Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 9

By Sergei Oznobishchev

Russia never ceases to amaze both itself and the rest of the world. One recalls that in Stalin’s time, in spite of the absence of freedoms and the mass repressions, the slogan “Life has gotten better — life has gotten more fun” was in vogue.

The first part of the slogan remains in doubt to this day — far from all citizens in today’s democratic Russia agree that life is better now than it was in those faraway Stalinist times. There is sufficient evidence for this — the great popularity of the Communists and other opposition groups among the people. But the overwhelming majority of Russians would agree that life indeed has gotten more fun. There are many more holidays — together with the former socialist holidays, the new Russia has added its own state holidays (Constitution Day, Independence Day, etc.) and has also restored the forgotten Christian rites of the old, pre-revolutionary Russia.

The same confusion reigns in politics — seemingly unshakable authorities (Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin or Defense Council Secretary Yuri Baturin) come crashing down, seemingly for no reason, and key institutions of national security, such as the Defense Council, appear and disappear for no rational reason. Fundamental documents in the area of national security appeared rather unexpectedly, were signed by the president, and often were forgotten about immediately thereafter. These documents were, as a rule, prepared in secret, and did not reflect a national, or even an institutional, consensus.

The appearance of Russia’s new military doctrine in November 1993 was least expected of all. This document proclaimed that the country had backed off from the principle of the unacceptability of the first use of nuclear weapons.

In large part, thanks to the efforts of the members of the special analytical group working under Yuri Baturin, and Baturin’s own farsightedness, the most important presidential national security document — the president’s special message to the Federal Assembly on “National Security Policy” [NSP] for the next five-year period (June 1996) — was produced.

And not so long ago, at the end of last year, another document was added to this list: the “National Security Concept of the Russian Federation” (NSC), approved by Special Presidential Decree #1300, dated December 17, 1997.

Although the two previous documents should have formed a certain system of views on Russia’s national security priorities, there is not a word about the NSP in the NSC — as if the preceding document had never existed. One may, nevertheless, say that the authors of the “Concept” used the NSP, and in certain places, even developed its “legacy.” It would have been hard for them not to do so; after all, the 1996 document was a presidential document. But if the NSP was produced by the people who later formed the backbone of the Defense Council, the NSC was the work of the Security Council. Why not use the opportunity to jab at your rivals, if only by not mentioning their work?

Together with the “creative development” of the previous legacy in the “Concept” there is a change in emphasis. The NSP proclaimed that “ensuring the development of the individual, a steady growth of his standard of living and prosperity, on the basis of observing his rights and freedoms… and the democratic development of the country” was Russia’s most important national interest.

The central issue clearly is defining the nature of the threat to national security. The idea, expressed for the first time in the NSP, that internal threats to Russia’s security were more dangerous than external threats, was revolutionary in its time. The main domestic challenge to Russia’s national security was proclaimed to be the incomplete nature and instability of its structures of democratic government.

From that point of view, it is hard to understand how, a year and a half later, it could become possible to say (as was stated in the NSC) that “the basic institutions of the democratic state have already been formed in the country.” Moreover, it says in the NSC that “the critical state of the economy” is “the main reason for the appearance of a threat to the national security of the Russian Federation.” And correspondingly, “Russia’s national interests in the economic sphere” are said to be “crucial.” The whole document is permeated by this “economic slant.”

On the other hand, even economic prosperity, in and of itself, cannot guarantee the building of a democratic society, in the absence of a working system of democratic institutions which both complement and restrain each other. The present political crisis initiated by the president shows that the absence of this latter factor will continue to be significant for Russia. At least this time — thank God! — it hasn’t led to shooting in the streets.

From the point of view of external national security priorities, it is important that the latest document adheres to the previous understanding of Russia’s limited capabilities on the global level. Nothing is so ruinous as a lack of correspondence between desires and real capabilities. In so doing, the NSC uses the previous and successful formulation, saying that Russia “is one of the centers of influence of the developing multi-polar world,” which, in principle, is accurate and does not involve taking on excessive obligations.

But the claim that “the interests of ensuring Russia’s national security… predetermine, under certain circumstances, a Russian military presence in certain strategically important regions of the world” obviously contradicts the above thesis. Moreover, the NSC speaks of “deploying limited military contingents (military bases) there, on a treaty basis, and on the principles of partnership,” which, according to the authors, should “demonstrate the Russian Federation’s readiness to fulfill its obligations as an ally,” “to help form a stable military and strategic balance of forces in these regions” and to react in crisis situations.

