Documents and Life

21 september 2015

National Interest: Wording Is All-Important

Alexander Konkov is an associate professor at the Political Analysis Department of Moscow State University; adviser to the Executive Director of the Gorchakov Fund. He holds a PhD in Political Science.

Resume: The National Security Strategy to 2020 is a key element in managing the development of Russia. The plans to update it are not just a prerequisite for making changes to many other major documents but also a good reason to reconsider the current vision of the country’s present and future and its national interests.

At a meeting of Russia’s Security Council in early July, President Vladimir Putin spoke about the need to update the National Security Strategy to 2020 taking into account current challenges and risks. He stated that the country’s foreign policy would not change and Russia would cooperate with anyone who wanted to cooperate.

The Strategy is a key element in managing the development of Russia. The plans to update it are not just a prerequisite for making changes to many other major documents but also a good reason to reconsider the current vision of the country’s present and future  and its national interests.

The current strategy was signed into law by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in May 2009. It replaced the National Security Concept, approved by President Boris Yeltsin in 1997 and updated and supplemented by Vladimir Putin in January 2000, shortly after he became acting president.

The new rules

A year ago, Russia’s parliament passed the Federal Law “On Strategic Planning in the Russian Federation.” The need for this law began to be broadly discussed in 2008, after another key document had been passed – the Concept of Long-Term Social and Economic Development until 2020. The Concept was viewed as a mechanism for overcoming the global financial and economic crisis, which required a more distinct correlation between various long-term documents, including the aforementioned National Security Strategy. At that time, the problem was solved by adopting the Basic Principles of Strategic Planning, approved by the President. But they were not made public and were not comprehensive enough to resolve all the differences. The law passed a year ago promises to be more effective.

The Law “On Strategic Planning in the Russian Federation” establishes a system of strategic planning: it defines relevant concepts, outlines the range of government agencies to be involved, and forms a hierarchy of various kinds of documents and decision-making levels. In particular, it states that it is the National Security Strategy that “defines the national interests of the Russian Federation.”

This document also delineates the powers of federal, regional and local government, and divides strategic planning into goal-setting, forecasting, planning proper, and programming. The National Security Strategy is a top-level goal-setting document. This category also includes annual presidential addresses to the Federal Assembly, the Social and Economic Development Strategy, and documents pertaining to national security. The entire system of strategic planning documents is shown in Table 1.

The law stipulates that the National Security Strategy shall be developed by the Security Council “in cooperation with other participants in the strategic planning process, taking into account the long-term strategic forecast of the Russian Federation,” and shall be adjusted every six years. The six years since the present National Security Strategy to 2020 was adopted have ended this year, and this is the formal reason to update it. Whether a six-year adjustment period corresponds to the logic of long-term planning is another matter. Given the existing ramified and hierarchical system of planning, such documents are the last thing to be changed. But since the law does not regulate the procedure for developing the strategy, a process that may take much time, the adjustment task, set by the president, suggests considering the possibility of drafting a new version of the strategy for the period after 2020 and deciding who will implement it, how and on what basis.

Table 1. The System of Strategic Planning in the Russian Federation


“From above” and “from within”

Historically and by virtue of the logic prevailing in Russia’s decision-making, not only priorities are set “from above” but the initiative to pursue them also comes from the top. The nation’s interest has so far never been formulated “from within.” At the same time, recent trends – the strengthening of civil society institutions, the development of public control mechanisms, and the growing openness of the authorities – demonstrate that the effectiveness and implementability of government decisions largely depend on the participation of non-governmental institutions in their coordination. The most illustrative example of that in modern Russian practices is the work of a large number of experts on the updated Concept of Long-Term Social and Economic Development until 2020, also known as Strategy 2020.

For two years the experts discussed proposals for devising a long-term development model. This effort, which began ahead of a long electoral cycle of 2011-2012, was an attempt to formulate a consolidated view on the pressing economic problems to face new bodies of power in Russia. Although Strategy 2020 has never been officially endorsed, many of its recommendations were used in Putin’s pre-election articles and his May 2012 decrees that became the main guidelines for action at all levels of government from top to bottom, at least until the next federal elections.

