Russian Words: Do They Matter?


2016-02-22 By Richard Weitz

The last few months have seen the release of several documents, interviews, and speeches that provide revealing insights into the Kremlin’s worldview.

At the end of December, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new National Security Strategy.

The Russian president is required to issue a revised Strategy, an unclassified and publicly available, every six year. These strategies, written by the Russian Federation Security Council in consultation with a broad range of public and private stakeholders, cover both domestic and foreign affairs.

As the overarching strategic planning document, they guide the development of more specific Russian strategies such as those relating to national defense and pubic information policy. The Strategy’s objectives typically include strengthening the country’s military power, enhancing Moscow’s international influence, advancing Russia’s economic development and competitiveness, promoting Russians national unity, and protecting the Russian Federation’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and “constitutional system.”

The most recent version of the text is supposed to guide Russia’s national security policy through the year 2020.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his end-of-year news conference in Moscow, Dec. 17, 2015
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his end-of-year news conference in Moscow, Dec. 17, 2015

The Strategy’s specific goals include revitalizing Russia’s global stature, strengthening law and order, and securing self-sufficiency in food. While frank in acknowledging how corruption, the shadow and offshore markets, low productivity, excessive resource dependency, and financial inefficiencies weaken Russia’s commercial competiveness, the document also depicts the West as using sanctions and other measures to weaken Russia’s economic power.

The Strategy blames the West for undermining regional order in the Middle East and Afghanistan by attempting to exploit international terrorists to depose regimes that the West does not control.

In Moscow’s view, these policies have created power vacuums that Islamist extremists have filled, resulting in massive refugees flows to Europe.

Although the Strategy is silent on Syria, one justification offered by Russian officials for the Russian military intervention there has been to reestablish the shattered regional order.

Compared to previous versions, the current text highlights the perceived challenges to Russia of NATO’s growing membership and strength, Russian economic difficulties, the weakening of traditional Russian spiritual and moral values, and international terrorism and other foreign and domestic menaces.

The current version is also more pessimistic about cooperating with Europe in particular, despite Russian efforts to split Europeans from the United States, and more enthusiastic about building ties with China and Asian partners.

The NSS claims that United States seeks to overthrow the Putin administration and other foreign governments not under Washington’s control through U.S. domination of the international information order, locally obedient puppets and NGOs, and economic and other pressure.

In Moscow’s line of thought, Washington, through its black-white policy of seeing anyone who is not with the United States as against it, will employ all instruments of power against governments that oppose U.S. hegemony.

In a January interview with Die Bild newspaper, President Vladimir Putin traced the origins of Russian-Western tensions back to the end of the Cold War, when the West allegedly decided to exploit Russia’s weaknesses rather than partner with Moscow against common problems: “the Berlin Wall fell, but invisible walls were moved to the East of Europe,“ despite what Putin claimed were pledges by Western leaders not to enlarge NATO in exchange for Moscow’s allowing for Germany’s unification with alliance membership.

While acknowledging that every country has the right to pursue “its security the way it deems appropriate,“ Putin says that NATO leaders should have more correctly understood that their interests lay in collaborating with Russia to create a more balanced post-Cold War European security architecture.

However, Putin blames Moscow’s leadership at the time for being too timid about asserting its interests.

“ If we had presented our national interests more clearly from the beginning, the world would still be in balance today.”

In his annual review of Russian diplomacy on January 26, 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained how the United States and its allies were taking steps to avert “a more equitable polycentric international system, to maintain dominance in global affairs and to impose one’s will on others.”

He faulted alleged Western efforts to exclude Russia from various multinational economic structures and keep non-Western views off the media.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier speaking on a panel at the security conference in Munich. Credit: Moscow News
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier speaking on a panel at the security conference in Munich. Credit: Moscow News

Lavrov added:

“We are ready for the closest and most constructive cooperation with our Western partners, including Europe and the United States, and are open to a progressive development of cooperation with them.

But solely and exclusively on an equitable and mutually beneficial basis, with parties refraining from interference in each other’s internal affairs and respecting each side’s fundamental interests.”

According to Lavrov, despite Russia proposals for collaboration in the management of various crises and combating terrorism, “There are still inertia-driven attempts to contain Russia, even though this policy should have long been consigned to the archives of history, to derive unilateral advantages, and even to punish us for our independent foreign policy.”

Russian officials continued this line at the February 2016 Munich Security Conference.

“Without mentioning the West directly, Prime Minster Dmitry Medvedev  claimed that U.S.-led efforts to build “economic mega-blocs” like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and “the practice of unilateral economic pressure in the form of sanctions is…undermining the operating foundations of international economic organisations, including the World Trade Organisation.”

He termed the sanctions self-destructive since they undermine mutually beneficial joint projects.

“This is a road to nowhere.

Everyone will suffer, mark my words.

It is vitally important that we join forces to strengthen a new global system that can combine the principles of effectiveness and fairness, market openness and social protection.”

In the security domain, Medvedev called “NATO’s policy towards Russia remains unfriendly and generally obdurate.”

While “Russia has been presented as well-nigh the biggest threat to NATO, or to Europe, America and other countries.”

Although he argued that the term “European security” should be seen much more broadly since “new issues have come to the fore since then, such as sustainable economic development, inequality and poverty, unprecedented migration, new forms of terrorism and regional conflicts, including in Europe.

I am referring to Ukraine, the volatile Balkans, and Moldova that is teetering on the brink of a national collapse.”

He warned that, “Speaking bluntly, we are rapidly rolling into a period of a new cold war.”

