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Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020: A Great Power in the Making?

Sophia Dimitrakopoulou is an independent analyst, based in Greece, specializing in Russian security affairs.
Dr. Andrew Liaropoulos is a Lecturer at the University of Piraeus, Department of International and European Studies, Greece. His research interests include international security, intelligence reform and military transformation.


The publication of Russia’s National Security Strategy in May 2009 provoked a discussion regarding the security challenges that Moscow is facing. This article reviews, firstly, the security context that defined the Putin era and then relates the analysis of the latest national security strategy to the broader dilemmas that Russia will encounter in the next decade. The purpose is to identify the priorities and threat perceptions that are outlined in the latest national security strategy and to question whether Russia will become a great power in the near future.

Keywords: Russian security policy, Russian foreign policy, National Security Strategy to 2020, great power, national interests, threat perceptions


Nearly two decades after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia is still searching for its place in a complex and multipolar world order. Sitting on the periphery of both Europe and Asia, Russia’s leaders need to shape an effective security policy. Acting as a hegemonic power in its immediate neighborhood, maintaining strategic nuclear parity with the United States, securing its borders and coping with the current economic crisis is not an easy task. Adding to the above the demographic crisis and the need to reform its armed forces, it is certain that Moscow faces many dilemmas.

It is in this light that the publication of Russia’s latest National Security Strategy in May 2009 deserves closer attention. The National Security Strategy to 2020 (NSS),1 aims to define the domestic and foreign threats and suggests measures that will guarantee the security and development of the Russian Federation. The analysis of the NSS will be a useful indication on how Moscow plans to formulate its security policy for the coming decade. This article will first describe the security context that characterized the Putin era and highlight the main aspects of its security policy. A selective analysis of key issues raised in the NSS will follow, in order to identify elements of both change and continuity regarding Russia’s security strategy. The article concludes with a critical evaluation of the NSS and the challenges that Moscow is facing.

Russia’s Security Policy: From Putin to Medvedev

Over the past few years, Russia has made efforts to restore its prestige in the world. After surpassing the memories of the Cold War and the ideological confrontation with the West,2 Russia has turned over a new leaf in its history. Under Putin’s administration, Moscow reevaluated its national objectives in order to cope with the rising menaces in a world that is changing constantly. The shift from a bipolar to a multipolar system and the appearance of global and regional challenges has forced Russia to adjust its priorities and redesign its foreign policy. The record so far has been mixed.3 On the one hand, Russia has reasserted itself as an important global actor. On the other hand, Russia’s resurgence as a major European and Asian power has brought back Cold War like memories to some of its neighbors and global competitors.

Russia has tried to take advantage of the opportunities offered by her strategic place and political heritage. The desire to strengthen its geopolitical role in the Eurasian continent, eliminate Russo-phobia and elaborate closer relations with the member-states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has been high on the agenda for the Kremlin. It is not only a matter of prestige for Moscow to sustain a leading role among the post-Soviet countries, but also a way to secure stability in its near abroad, where it has enormous national interests.

The Caspian region constitutes an important source of Russian wealth and serves one of the greater goals of Russian security policy – its economic development.4 The exploitation of Caspian oil and gas and the control over the pipelines, has justifiably been characterized as the new Great Game.5 Russia has been hostile to any kind of penetration by other states and foreign industries in this important area. The strict policy concerning energy prices – followed by Vladimir Putin and his successor Dmitry Medvedev – was reflected in the energy-related disputes between Russia and its neighbors. The energy crises with Ukraine in 2006 and 2009 and with Belarus in 2004 demonstrated that Russia is not willing to allow any neighboring state to take advantage of its geographic location at the crossroads of the transportation routes for the European market.6

Relations with NATO remained difficult during the Putin years. To start with, Moscow had difficulty coming to terms with the fact that NATO, founded in the early days of the Cold War, still operated in the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, Russia wanted to avoid isolation and sought a special relationship with NATO. The 9/11 attacks and the so-called “Global War on Terrorism” provided the opportunity, but the results were discouraging. The NATO-Russia Council (NRC) failed to embrace a strong partnership7 and the expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe and its potential enlargement reaching the Russian borders provoked the negative reaction of Moscow.8 The latter has accepted, although unwillingly, NATO and EU enlargements, but the participation of Ukraine and Georgia in the western security architecture constitutes a red line for Russia. Moscow considers the membership of the said countries in NATO a violation of Russia’s traditional sphere of influence and a Western attempt to put into practice the idea of Russia’s strategic encirclement.9