Obviously, the National Security Strategy, which is open to the general public, is intended not just to state priorities but also unite society and reflect its demands and expectations concerning the future of Russia and its place in the world. The strategy of the national interests should be based on stable and transparent feedback mechanisms. This is stated in the law: “The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation is the basis for constructive interaction among bodies of state power, organizations and public associations for the purpose of protecting Russia’s national interests and ensuring the security of the individual, society and the state.”

The National Security Strategy could be updated similarly to Strategy 2020 by establishing a pool of experts who would prepare and send their recommendations to the Security Council. But other feedback models are also possible: experts individually prepare their variants of the strategy and then offer them for public discussion. As a result, the state will have a wide choice of alternative versions.

A full-fledged market of analytical, research, and expert consultation centers and institutions is emerging in Russia. They are prepared to formulate and substantiate long-term development projects and programs. Competitive mechanisms for finding and legitimatizing optimal solutions, which have already been created by public chambers, public and expert councils at various governmental agencies, and social media where major public initiatives are discussed, should also be used in addressing more difficult problems that entail long-term responsibilities and affect a wide range of interests.

But the main reason why non-governmental organizations should participate in the development of the Strategy is that today Russia’s civil society demonstrates the ability to formulate a demand for national interest. People’s reaction to the Ukrainian crisis and its consequences is a vivid example. The Crimean consensus and the attitude towards the civil war in Donbass – regardless of its assessment – signaled the emergence of the national interest from within, out of public self-awareness. One can argue about the depth and representativeness of such sentiment, but surveys conducted over the past year indicate that the growth of passionarity has clear social marks. In this situation, the authorities just have to accept the reality and – if they want to retain their legitimacy – assume responsibility.

Economic corridors

In addition to the present National Security Strategy, there are many other documents reaching out to the future.  The wide range of such documents is provided for by law and described in Table 1 (not all of these documents have been drafted yet). There are also various plans, not always interrelated, which were approved and adopted in previous years. Andrew Monaghan of London’s Chatham House, in his analysis of Russia’s “grand strategy,” which in his view is largely a systematized version of “manual control” aimed at improving the efficiency of running the country by the top leaders, compares the practice of adopting goal-setting documents to “defibrillation” which helps shake the bureaucratic apparatus into action in order to promptly make necessary decisions.

Over the past fifteen years, Russia’s system of public administration has been consistently reorganized as part of various reforms (administrative, budgetary, local self-government, and others) to make it more results-oriented. Budgets are now adopted for a three-year period, instead of one year as before, and each executive agency drafts its plans on the basis of expected accomplishments. The quality of public services is also in focus now.

These efforts have streamlined strategic planning, at least in the social and economic fields, in line with the aforementioned Concept of Long-Term Social and Economic Development until 2020 (which was never harmonized with Strategy 2020, though). The Concept requires that the government draft its own Guidelines for Action – a medium-term planning document that sets priorities for the present Cabinet, ministries, services, and agencies. The first such document was adopted by the Putin government in 2008. The current Cabinet has its Guidelines, too (in May 2015, they were updated to conform to “the new economic conditions”).

Directed by the Guidelines, the government has drafted and adopted federal programs which cover a long period (2018-2020) but are nevertheless the main instrument for implementing the Guidelines, the Concept of Long-Term Social and Economic Development and all other key documents. The current 43 federal programs are the most tangible proof of Russia’s transition to results-oriented governance: these programs link the declared priorities to resources designated for their achievement before the end of the current decade. The budget is also drafted annually in accordance with the assets allocated for years ahead. Federal programs convert goals into concrete projects and activities, and determine their cost and implementation timelines which can be used as a criterion for evaluating compliance with the declared objectives and political commitments of the authorities.

