On December 31, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed into law the new National Security Strategy, which replaces its 2009 version. The 2015 Strategy soon prompted a cacophony of critical opinions from commentators who have highlighted the extent to which it designates the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as threats to Russia’s security. However, this development is hardly surprising given the long-term deterioration of Moscow’s relations with Washington and NATO, a process further driven by the 2014 crisis in Ukraine and its ongoing ramifications as well as Russia’s response to the corresponding US strategy document released in February 2015. Official and expert commentary in Moscow throughout 2015, culminating in year-end reflections on Russia’s strategic situation and military capabilities, all offered indications that the new strategy would note the potential risks to the state’s security from the United States and its allies (Kremlin.ru, December 31, 2015).
Two events occurred in Moscow in December that articulated the political-military leadership’s perspective on Russia’s security and the consequent need to develop the defense system: an enlarged session of the defense ministry collegium held on December 11, and a December 14 briefing for foreign military attaches, which had featured Army-General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff. The themes and messages expressed at both events were clear and entirely consistent with the national security document later signed by Putin at the end of the year. Another common and uniting theme was the focus on terrorism and the associated promotion of the message that Moscow is battling the Islamic State through its operations in Syria, requiring broad cooperation with other partners. However, as Gerasimov, asserted in his remarks on December 14, rather than uniting against the Islamic State, Russia had instead been stabbed in the back by its international partners—referencing Turkey shooting down the Russian Su-24M bomber jet in the Turkish-Syrian border area. Gerasimov further insinuated that the US and NATO had conspired to down the Russian bomber (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, December 18, 2015).
If paranoia over such incidents was starkly visible, Gerasimov continued to develop these themes in his detailed overview of Russia’s strategic position. Most of what he told his foreign audience contained little that was new. Moscow considers the international security system to be threatened by terrorism and extremism, made worse still by NATO’s “unfriendly” posture toward Russia, the continued expansion of the Alliance, as well as the activity of foreign militaries close to Russia’s borders. Gerasimov also mentioned the development of new means of warfare and referred to missile defense and developing new conventional strike capabilities that can influence the strategic balance, in addition to the threat of color revolutions. He noted the increased instability in the Middle East and spent some time justifying Russia’s air operations in Syria while pointing to the illegal oil flow from the Islamic State across the Syrian-Turkish border. Furthermore, Gerasimov played up the need to use high-precision cruise missile strikes against targets in Syria. Overall, his portrayal of Russia’s security environment suggests Moscow sees it worsening and apportions some of the blame on the US and NATO (Mil.ru, December 14, 2015).
The question of what all this means for the future of Russia’s Armed Forces and military modernization was touched upon three days earlier by Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other top brass figures during the Defense Ministry Collegium. Although this necessarily involved reflections on Russian military achievements during 2015, the top brass also elaborated priorities for 2016. The main focus for military development in 2015 was to improve the combat capabilities of the strategic nuclear forces, force groupings in the Military Districts, and the Northern Fleet; enhance the system of command and control; supply more modern weapons and platforms to strengthen the logistics apparatus; as well as improve the manning and social conditions for service personnel. An important part of the implied reform process was the creation of the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) on August 1, 2015, now in action over Syria (Mil.ru, December 14, 2015; Kremlin.ru, December 11, 2015).
Shoigu stated that in 2016 he expects (Kremlin.ru, December 11, 2015):
- measures to strengthen the western, southwestern and Arctic strategic directions;
- five Strategic Missile Troops (Raketnye voyska strategicheskogo naznacheniya—RVSN) regiments to go on duty equipped with modern missiles;
- two Tu-160 and seven Tu-95MS bombers to be modernized;
- more brigade sets of Iskander-M and Tornado-S multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), in addition to other surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, to be introduced for the Ground Forces;
- six battalions to receive new tanks and BMP infantry fighting vehicles;
- the VKS and Navy to procure 200 new or modernized aircraft;
- the Navy to receive two new submarines and seven surface ships; and
- the Armed Forces to be tested during the main strategic level exercise Kavkaz 2016.
Additional insight into Russia’s hardened stance toward the US and its allies was provided by a documentary broadcast on Russian TV on December 20. TV journalist Vladimir Solovyov included interviews with Putin during the screening of Miroporyadok (World Order), which explored, in the words of its narrator, “what is happening with us [Russians], what sort of world we have inherited from our parents, and what sort of world we will leave to our children” (YouTube, December 20, 2015).
An assessment of Miroporyadok appeared in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, urging caution at accepting the views of its narrator, but highlighting some of Putin’s observations in the documentary. Indeed, the documentary portrays the “West” in general and the US in particular as holding an archaic worldview, which is marked by repeating Cold War clichés and seeking international dominance. Europe is seen as an arena in which the US and Russia compete. On the other hand, Putin reportedly places his worldview in observing that after the Cold War ended, new “giants” such as China appeared within the international system. Clearly, Putin sees Russia as a center of influence and strives to protect its role (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, December 22, 2015).
While such broadcasts, like most official commentary on Russian threat assessment, contain a degree of anti-Americanism, it seems particularly rooted in how the Russian elite perceives the country’s role in the future international order. Russia’s strategic position, elucidated by officials during recent events, implies a belief that Moscow may be subject to US/NATO efforts to “contain” the country. In Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, analyst Alexei Ramm explored the idea that the Kremlin is engaged in a secret reform of the military that differs from the approach taken by the previous defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov (2007–2012); the current modernization policy is now driven by the need to address attempts to contain Russia (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, December 23, 2015). Ramm believes this is evidenced by closely examining recent changes in the Russian military. If correct, the latest incarnation of “military reform” may be designed to asymmetrically break any effort to contain the Russian state.