The project of the anti-ballistic missile defense system, which was intended to be installed by the United States in Poland and the Czech Republic, was another challenge to the relations between NATO and Russia.10 President Barack Obama has recently reevaluated this project and is planning to put forward a new missile defense plan that is more realistic, in terms of the existing threats, thereby reducing the tension between the two countries.11

The breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia constitute a thorny issue for Russia in the Caucasus. Moscow intervened in the internationally recognized territory of Georgia to protect South Ossetia, when an armed attack was launched by the President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili against it in August 2008. The Russian-Georgian conflict demonstrated that Russia will not permit any neighboring country to use force and act autonomously in a region where Russia has special interests. The “Five Day War” in Georgia confirmed the declarations of President Medvedev that are found in the Foreign Policy Concept (FPC). According to this document, Russia supports collective actions and wants to be a guarantor of security, but it also has every right to act unilaterally when its national interests are involved.12 Obviously, the voices within the transatlantic community varied, since Russia is no longer the Cold War enemy, but a crucial international actor, a business partner and an energy supplier.

Russia rejects any external influence from other states on its domestic and foreign policy issues and accuses the United States and NATO of influencing the policymaking of some of its neighboring countries. As a result, Moscow is reluctant to participate in western coalitions and tries to reinforce a number of regional integration associations. The Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) are all examples of efforts to counterbalance western organizations and strengthen Russia’s role in Central Asia.13

In general terms, during the Putin era, Russia reestablished itself as an important global actor in the international arena. Moscow has recovered its pride, and is exercising once again classic Realpolitik in order to diminish Western influence in the former Soviet Union. Russia fears further NATO enlargement, and has used the energy card in order to test the limits of its geopolitical influence in Europe.14 So what will happen next? Are Russia and the West headed for a new Cold War-style confrontation? Or will Moscow focus on overcoming its economic, social and political backwardness? What are the strategic factors that will define Moscow’s behavior in the coming years? Will cooperation between Russia and the West be possible in the near future? These are hard questions that the following analysis of the National Security Strategy to 2020 can only partly answer.

The National Security Strategy to 2020: An Overview

The NSS at once analyzes the evolving international system and attempts to formulate the policymaking of the Russian Federation for the next decade.15 The difference between the NSS and the National Security Concept of the Russian Federation (NSC)16 lies in the recurring changes in the security environment and in Russia’s international position. It is important to point out that the NSS is characterized by optimism and confidence without bearing the heavy sentiments either of conspiracy or of encirclement when referring to Russia’s global competitors. Adapted to the reality of the twenty-first century, it emphasizes both hard and soft security issues, as well as the need for international cooperation and economic development.

The definition of national security has been broadened in the NSS. This is documented under the chapters such as “National Defense”, “State Security and Civil Protection”, “Improvement of Living Standards”, “Economic Growth”, “Research, Technology and Education”, “Healthcare”, “Culture”, “Ecology”, “Strategic Stability and Partnership on Equal Terms” and “Organizational, Regulatory and Informational Measures”.17 A quick glance over the titles illustrates that, despite the references to protection from internal and external threats, security is closely related to sustainable development.

Defense is presented in a rather vague way, and the document does not clarify what kind of changes will occur regarding defense transformation. It should be borne in mind, however, that Russia is about to release a revised military doctrine in the coming months. Nevertheless, the document underlines the need to improve the organization and structure of the armed forces in order to make a transition to a modernized army that can secure stability.18 Many military officers are unenthusiastic about the current reform plans that involve a major restructuring, reduction and modernization of the armed forces. They fear that the recruitment of professional soldiers and the introduction of professional non-commissioned officers will simply create a small army that will be unable to fight a large-scale war with NATO.19

The main sources of concern for Moscow are missile defense in Eastern Europe and local conflicts in its near abroad. Moreover, attention is given to the delimitation of the borderlines and the enhancement of their protection. Taking into account the conflict with Georgia, Russia needs to endorse the presence of military forces along its lengthy borders and protect them from regional conflicts and illegal trafficking. The importance of being a nuclear power continues to be reflected in Russia’s policymaking. The new strategy points towards nuclear deterrence20 and parity with the USA while stressing the need for arms control and the possibility of a world free of weapons of mass destruction.

