with the West and a cooling of Russia's militant stance. But in so far as it is regarded as a strategy – in other words, as practical policy guidance that is to be implemented – there are important questions. The most obvious is how it will be realised. As the director of Centre for Military-political Research of Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Aleksei Podberezkin has pointed out, there are no mechanisms in place for its implementation apart from an annual report to the President by the Security Council. This fundamental weakness of the system has been highlighted many times by critics of the Law on Strategic Planning but no action has been taken to address it.10 The NSS has been updated, therefore, but it may prove to be an exercise with limited impact on Russia's actual policies and actions.

1 (back) Julian Cooper, Centre for Russian, Eurasian and European Studies, University of Birmingham/Associate Senior Fellow, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

2 (back) Strategiya natsionalnoi bezopasnosti Rossiiskoi Federatsii, Website of the Russian Security Council, The 2015 version is available on the Website of the Presidential Administration,

3 (back) D. Trenin, “O materi vsekh strategii”, Kommersant, 6 July 2021. 

4 (back) N. Patrushev, “Videt' tsel'', Rossiiskaya Gazeta, 11 November 2019.

6 (back) Yu. V. Simachev et al., Rossiya na rynkakh peredovogo proizvodstva, Doklad NIU VShE, Moscow, 2021, and a sharp critique of the failings of the industrial innovation system by defence industry specialists, A.D. Bobryshev, M. V. Chekadanova, “Analiz prichin nizkoi innovatsionnoi aktivnosti v promyshlennosti”, Nauchnyi vestnik OPK Rossii, 2018, No.1, pp. 43-57.

7 (back) A. Golts, “Starcheskie strakhi”, Ezhednevny zhurnal, 5 July 2021.

8 (back) Trenin, op.cit.  

9 (back) I. Denisov and A. Lukin, “Korrektsiya i khedzhirovanie”, Rossiya v global'noi politike, No.4, July/August, 2021.

10 (back) V. Ivanov, “Kreml' obnovil Strategiyu natsional'noi bezopasnosti”, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 6 July 2021.

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