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Russia’s National Security Strategy 2021: the Era of "Information Confrontation"

Russia’s National Security Strategy 2021: the Era of
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

On July 2, President Vladimir Putin signed a new national security strategy to replace the version that had been in effect since 2015. In this document, experts have noted the influence exerted by Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, and one of the leading figures in the Putin system. What are the key takeaways?

A strategy based on domestic issues and information confrontation 

First of all, the document reflects a hardening on all fronts and, in particular, an analysis according to which the confrontation with the West is here to stay. From this vantage point, there is a notable change from the 2015 strategy. Published after the Ukrainian crisis of 2014, the 2015 document entertained the possibility of restoring a constructive relationship with the United States and its allies. Things look very different today. 
According to the 2021 version of the strategy, the "unfriendly countries" (including the United States) are determined to weaken Russia militarily, technologically, economically (sanctions) and even "spiritually" (see below). In general, they aim at destabilizing the Russian political system internally. Meanwhile, the term "color revolutions" has become their political buzzword. It is this overall tone that led Marc Galeotti, a specialist on Russian politics and security affairs, to call the document a "paranoid’s charter." Indeed, the latter explicitly mentions that "destructive forces" abroad will try to exploit Russia’s domestic problems to support "terrorist and extremist activities." In this regard, the text reiterates a recently commonly heard analysis from certain Russian and Chinese officials that the West has become weak, that its decline is inevitable, and that it’s at its most aggressive in this uncertain phase. This, of course, echoes Stalin’s thesis that "the intensification of the contradictions of capitalism" made Western nations hawkish. 

Against this somber backdrop, the most pressing needs for the authors of the document are domestic. It is, above all, a question of defending the country’s self-sufficiency, reviving its growth, and adopting a consistent demographic policy where guaranteeing the Russian population a "good life" is in and of itself a strategic goal. Many pages have thus been devoted to income policy, access to health care and upgrading social services. In terms of the economy, diversification and reduction of dependence on foreign technologies are high up on the agenda.

Climate change is not only depicted as a new threat that must be battled but also as one of the rare topics that calls for international cooperation.

This is what makes Dmitri Trenin, in his commentary for the Carnegie Moscow Center, say that this national strategy is "a manifesto for a new era". For Trenin, the Russian leadership’s main concern in 2015 still revolved around putting their country back on the world’s geopolitical map. Having achieved that goal, they must now return to the fundamental issue of developing the country internally. It is also important to note that an initial examination of the text - published only in Russian - gives a sense of looking inward. 

Meanwhile, environmental concerns appear for the first time in a Russian strategic document. Climate change is not only depicted as a new threat that must be battled but also as one of the rare topics that calls for international cooperation.

There is another significant innovation in the 2021 version: an emphasis on defending "traditional Russian values." These have been described at length: dignity, human rights, patriotism, a strong family, a sense of responsibility, the primacy of the spiritual over the material, a "collective" spirit and so on. All of this is threatened by "a foreign propaganda of selfishness, permissiveness and lack of responsibility" that has been propagated by the US government, NGOs and new forms of social media. The "falsification of history" also plays a part. What is at stake is an attempt to "Westernize" Russia, which is presented as being now underway. 

Yet another innovation is the central importance given to "information security." The text states that new information technologies are increasingly being used to interfere in Russian internal affairs (sic). With large platforms contributing to "the spread of false information," Russian sovereignty in this area is under threat. The 2021 strategy, therefore, provides for a whole series of measures that include creating a sovereign segment of the Internet, strengthening safeguards against cyberattacks, systematically developing national technologies and, more generally, establishing the "forces and means of information confrontation.

As one reads the document, it is tempting to find commonalities with debates going on in the West but reinterpreted through the Russian system. Of particular note in this context are the reduction of critical dependencies, the necessary investment in advanced technologies and the importance of ecological change (the British "Integrated Review," for example). Where Western analysts speak of a "de-Westernization of the world," the authors of the Russian strategy fear a "Westernization" of Russia. It is hard not to see the irony of this back-and-forth. In terms of "information confrontation," the 2021 strategy signed by Putin has its own way of formalizing a kind of action in which Russia has been a pioneer and which it was the first to practice abroad. The "national security strategy" can thus be read as a justification for a tactic that Russia has been using for years, whether meddling in elections in the West or backing up its actions in Syria or Africa.

What this means for policymakers

This all being said, we must evaluate how important the July 2 document is for deciphering Russian policy. To what extent will it really serve as a "roadmap" for decision-makers in the coming years? 

First of all, it’s worth noting that any text of this kind is, by design, hybrid in nature. It has a considerable bureaucratic aspect, as various departments of the state apparatus have contributed to it. Indeed, a series of "checkboxes" can be found from one strategy to the next. In that sense, the "strategic" content of the document should not be exaggerated. However, it also appears to reflect the mindset of the Russian leadership, both implicitly and explicitly. 

Key elements of this mindset revolve around the defense of traditional values and the information confrontation. The distancing from the West illustrates that, together with its measures of "war preparation" that are peppered with Cold War overtones. But what does the new Russian strategy say about the emergence of China as an alter-ego of the United States? Answering this question requires reading between the lines and looking for implicit hints at most. 

The European Union has been left out of the 2021 strategy text altogether - unlike the 2015 version - even if only as a potential partner.

Thus, when the document mentions Russia’s foreign partners, it talks about a foremost inner circle, with the structures uniting former USSR territories such as the Eurasian Economic Union, among others. Then there is the second inner circle, composed of "China and India." Unlike the 2015 strategy, India is now consistently placed on the same footing as China. Although this obviously does not reflect reality, it likely indicates apprehension regarding the Russia-China relations. For Dmitri Trenin, the emphasis put on the risks of technological dependence in the text undoubtedly refers to the relationship with China, which cannot be named in this context for diplomatic reasons. It’s also worth noting that the European Union has been left out of the 2021 strategy text altogether - unlike the 2015 version - even if only as a potential partner.

Let’s use another, perhaps more complex, example: the relationship with the United States. If the Russian "national security strategy" of 2021 is taken literally, the Kremlin no longer expects anything from Washington. Nevertheless, Putin was obviously up for meeting in Geneva with President Biden as soon as he made the offer. And unlike the Obama administration - and perhaps the Europeans, too - the current administration seems to understand what makes Russian power tick, including the field of "information confrontation." In fact, Biden’s reaction to Russian cyberattacks has been a well-mixed cocktail of threats, sanctions, retaliation and an offer for dialog. European countries are well behind the curve in this key matter, which creates the risk of a "new transatlantic decoupling" (the same problem arises with China of course). 

Rather depressingly, one area where the next phase of Russian politics is likely to coincide with the policy stated in the "national strategy" is the repression of any domestic protest movement. In the text signed by Putin on July 2, there are no more opponents, only "foreign agents" serving a strategy of the "Westernization of Russia." 


Copyright: Alexey NIKOLSKY / SPUTNIK / AFP

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