This security strategy has a critical view of the European security architecture. Over the past decade, there has been little progress in NATO-Russia relations. Due to Russia’s inability to influence the Alliance’s decisions, as a partner in the NATO-Russia Council, the Russian leadership favors the invigoration of international organizations that can guarantee security issues and promotes the evolution of regional coalitions like the OSCE, CSTO, SCO, EurAsEC and the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) group. Nevertheless, the above alliances have obvious limitations. Neither the CSTO nor the SCO are a “Warsaw Pact 2”, and the BRIC group is a rather loose cooperation, in which China and India are unlikely to follow Moscow’s revisionist agenda.21

Although Russia has been making decisions with a constant eye on its near abroad, the NSS reflects the call for global collaboration and openness. Russia perceives other powerful actors – the EU, China and India – as necessary partners against global threats. It also promotes cooperation with the United States in terms of an equal strategic partnership in fields of common interests, making references to arms control, non-proliferation, counterterrorism and conflict settlement. The NSS marks the altered perception of the Russian leadership that tries to combine elements of the past and the future and set on a realistic basis Russia’s relation to the rest of the world.

The economy has an eminent place in the document, projecting Russia’s aspiration to obtain the fifth place among the strongest economies of the world in terms of gross domestic product.22 A series of steps are pointed out in order to increase the growth and effectiveness of the national economy, such as support for productivity, the reform of the banking system, the establishment of market mechanisms and industrial development.23 For the current leadership, the effort to avoid the devastating results of the crisis and create successful economic performance constitutes the key to strengthening Russia’s place in the world.24 Russia remains highly dependent on revenues from oil and gas, and the economy is still heavily centralized. As a result, the current administration seeks to inaugurate an industrialized era and promote scientific and technological research in order to implement innovations and facilitate economic development throughout Russia.25 After all, it was the economic growth during the last decade that fuelled its ambitious foreign policy agenda.

Energy security is of central importance for the Russian leadership. Energy-related issues and regions like the Arctic, the Caspian Sea and Siberia are highlighted in the security planning through 2020. The global concern about the depletion of natural reserves and the rising demand for gas and oil supplies26 has upgraded energy to a major security issue. Russia participates in the struggle for the exploitation of regions rich in resources and the control of the transportation routes. Thus, in harmony with previous documents such as the National Security Concept and the Foreign Policy Concept, Russia desires to be a country that plays a leading part in energy, serving both economic and political goals.27

Another field of key importance in the NSS is domestic security. Many aspects of human life, like health, labor and education, are promoted in terms of a modernized society. In the NSS, the acknowledgement of the link between Russia’s international status and the welfare of its population is obvious. Russia needs to overcome the deficiencies of its institutions and accelerate the process of reforming the state mechanisms.28 An emphasis is also placed on cultural issues. According to the NSS, it is important to promote cultural education as it serves one of the most crucial priorities in Russian security planning: the coherence of its multinational society. The protection of Russian citizens abroad also has an important place, as it did in the NSC. Yet the current version promotes intensifying the efforts to protect the rights and interests of Russian citizens abroad, echoing the voices that refer to the attempt of the administration to legitimize the military action against Georgia in 2008.29

Threat Perceptions and Reality

The section on threat perceptions occupies a significant part of the NSS. In the economic sector, threats are specific and have a prominent place. Russia needs to improve its industries, boost its productivity and upgrade the level of industrialization in certain regions. Moreover, the dependence of the Russian economy on the export of raw materials and the involvement of foreign actors are recognized as threats to Russian national interests. The 2008-2009 financial crisis revealed the structural weaknesses and the fact that the Russian economy is increasingly dependent on imports of energy resources. The memories from the Yeltsin era, when shock therapy resulted in illegal privatization, a rise in crime and the impoverishment of more than half of the population, are strongly ingrained in the Russia society’s collective consciousness. As a result, prosperity and stability are deemed to be of great importance.

The control over natural resources has long been a vital issue for the Kremlin; therefore, any kind of policy that aims to alter the status quo, against Russia’s will, in strategic regions – like in the Arctic and the Caspian Sea – is considered a threat that under certain circumstances could lead to military action. In fact, the NSS proposes the creation of a new military force for the Arctic.30 In order to avoid tension and form a prosperous energy market, the document promotes cooperation based on multilateral agreements and general principles. Yet, despite the emphasis given to energy resources, the NSS suggests that more steps should be taken in order to moderate the dependence on oil revenues and promote technological progress.