The presidential agenda

But even such a harmonious system of strategic planning (Concept–Guidelines–federal programs) as Russia’s does not fully reflect actual progress in achieving long-term priority objectives. In fact, a major attempt to upgrade the Concept led nowhere; Guidelines are adopted and corrected according to the government’s bureaucratic logic; and federal programs, approved at the top and pegged to the national budget at the lower levels, are not directly dependent on newly adopted goal-setting documents or forecasts. The Law “On Strategic Planning,” passed a year ago, apparently does not apply to them.

The only element that links all the strategies now in effect in Russia is a basically different kind of documents. They are not envisioned by the statutory system of strategic planning and they do not make up a separate category due to their specific nature. These are the well-known “May Decrees” – the first eleven executive orders signed by Putin immediately after he took office on May 7, 2012. They set development goals and tasks in various spheres of life until the next electoral cycle. All other strategic documents are relevant and accomplishable to the extent to which they facilitate the implementation of these presidential decrees.

All high-ranking officials, from ministers to governors, constantly make progress reports. Public meetings are held regularly at various levels to show success in achieving the declared priorities, and any attempt to question their attainability is viewed as officials’ failure to do their job properly. From the procedural point of view, the May Decrees are very easy to alter since decrees are issued by the President, and he has the power to amend them.

However, not a single one of the eleven decrees has been amended since they were signed. Such inviolability attests to the highest strategic nature of the May Decrees along with other strategic documents. The latter, however, have been amended, including federal programs, the Guidelines, and even the National Security Strategy to 2020. Remarkably, the latest changes to the National Security Strategy were made in 2012 following one of the May Decrees that concerned state policy in education and science.

From the political point of view, the May Decrees are more than just regulatory acts, and their immutability is a test of Russia’s readiness and ability to take a sober and realistic view of the future. The May Decrees have essentially become Russia’s main strategy. In fact, they are a public and legally binding political commitment (the first of its kind) of the incumbent authorities to society. This kind of strategy is quite clear to understand and accords with international practices: the government sets priorities for its term of office and does not shift the burden to its successors. Elections serve as a guarantee that these priorities will be achieved; otherwise voters will elect new leaders. But it is not so with the national interest: whereas the alignment of the May Decrees and the electoral logic is a way to ensure their implementation, it is the detachment from the electoral process that is the yardstick of genuine national interest.

Outer boundary

Russia’s priorities which lie outside of its borders take a special place in the system of strategic planning, although they are closely associated with the concept of national interests and National Security Strategy.
In 2001, at a meeting with senior diplomats, his first as president, Putin said that “a country with a geopolitical position like Russia’s has national interests everywhere.” This idea was subsequently followed up in new versions of the Foreign Policy Concept, other documents, and the law enforcement practice.

The Foreign Policy Concept is the basic strategic document for Russian diplomacy. Its current version was approved by the president on February 12, 2013. In addition, one of the May Decrees, titled “On Measures to Implement the Foreign Policy,” is referred to in the Foreign Policy Concept as part of its regulatory framework (the National Security Strategy is mentioned as such after it). There is also a special federal program called “Foreign-Policy Activities.” This document is the only one among the May Decrees to contain no specific indicators or measurable results, which makes it more declarative than the others. And a big part of the relevant federal program has never been disclosed.

In recent years, some other documents have been adopted to define Russia’s priorities in the world, and they, too, have the status of strategic ones. These include, for example, the Concept of Russia’s Participation in BRICS and the Concept of Russia’s State Policy in the Area of International Development Assistance, endorsed by the president in 2014.

One can clearly see from Table 1 that none of the aforementioned strategic documents pertaining to foreign policy is directly provided for in the Strategic Planning Law. The only category to which they may belong is strategic planning documents developed as part of the sectoral or territorial goal-setting process.

But this status of foreign-policy documents clearly does not reflect their high importance for the country’s development, or the role played by Russian diplomacy. Legislators seem to have forgotten or deliberately excluded a substantial part of foreign-policy goal-setting activities from the regulated strategic planning process. Or they might have done this in good faith, lest it limit Russia’s foreign-policy ambitions.

