Siege mentality.

Photographer: AFP/Getty Images

Putin Makes His Isolationism Official

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The evolution of Russia's National Security Strategy -- a document whose latest version was published on Dec. 31 -- provides valuable material for the study of the angst, paranoia and befuddlement now gripping the Kremlin.

It's well known that during his third presidential term, Putin has cultivated the image of a Western enemy out to destroy Russia. That this concept has found a way into the strategic document is not surprising or particularly important. The significance of the rewritten national security concept is that, for the first time in the 18 years since President Boris Yeltsin signed off on the first version, the Kremlin officially regrets opening up the country economically and culturally. 

Yeltsin signed the first National Security Concept, as it was then known, in 1997. Even in the first post-Soviet years, when Russia did its best to integrate into the Western world, the document called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's eastward expansion a national security threat because military groupings near the Russian borders "are a potential military danger even in the absence of aggressive intentions toward Russia." It wasn't the drafters', or Yeltsin's, biggest worry, though. The economy was:

The economic crisis is the main reason for the emergence of national security threats to the Russian Federation. It is expressed as substantial production decline, drops in investment and innovation activity, the destruction of scientific and technological potential, stagnation in agriculture, disarray in the payment and monetary system, fiscal revenue shrinkage, increases in public debt.

Yeltsin and his strategists were right to be worried. Less than a year after the National Security Concept was approved, oil prices dropped to about $10 per barrel, Russia defaulted on its domestic debt and suffered perhaps the biggest post-Soviet blow to its prestige. The country lay economically helpless, and only a sharp devaluation and an excess of unused industrial capacity allowed it to rise as domestic production gradually replaced imports.

The national security document got a face-lift in 2000, after Yeltsin resigned and Vladimir Putin became acting president. It still centered on economic challenges, but it reflected a growing concern with Western interference and NATO expansion:

A shift, enshrined in NATO's strategic doctrine, toward the use of military force outside the bloc's zone of responsibility and without sanction from the United Nations Security Council carries a threat of destabilization to the entire global strategic environment.

There were other not-so-subtle changes, too: For example, where the original concept talked about the need for constructive decentralization that would devolve more powers to the vast country's regions, the early Putin version only talked about building "a strong vertical of executive power," a phrase that became the leitmotif of Putin's first presidential term. The amended document stressed the need for a bigger role for the state in countering all sorts of threats, both military and economic. Unlike in the original, there was no mention that an oversized military was too much of a burden for an economically weakened country. All in all, Putin followed through on his intentions, aided by a rise in oil revenues.

The next time Kremlin strategists felt Russia needed a new national security agenda was in 2009, when Dmitri Medvedev served as a placeholder president between Putin terms. His version was supposed to last until 2020. Medvedev, who now serves as prime minister, is into windy forward-looking documents. Unlike the previous two iterations, this one was somewhat boastful: It claimed that Russia's economic decline had been reversed and that its resource wealth was helping to enhance the country's international influence. 

Even the traditional passage about NATO as a threat to Russian interest read as if this mild nuisance could be overcome with some assertive diplomacy:

Russia is ready to develop its relations with NATO on an equitable basis in the interests of strengthening comprehensive security in the Euro-Atlantic region, the depth and content of which will be determined by the alliance's willingness to consider Russia's legitimate interests.

The bravura tone appeared justified. Russia was successfully weathering the global financial crisis thanks to its huge international reserves, oil was getting close to $70 per barrel, and the long-term trend looked favorable.

The current version of the National Security Strategy is the most specifically anti-Western one to date. NATO and the European Union are accused of being unable to ensure the security of Europe, and the EU refugee crisis is held up as proof. The U.S. and EU, the document says, backed "an anti-constitutional coup" in Ukraine that "led to a deep split in Ukrainian society and an armed conflict." 

The document argues that the West is out to topple "legitimate political regimes," which creates instability and new hot spots. Even the emergence of Islamic State is blamed on "the policy of double standards practiced by some states in the fight against terror." Those "certain states" also "use information and communication technology to reach their political goals through public opinion manipulation and history falsification." Russia itself, with its state-controlled propaganda machine that has replaced private media for most of the domestic audience, is implicitly not among the offending countries.

Economic problems take a back seat to these threats. The Kremlin is still concerned about the commodity export dependence but, on a part with it, economic dangers include "the inadequate protection of the national financial system from the actions of non-residents and speculative foreign capital, the vulnerability of its information infrastructure" as well as "the registration of a significant share of corporate property rights in foreign jurisdictions." 

Putin is also worried about "the watering down of traditional Russian spiritual and moral values and the weakening of the unity of the Russian Federation's multiethnic people through the external cultural and information-related expansion."

The 2000 iteration of the national security agenda spelled out Putin's plan to strengthen central power, the state in all its Soviet and czarist glory. The 2015 iteration is a declaration of isolationist, defensive intentions. There is not a glimmer of hope that Putin plans to fight Russia's economic woes by making his country more accessible to foreign capital or deepening its integration into global markets; no, he plans to keep moving in the opposite direction.

He still has time to do it. Even after the most adverse oil scenarios, Russia has enough international reserves to last through the end of this year, and probably, with frugal management, until the 2018 presidential election. Russians' legendary patience may fray, but it will probably last until then, aided by a well-fed security apparatus. Even if Putin cannot hold on to power beyond that election, Russia will be a much more inward-looking society when the time comes for political succession.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net