As far as military threats are concerned, the NSS deliberately avoids naming which leading countries are trying to obtain military supremacy in the areas of precision guided weapons and missile defense systems and upgrade their information warfare and cyber-warfare capabilities. The document both states that the unilateral use of military force is a destabilizing factor for the international community and reflects the dissatisfaction of the Russian leadership about the existing security architecture in Eurasia.31 Moscow strongly desires to upgrade the status of regional coalitions and play a more active role in the European security. Indicative of this desire is the fact that Russia has recently proposed the pan-European security treaty, with the official aim of facilitating crisis resolution and preventing tensions.32

Regarding NATO, Russia’s solid position is the rejection of any NATO military presence close to its borders. The NSS clarifies that the relationship with the Alliance depends on NATO’s compliance with international law. The question of whether Georgia and Ukraine should be admitted to NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) and the plans for a European-based US missile defense system had alarmed the Russian leadership, whose displeasure was reflected in the FPC. Unlike the NSC, this security strategy names neither NATO nor the United States as security threats. In fact, the existing differences do not exclude the possibility of cooperation. During the last few years, Russia and the Unites States have managed to exchange views and cooperate on a series of international problems on the bilateral level, as well as through the NATO-Russia Council and the OSCE. Both states have continued the negotiations to reduce strategic offensive weapons, supporting initiatives like the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.33

Another challenge is the protection of its borders, since Russia has the world’s longest land borders.34 The NSS document places emphasis on the improvement of its border facilities, naming the Arctic region, the Russian Far East and the Caspian shores as particularly important areas. Russia is a transit point towards Europe and faces issues like human and drug trafficking, so it is urgent to protect the borders properly.

With regard to public safety, the NSS recognizes epidemics, drug addiction, alcoholism, food security and the deterioration of health among citizens as important threats to Russian society and its citizens. Any future measures for improving the living standards of the Russian people can only slightly change the country’s demographic reduction. The demographic problem is becoming more and more aggravated and has raised fears for Russia’s future.35 Depopulation is linked to security issues and reflects the weakness of the Russian state in exploiting strategic regions such as Siberia. A strong Russian presence in Siberia would allow Moscow to utilize its natural resources and counterbalance China’s increasing economic influence. It also mentions the staffing of the armed forces and makes more urgent their structural reform. In sharp contrast to the NSC, the NSS does not grant terrorism the attention it had in 2000, when the Chechen issue was at its peak.


Overall, the NSS describes the international environment and defines Russia’s national interests and strategic priorities. The NSS is part of a sequence of documents (sc. The Military Doctrine, the Food Security Doctrine to 2020, and the Foundations of State Policy in the Arctic to 2020 and Beyond),36 that form Russia’s security policy. The drafting of the document was in the hands of the Security Council, yet there was broad participation by ministries, bureaucracies, organizations and members of the academic community, all of whom had diverging priorities. The effort to unify these priorities into a coherent policy paper is obvious. Any ambiguous points in the document are due to the fact that it had to please a wide audience.37 Although the NSS is only a piece of the puzzle, it is a starting point in evaluating Russia’s priorities.

In the NSS, the Russian Federation appears to be much more confident in its capabilities, but the efforts that are needed to improve its security and guarantee its future development are not neglected. The way Russia views the world has changed. The pessimism that characterized Moscow after the Cold War, due to the economic and moral decline, has been replaced by a more pragmatic view of the globalizing international environment and Russia’s place in it. The NSS reflects the restoration of Russia’s great power identity (derzhavnost) that took place during the Putin era, but the question of how Moscow will cope with these challenges remains open. Echoing Dmitri Trenin, Russia needs reimagining its foreign policy.38 To a large extent, the National Security Strategy to 2020 encapsulates this vision.

In the NSS the concept of security has been broadened. The reference to economic growth, technological progress, education, environmental issues and living standards of the citizens definitely point in the right direction. To what extent Moscow will favor sustainable development or emphasize on traditional security priorities like military reform, remains to be seen. Will Russia benefit from the opportunities of globalization, develop its economy, expand its trade, strengthen its ties with other global actors and become a twenty-first-century great power? Or will Russia fail to address these challenges successfully?


1 Security Council of the Russian Federation, National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation up to 2020, signed on May 12, 2009, (accessed November 22, 2009).

2 This article uses the term “West” rather broadly, encompassing European and North American NATO members.

3 Regarding Russian foreign policy during the Putin period, see, for instance, Andrei Tsygankov, Russia’s Foreign Policy (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc, 2006) and Robert Legvold (ed), Russian Foreign Policy in the 21st century & the shadow of the past (NY: Columbia University Press, 2007).