This passage is also strange because today, Russia has very few allies, and those it has are among the former republics of the USSR. To say that Russia, with its now limited capabilities and its high degree of self-sufficiency in terms of natural resources, has to “move into” strategically-important regions of the world is not enough, if one is not referring to joint peacemaking missions in other countries (which, in general, is realistic), or to a return to a global confrontation with the U.S. and the West (which, in the near future, is unrealistic, unnecessary and unjustified, in view of the partnership relations which Russia says it has with the West).

It is much more important, in my view, to give a realistic assessment of the challenges, dangers, and threats which Russia faces. A real breakthrough in this area was made in 1993, when, in the military doctrine, it was stated that “the direct threat of unleashing aggression against the Russian Federation… is substantially lower.”

In the “Concept,” the authors go further, saying that the new situation and the reduction of the external threat, “open… new opportunities to mobilize resources to solve the country’s domestic problems.” Unfortunately, one cannot say that this conclusion is finding full support and understanding in decision-making circles in Russia today. Also unfortunately, Western countries, with their short-sighted policy (above all, NATO expansion) are today creating the necessary conditions for those people in Russia who are inclined, as before, to see the future threats and challenges to Russia’s national security as coming from the West. Under these conditions, the negative attitude in Russia toward expanding the alliance will find constant reflection in any documents in the area of national security, and in any decision on short- or long-term military planning or arms reduction.

The attempts to back off from “exact” parity, so far not formulated into anything concrete, are continued in the NSC — it contains a declaration that “Russia does not seek to maintain parity in arms and armed forces with the leading countries of the world, and is oriented toward implementing the principle of realistic deterrence, which is based on the resolve to use its military power to avert aggression.” This statement is reminiscent of the theory of the “ladder of escalation” which recently was in vogue in the U.S. and the West. Although this statement applies not only to nuclear weapons, but to conventional weapons as well, nevertheless, the attempt to go “beyond deterrence,” and even a unilateral refusal to pursue nuclear parity with the U.S. is being rather widely discussed in the press.

As regards “purely” nuclear weapons, the NSC says virtually nothing new, in comparison with previous documents. Back in the “fundamental military doctrine” and in later explanations by then Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, one could see the same thing which appears in the text of the NSC — the task was posed of maintaining a nuclear deterrent “in the interests of preventing both nuclear and conventional full-scale or regional wars, and also in fulfillment of alliance obligations.” Thus, the transition was made from the “progressive” Soviet formulations on the unacceptability of the first use of nuclear weapons to standard Western formulas of the Cold War period.

In Russia, this took place, not under the influence of the “cold war mentality” (although its remnants can sometimes still be felt), but as a consequence of the crisis in the army, brought about by military reform and cuts in the armed forces, i.e., of the weakening of Russia in the military sense. But the use of such logic by Russian officials and analysts (and of their Western colleagues as well) is a disturbing indication of how little has changed in the area of national security planning, in spite of declarations of partnership.

The definition of the realistic threats to Russia’s security given in the NSC could serve as a certain counterweight to this. These threats, according to its authors, lie in the potential hotbeds of local wars and armed conflicts near the Russian borders. This understanding is extremely important, in that it relieves the military of the necessity of preparing for global or regional wars.

The fact that the NSC continues to speak of the West as a partner is also important. In the NSP and this latest document, the term “partnership” is used with the reservation that Russia must be an equal partner, which obviously serves notice that the times of “unconditional” partnership with the West are over, and that Russia will now show increasingly greater independence.

But if we continue to be partners, including in the military-technical area, and proceed from that point in our military construction, then why must the Russian armed forces be capable of “securing a reliable defense from air and space attack” as the NSC prescribes? It isn’t hard to figure out that only the U.S., and no one else, is capable of launching such a perfidious attack.

Russia will never cease to amaze the rest of the world and itself, including by its sudden and contradictory decisions in the national security decision-making process. In spite of this, Russia is working out its views on the outside world and the challenges and threats that lurk within it. And this process is going in a positive direction.

It would certainly be better if Moscow’s policies and decisions were more predictable, and political life in Russia were less like a roller coaster, with their sudden rises and falls. Then it would be easier for the West to believe in the solidity and irreversibility of the democratic changes that are taking place here. This, in turn, would lead to fewer fears in the security sphere.

In order to reduce such fears to a minimum, it would not hurt to continue the seminars on military doctrines under the aegis of the OSCE, which were begun in the early 1990s and soon forgotten. Only a constant dialogue on security issues, and an explanation of military concepts, both in Western countries and in Russia, can bring us back from the virtual world which is often inhabited by those who draw up such documents to solid ground, by strengthening trust and substantially broadening the opportunities for constructive interaction in the security sphere.

Translated by Mark Eckert

Sergei Oznobishchev is the Director of the Institute of Strategic Assessments and was a member of the National Security Adviser’s analytical group which drafted the document known as “The National Security Policy of the Russian Federation: (1996-2000).”