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Is Russia playing the victim, or is the sense of impending siege justified?

Its new national security strategy may be calculated to appeal to voters, but the West has clearly helped to push Putin's buttons, too.

Analysis | Europe

Moscow’s global outlook in Soviet times was framed by communist ideology and the party’s political priorities. The nearest contemporary equivalent is the “Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation,” last updated in 2016, in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis, when Western sanctions were raining down on Russia hard and fast.

Yet at that time Russia remained optimistic about possible partnerships with Western states. It committed to “building mutually beneficial relations with the United States, taking into consideration that the two states bear special responsibility for global strategic stability and international security in general, as well as vast potential in trade and investment, scientific and technical and other types of cooperation.” In relation to Europe, the goal was “a common space of peace, security and stability, based on the principles of indivisible security, equal cooperation and mutual trust.”

Russia’s new “National Security Strategy,” approved by President Putin earlier this month, does not feature such fine sentiments. Having endured more years of Western sanctions, accusations that it is a rogue state, and the vilification of its president, Moscow seems to have now abandoned all hope of a return to détente with the United States and the EU. Russia’s existing allies and friends such as the People’s Republic of China and India, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the BRICS, and members of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, are the only states and organizations meriting any positive mention. The pronounced pivot away from a Western orientation in Russian foreign policy to a focus on Asia and the Pacific is unmistakable.

Having sown the wind, the West will now reap the whirlwind. Two decades of failure to see Russia’s point of view or to understand why Moscow feels so threatened have helped to create not just a rival but an adversary, a state whose main mission is to isolate itself from Western power and influence at any cost.

Moscow’s current view is that external dangers to Russia have only multiplied and intensified in recent years. Accordingly, the National Security Strategy asserts that Russia and its citizens are under attack. A number of foreign states identify Russia as a threat or, worse, a military opponent. These same states strive to isolate Russia internationally and to interfere in its domestic affairs. Amid a tough global struggle for spheres of influence, the use of force to resolve international problems has become increasingly common. There is a moral vacuum at the global leadership level. The liberal democratic model is in crisis and Western states are attempting to solve their domestic problems at Russia’s expense.

Strategically, Russia will respond to this unstable and threatening situation by strengthening its military, enhancing its internal security, and reducing its dependence on foreign trade, finances, and technologies.

Equally, the document lays out Russia’s commitment to a unified international order based on legal norms and respectful, trust-based relations between states. It wants to strengthen international institutions, especially the United Nations Security Council, which it sees as the foundation of global order. It aspires to reduce the threat of war, curtail renewed arms races and develop new mechanisms to safeguard strategic stability in the nuclear sphere. Politics, diplomacy and peacekeeping are Russia’s preferred foreign policy instruments as it seeks cooperation with other states in relation to nuclear proliferation, climate change, migration, health threats and counterterrorism.

These internationalist commitments are welcome but they are thin gruel compared to past proposals by Moscow for Russo-American strategic partnership and pan-European collective security. As Russian analyst Dmitri Trenin has commented, the new strategy is designed for an era defined by an “increasingly intense confrontation with the United States and its allies.”

This sorry state of affairs is not seen as Russia’s doing, but the result of strident efforts by Western states to preserve their hegemony in an increasingly multipolar international system at a time of fierce all-around competition to control markets and financial resources.

Moscow is particularly concerned about the role of the internet and its potential for disinformation and subversion, its utilization by criminals and terrorists, and its manipulation by foreign intelligence agencies. Putin has long advocated a cyber pact to control the international information war but that is not highlighted in this document.

A vigorous assertion of Russia’s sovereignty is the persistent theme: state sovereignty in the face of foreign interference in the country’s domestic affairs; the autonomy of its economy, financial institutions, and information technology systems; the country’s cultural specificity and independence; and the moral right of its citizen to choose a traditional way of life based on their religion, family, and community values.

Russian foreign policy is said to be “predictable,” “consistent,” “reliable,” “transparent,” and “pragmatic,” but the document sometimes reads like a political manifesto calculated to appeal to a domestic electorate as they vote in September’s national elections. 

The document includes a section devoted to the social welfare and moral well-being of Russian citizens and the state’s role in fostering the full flowering of their human potential.  Another section is entitled “Defense of Traditional Russian Spiritual-Moral Values, Culture and Historical Memory.” In effect, this defines Russia as a conservative state resistant to the extremes of liberal individualism. Russia’s traditional values are seen as under attack by Western states aiming to undermine the country’s cultural autonomy, while its past is being falsified by those trying to obliterate its common historical memory in order to fan the flames of inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict. 

Further evidence of Moscow’s defensive stance came in a recent piece Putin wrote on the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations in which he says the western anti-Russia project dates back centuries.

Simon Saradzhyan’s apt summary of the document: “Deter the U.S., ignore the EU, partner with China and India.”

October 1, 2019: Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to president of Kyrgyzstan Sooronbay Jeenbekov during meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Yerevan, Armenia.(Asatur Yesayants /
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