4 Eugene Rumer, “Russian Foreign Policy Beyond Putin,” Adelphi Papers, 47:309 (2007): 25-27.

5 The term “Great Game” refers to how world politics have affected Central Asia over the last two centuries. The term is also used to describe the current relations between Russia, China and the USA, as these countries compete for influence in the resource rich, but politically volatile region.

6 Elana Wilson Rowe and Stina Torjesen (eds), The Multilateral Dimension in Russian Foreign Policy (New York: Routledge, 2009), 92-95.

7 Jakub Kulhanek, “Putin’s Foreign Policy and the Founding of the NATO-Russia Council,” Central European Journal of International & Security Studies, 3:1 (2009): 134-151.

8 Eugene Rumer and Angela Stent, “Russia and the West,” Survival, 51:2 (2009): 98-99.

9 Igor Zevelev, “NATO’s Enlargement and Russian Perceptions of Eurasian Political Frontiers,” George Marshall European Centre for Security (accessed October 13, 2009).

10 Michael Rywkin, “Russia: In Quest of Superpower Status,” American Foreign Policy Interests, 30:1 (2008): 18.

11 Andrin Hauri, “A Better Missile Defense,” International Relations and Security Network (ISN) October 2, 2009, (accessed October 4, 2009).

12 The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, The Foreign Policy Concept of The Russian Federation, approved on July 12, 2008, (accessed September 20, 2009).

13 Olga Oliker, Keith Crane, Schwartz H. Lowell and Yusupov Catherine, Russian Foreign Policy Sources and Implications (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2009): 102-104.

14 James Sherr, “Russia and the West: A Reassessment,” Shrivenham Papers, No. 6 (Swindon: Defense Academy of the United Kingdom, January 2008).

15 For a brief review of the NSS, see, inter alia, Marcel de Haas and Henning Schröder, “Russia’s National Security Strategy,” Russian Analytical Digest No. 62 (June 18, 2009) and Keir Giles, “Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020,” NATO Defense College, (Research Division, June 2009).

16 The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, National Security Concept of the Russian Federation, approved on January 10, 2000, (accessed November 22, 2009).

17 Katarzyna Zysk, “Russian National Security Strategy,” GeoPolitics in the High North, (June 2009), (accessed November 22, 2009).

18 Regarding the Russian defense reform, see, inter alia, Roger McDermott, “The Restructuring of the Modern Russian Army,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 22:4 (2009): 485-501 and Andrew Liaropoulos, “Russian Defense Reform and its Limitations,” Caucasian Review of International Affairs, 2:1 (2008): 42-49.

19 Strategic Survey 2009, The Annual Review of World Affairs (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2009), 207.

20 Regarding the issue of nuclear deterrence, see, for instance Stephen J. Cimbala and Peter Jacob Rainow, Russia and Postmodern Deterrence (Washington DC: Potomac Books Inc, 2007).

21 Dmitri Trenin, “Russia Reborn. Reimagining Moscow’s Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs, 88:6 (November/December 2009): 73.

22 Zysk, “Russian National Security Strategy”.

23 de Haas and Schröder, “Russia’s National Security Strategy,” 3-4.

24 Richard Connolly and Peeter Vahtra, “Russia and The Economic Crisis,” Russian Analytical Digest No. 65 (October 6, 2009): 2-14.

25 de Haas and Schröder, “Russia’s National Security Strategy,” 8-9.

26 US Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, “International Energy Outlook 2009,” (accessed October 27, 2009).

27 László Póti, “Evolving Russian Foreign and Security Policy: Interpreting the Putin-doctrine,” Acta Slavica Iaponica, No. 25 (Slavic Research Center, 2008): 38-39.

28 Trenin, “Russia Reborn,” 75.

29 Giles, “Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020,” 8.

30 Margaret Blunden, “The New Problem of Arctic Stability,” Survival, 51:5 (2009): 125-126.

31 Zysk, “Russian National Security Strategy”.

32 Simon Saradzhyan, “Pan-European Security: Considering Russia,” International Relations and Security Network (ISN), September 4, 2009, (accessed November 10, 2009).

33 Defense Threat Reduction Agency, “Defense Strategic Plan,” (accessed October 1, 2009).

34 Giles, “Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020,” 8.

35 Ben Judah, “Russia: Ominous Demographics,” International Relations and Security Network (ISN), October 14, 2009, (accessed November 15, 2009).

36 Giles, “Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020,” 4.

37 de Haas and Schröder, “Russia’s National Security Strategy,” 9-10.

38 Trenin, “Russia Reborn”.