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Russia Profile
May 14, 2009
Ploughing the Sand of National Security
By Roland Oliphant

A long-awaited new national security concept has now been approved. It incorporates eye-catching language about the protection of human rights and democracy, contains an unspoken threat to foreign NGOs, and apparently extends a cautious hand of friendship to the Barack Obama administration. But it will have little impact on how Russia’s security services do their jobs, and says very little on concrete subjects.

Russia’s Security Council finally released the approved version of the national security strategy on Wednesday, following months of delays. The finished 7,000-word document was immediately seized by journalists and experts for analysis, and they have noted three things ­ the language is conspicuously democratic (despite a veiled threat to NGOs), vague enough to leave room for both cooperation and confrontation with the United States, and it will have next to no impact on how the security services actually work.

The council had been working on a new security strategy since last August, when in the wake of the Georgian war President Dmitry Medvedev asked it to elaborate a replacement to the strategy developed in 2000 for former-President Vladimir Putin’s administration. A draft had been prepared by December, but its endorsement was delayed at first until March and then again when a meeting of the Security Council chaired by Medvedev decided to allow time for new amendments to be inserted in the text.

Although at the time the Interfax news agency quoted a source within the Security Council denying it, it is widely thought that the main reason for this delay was actually the change of administration in the United States (the Security Council met on March 25 ­ days before Medvedev’s first meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama). Alexander Nekipelov, the vice president of the Russian Academy of Sciences and one of the authors of the document, told the Kommersant daily that the committee had “taken into account the United States and the changes that have occurred there.”

The paper speaks about resisting NATO expansion and the identification of the main military threat to Russia as “the policy of a number of leading foreign countries aimed at achieving a dominant advantage in the military field through the formation of a unilateral global system of missile defense and the militarization of space.” This document comes as confirmation, as if any were needed, that Russia’s security establishment still considers the United States the number one adversary.

That makes the conciliatory elements (and there are some - the document echoed Obama’s sentiments about the desirability of “moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons,” and talks about Russian willingness to collaborate with NATO “as equal partners”) doubly welcome. But they are not surprising, and nor are many of the other listed threats. The activities of “foreign special services and organizations,” the threat of economic turbulence - which took pride of place in the previous strategy drawn up in 2000 ­ and the “defense of the state” against terrorism and extremism are staples of Russian security policy. “To be frank, I think it is just the same. We have seen the same things for the past four or five years,” said Andrei Soldatov, an independent security analyst and editor of the Agentura Web site.

According to Soldatov, the interesting aspect is not so much the security issues the strategy raises as how it talks about them. The way the document is drawn up manages to make it both vaguer than its predecessor and to subtly shift the order of priorities. “In the previous document you could find a special paragraph listing threats to national security, and that was important because you could see an order of priority. And the economic situation was listed as number one,” said Soldatov. In the new text there is no single paragraph that lists all the threats.

The new document comes to such a list is in the second paragraph (“State and Domestic Security”), and the first threat mentioned is that of “intelligence and other activities of foreign special services, organizations and individuals to the detriment of the security of the Russian Federation.”

That is not only surprising because it seems to displace the priority given to economic threats, which in the current climate would be more pressing than ever (to be fair, “economic growth” is deemed significant enough to warrant its own paragraph). It also puts foreign espionage ahead of terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking. And, said Soldatov, the mention of “foreign organizations,” as well as “special services” suggests that NGOs are at least as dangerous as foreign spies (that, however, is not new either. Russian politicians, including Putin himself, have long accused NGOs of acting as front organizations for foreign (i.e. Western) intelligence services).

This has left analysts scratching their heads. Apart from a residual fear of “colored revolutions,” which at one point was undoubtedly a priority of the Kremlin, there seem to be few genuine policy issues to justify it. It may have something to do with personal opinion ­ the current secretary of the Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, had a long career in counter intelligence and is a former director of the FSB. Independent observers tend to see the document as the product of competitive lobbying by elements within the security establishment ­ “giving priority to the threat of foreign espionage is a kind of guarantee of resources for the FSB, which is responsible for this kind of job,” noted Soldatov.

And confusing the issue further is the appearance of vast tracts about the importance of human rights. The preamble to the section on state and domestic security asserts that objectives include protection of “the fundamental rights and freedoms of man and citizen;” and as well as fighting the insidious influence of foreign NGOs. Security services are also expected to suppress any “criminal assault” on human rights and freedoms and property. That section is followed by another dedicated to “improving Russian citizens’ quality of life,” which apparently entails “improving national human rights protection systems through the development of the judicial system and legislation.”

These parts were all added after the March 25 meeting chaired by Medvedev, and they bear the unmistakable mark of his increasing portfolio if his self-consciously “liberal” initiatives (an unnamed member of the council told Kommersant that “we faithfully followed the directives given by the president, asserting the priority of human development and personality.”).

That same source called the concept “quite democratic, and even, if you want, liberal.” And there is little doubt that the admission that security “cannot be achieved by force alone” is to be welcomed in Russia. But its purpose seems to be entirely political. Assertions about the importance of human rights are quite different from addressing actual problems, and the language is as frustratingly vague as the rest of the document.

And if the president is hoping that such rhetoric will raise his stock amongst the liberal constituency at home and his critics abroad, he maybe mistaken. “Although there are some points connected to civil rights, they look like mere declarations,” said Nikolai Petrov, an expert on domestic affairs at the liberal Moscow Carnegie Center think tank. In his opinion, the vagueness of the document, from the unclear order of priorities to the inclusion of human rights clauses, has quite a different cause.

“The initial idea to rewrite this strategy appeared after the Georgian War, and it was meant to reflect Russia’s new role and position in the world. But immediately after it was announced that the working group should start this work, the economic crisis hit Russia,” he said. “Now, no one knows where the country is going to be in six months time. So they had to make as declarative and avoid as much of the real sense as possible.”