The present situation warrants a greater role for foreign policy in the overall effort to improve the efficiency of public administration. The reason is not so much the need to overcome the traditional separateness of the diplomatic service as the growing involvement of other ministries and government agencies, as well as civil society institutions, in international cooperation. Diplomacy across the world increasingly uses modern technologies and maintains extensive contacts at various levels, engaging with more and more interested parties and non-state actors. Official institutions confidently rely on more flexible and competitive representatives of public diplomacy who, for economic or social reasons, may be deeply interested in promoting their country’s priorities and defending its national interests. Like economy, foreign policy must be more results-oriented and less isolated institutionally.

Today Russia is represented abroad not only by the Foreign Ministry but also by the Ministry of Economic Development, the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Energy, the Ministry of Education and many other agencies, which are playing an increasingly growing role in the country’s international activities. All of them must be guided by a unified strategic policy when implementing their sectoral, infrastructural or humanitarian projects to promote and defend Russia’s national interests abroad.

Russia participates in global cooperation via more than 40(!) ministries and other federal agencies, including the Rosatom state corporation and the Kurchatov Institute. These agencies get more than 70 billion rubles a year from the budget to pay membership fees to various international organizations. So the country has every right to expect this money to be spent for protecting its national interests. But do these 40 ministries and agencies understand the national interests identically? Do they have mechanisms of coordination? Is there the basis for consolidating the efforts of various players for a common goal?

For the time being, as the wide array of existing strategies shows, all actors, even inside Russia, want to be able to choose and act according to their own logic, which often is at variance with the logic of the state. In this sense, the updating of the National Security Strategy, as urged by Putin, can be used to codify all existing strategies and identify national interests.

The strategy as it is

The current National Security Strategy to 2020 has six sections:

  1. General provisions.
  2. The contemporary world and Russia: current state and development trends.
  3. National interests of the Russian Federation and strategic national priorities.
  4. National security.
  5. Organizational, regulatory and informational basis for implementing the present Strategy.
  6. The main characteristics of the present state of national security.

National interests are defined as a combination of internal and external needs of the state to ensure the security and sustainable development of the individual, society and the state. They are formulated as follows:

  • developing democracy and civil society, and increasing the competitiveness of the national economy;
  • ensuring the inviolability of the constitutional order, territorial integrity and sovereignty;
  • transforming Russia into a world power, whose activity would be aimed at maintaining strategic stability and mutually advantageous partner relations in a multipolar world.

Strategic priorities are divided into national security priorities and sustainable development priorities. None of the abovementioned strategic documents uses this classification or terminology.

The Strategy pays much attention to challenges and risks, yet it does not have a special section for them, nor does it give their full list. It just mentions differences among major international actors, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, information warfare, xenophobia, and even a shortage of fresh water. But the Strategy does not describe any correlation between these global threats, nor does it rank or evaluate them.

Among international formats that are of interest to Russia, the Strategy names the Group of Eight, RIC and BRIC (still without South Africa at that time). BRIC is barely mentioned, whereas the SCO and the CSTO are expressly emphasized. A great deal of attention is paid to cooperation with CIS member states, but there is no mention of either the Eurasian or Customs Union, which did not exist then. Updating the Strategy will certainly help not only revamp all these mechanisms but also reexamine and intercorrelate them in the long run.

We will soon see what an updated National Security Strategy will be like and how it will formulate national interests. Generally speaking, it will be a prelude to even more thorough work on the next strategy to be adopted in 2020. The results of this work will be crucial for its effectiveness: will it be a permanent document guiding the entire ramified system of strategies and concepts and giving impetus to coordinated efforts of government agencies, businesses and NGOs? Or will it be another bureaucratic product accentuating new achievements of the “manual control” practices? The expert community should draw on the previous experience of drafting strategic documents and try to strengthen and develop feedback mechanisms. The state has recently learned to establish such mechanisms in various fields and industries. It is time to integrate them into one whole, that is, find the right words defining the national interests of the country and make them suitable and acceptable for future generations.

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