Regarding Syria, Medvedev stressed the imperative of keeping a unified Syrian state to avoid another failed terrorist-controlled state like Afghanistan, Libya, or Yemen ”if we fail to normalise the situation in Syria and other conflict areas, terrorism will become a new form of war that will spread around the world.

It will not be just a new form of war but a method of settling ethnic and religious conflict, and a form of quasi-state governance.

Imagine a group of countries that are governed by terrorists through terrorism.

Is this the 21st century?”

Russian Prime Minister Medvedev at the Munich Security Conference, 2016. Credit: Novosti
Russian Prime Minister Medvedev at the Munich Security Conference, 2016. Credit: Novosti

Medvedev rejected Western accusations that Russian warplanes have been attacking civilian targets in Syria:

“Nobody has any proof that we have been bombing civilian targets there, …

They do not share information. I have just said this from the stand – the military must keep in constant contact. …

Otherwise there will always be skirmishes and conflicts.”

At the Munich Conference, Lavrov also denied responsibility for the humanitarian crisis in Syria, blaming primarily the terrorists and arguing that the only lasting solution will be a political settlement between the Assad government and the non-terrorist opposition.

As an important interim measure, Lavrov likewise called for a ceasefire deeper Russian-U.S. military collaboration—“not just the prevention of accidental incidents but real coordination, identifying the areas held by terrorists and also areas that should not be targeted, etc.”

In his words, “apart from these diplomatic tools, the key instrument in solving the issue of humanitarian aid distribution and especially the issue of a ceasefire is ensuring everyday non-stop cooperation and coordination between the military, primarily the US military, who heads the coalition they made up, and the military of the Russian Federation, taking into account that we are working in the Syrian Arab Republic at the invitation of the Syrian government and [an understatement] we have certain influences on Damascus.”

Still, Lavrov faulted Western governments and media for their allegedly one-sided approach to the humanitarian issue and cited the alleged humanitarian crimes of the Ukrainian government and the use of chemical weapons by ISIS.

Medvedev joined Putin in calling for an anti-terrorist alliance against the Islamist militants “whose ideology is not based on Islamic values but on a blood-thirsty desire to kill and destroy. Terrorism is civilisation’s problem.

It’s either us or them, and it’s time for everyone to realise this.”

Yet, Medvedev returned to the line that the West was trying to distinguish between good and bad “gangsters” in Syria and other places:

“There are no nuances or undertones, no justifications for terrorist actions, no dividing terrorists into ours or theirs, into moderate or extremist.”

He accused Western leaders of risking world order by decreasing counterterrorist cooperation with Russia: “Daesh should be grateful to my colleagues, the leaders of the Western countries who have suspended this cooperation.”

Lavrov likewise asserted that, “we have failed so far to create a truly efficient anti-terrorist front, substantially due to certain countries’ inability to put aside nonentity matters and intentions to use the situation for changing political regimes and implementing other geopolitical ambitions.”

He also feared the emergence of failed states following the “collapse of Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan, whose territories, along with Syrian territory, is being infiltrated by ISIS, who are using the lack of an efficient unified international strategy to their advantage.”

Again, while acknowledging that “Wars and related deprivations, inequality, low standards of living, violence, and fanaticism force people to flee their homes” contribute to the Europe’s migration crisis, Medvedev singled out for condemnation the “Unsuccessful attempts to spread Western models of democracy to a social environment that is not suited for this have resulted in the demise of entire states and have turned huge territories into zones of hostility.”

Appealing to European anti-immigration sentiments, Lavrov warned that, “The ongoing migration crisis is rapidly acquiring the features of a humanitarian catastrophe, at least in some parts of Europe.

Social problems are growing too, along with mutual intolerance and xenophobia.

Not to mention the fact that hundreds and thousands of extremists enter Europe under the guise of being refugees.

Other migrants are people of an absolutely different culture who only want to receive monetary benefits without doing anything to earn them.

This poses a very real danger to the common economic space.

The next targets will be the cultural space and even the European identity.“

Medvedev’s main solution was for renewed dialogue, arms control, and other exchanges: “I consider it unacceptable that this dialogue has almost ceased in many spheres.”

In his view, “When we managed to join forces, we succeeded.

There is much evidence to support this.

We managed to agree on the reduction of strategic offensive weapons, which was a breakthrough achievement.

We have worked out a compromise solution regarding Iran’s nuclear programme.

We have convinced all sides in the Syrian conflict to sit down at the negotiating table in Geneva.

We have coordinated actions against pirates.

And the Climate Change Conference was held in Paris last year.”

Lavrov too said that, ”last year’s events again proved that when one’s idea of exceptionalism is put aside, the world’s top nations – the US, the EU, China, Russia, as well as other leading countries – can manage to achieve breakthrough results.

I’m talking about the Iranian nuclear programme settlement and Syria’s chemical demilitarization.”

But he added that “to apply such collective approaches and such efficient methods, you need to get used to working as a team and not make decisions for everyone and then punish those who do not agree with such a dictate.”

Citing examples from Ukraine and Syria, moreover, Lavorv added that “often agreements are not carried out due to some of the participants’ attempt to revise them retroactively to gain unilateral advantage to the detriment of the seemingly achieved balance of interests.”

As a result, “the level of interaction between Euro-Atlantic organisations and Russia in certain spheres is even lower than during the Cold War period, not to mention the returning shibboleths of an ideological confrontation, whose conceptual basis ceased to exist a quarter of a century ago.

Mixing the propaganda with real politics to the detriment of the prospects for solving key international issues has become a sign of our times.”

If Russian leaders act in accord what they say, than the prospects for any enduring improvement in Russia’s Western relations are bleak indeed.