How to Overcome the National Crisis
№3 2009 July/September
Victor Kremenyuk

Victor Kremenyuk is Deputy Director of the Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Head of the Department of World Politics and International Relations at University for Humanitarian Sciences. He holds a Doctorate in History.

Russia’s National Security Strategy up to 2020 that President
Dmitry Medvedev enacted by decree on May 12, 2009 is a document
that will lay a conceptual foundation for the solution of crucial

It is meant to offer a clear vision of how state power in the
broadest sense – the president, the cabinet of ministers and
legislative agencies – plans to avert the further breakup of the
territory of the former Russian Empire, which began with the
disintegration of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s and the
beginning of the 1990s.

On the other hand, this document sets out a vision of how Russia
plans to ensure its national security in new conditions as the
state that succeeded the Soviet Union.


Unlike the traditional notion of state security borne out of the
Soviet era, which primarily envisioned the defense of state
ideology, institutions and interests, national security is much
broader and far less aggressive – at least in countries like the
U.S. where it appeared earlier. It includes not only (and not so
much) the concept of state security – even though the latter is
part and parcel of national security – but rather the notion of the
security of a nation forming the state (its people, values,
institutions, territory, the environment, etc.). In other words,
the security of the things which the Soviet state security concept
neglected and for which the Soviet Union eventually had to pay with
its own collapse.

That is why it would be only natural to expect that the new
Russian concept would keep the element of state security without
attaching to it the dominant position it has had in the past.
Considering the bitter experience of the Soviet Union, the Russian
government should have realized that the country’s security can be
supported only by a broad set of measures aimed at consolidating
the security of the entire nation, of which state institutions are
but a part.

As regards the security of the nation, it is easy to break the
notion down to a system of measures aimed at resolving the key
problems of its existence – such as providing its people with
inexpensive, high-quality food products, decent housing, an
efficient transportation system, up-to-date systems of public
health and education, jobs and a good quality of life. The solution
to these problems would be the only factor to offer hope that the
nation itself would actively counteract the tendencies of a further
decay of Pax Russica, wherever they might originate.

According to this understanding, the system of priorities and
the content of interests of Russia’s national security should have
passed an adjustment procedure. The experience of the Soviet Union
highlighted the necessity of combining national security and
national construction policies, as it is impossible to maintain
security efficaciously without it.

These nation-scale tasks should have been solved with the aid of
political mechanisms that would take into account international
experience in the sphere of national security and the complexity of
building a nation in critical circumstances. In other words, this
means democratic mechanisms.

Even in light of these few considerations, the volume and
complexity of national security tasks go beyond the boundaries of
the routine bureaucratic procedure of determining the needs of
state security and call for more sophisticated patterns that would
help set adequate tasks, mobilize the nation’s resources (not only
the state machinery, but also the business community,
intellectuals, political parties and movements) to keep up its
integrity and stability.

However, the Russian intellectual community and state
institutions have not devised a document that would contain an
unbiased and profound analysis of why the Soviet Union fell apart.
We really need to come to terms with and understand why a
militarily powerful state, a nuclear superpower controlled by a
single mass party with a fairly advanced ideology and having a
ramified party/state machinery and omnipotent secret services broke
down under the pressure of destabilizing forces.

Had a high-quality document in this vein been prepared, it would
have played a crucial positive role in formulating the concept of
the country’s security.

On the one hand, it could focus on the weak aspects of Russian
statehood that broke down twice under the blows of crises over the
past 100 years – in 1917 and 1991. On the other hand, it would help
resolve one of the central problems of nation-building in today’s
Russia; i.e. the formulation of a Russian national idea.


The very budding of this idea is linked in many ways to an
understanding of why the country has not been able to break out of
a crisis situation for over a hundred years and its national
institutions have not been able to work out a valid form for its
constitutional organization. Russia has had six constitutions
beginning with the 1905 October Manifesto and there is still a
feeling that a stable and steady constitution has not been
formulated yet. Let us recall that the U.S. has had only one
constitution – albeit appended with amendments – in the over 230
years of its existence.

That is why the core problem of Russia’s national security is to
identify the sources and parameters of the extended national
crisis. This problem manifests itself in the unsatisfactory
condition of the state and its political system, society and the
classes that make it up, social layers and groups. The relationship
between state and society appears to be deficient too, as it mostly
rests on historical tradition rather than on law, religion or force
(although force did underlie relations between government and
society during Stalin’s reign).

Leaning on the historical tradition undoubtedly makes Russia’s
statehood resilient, and puts restrictions on the opportunities for
its modernization and reaction to crises. Thus, whenever the
world’s development demands adequate reaction to changes in the
environment, Russia either irreparably falls behind others (the
latter could be seen during the reign of Nicholas I and Leonid
Brezhnev) or sinks into self-isolation.

In this connection the content of Russia’s national security
lies in its ability to develop in unison along with changes taking
place in other developed countries – industrialization,
computerization, the launch of hi-tech technology, scientific
progress, etc. But whenever Russia does not make any headway or
falls behind other countries (for different reasons – the spread of
bureaucracy, the omnipotence of the secret services and the
arbitrariness of legal agencies), it does not stand up to
competition and develops a feeling of existing in a – real or
potential – hostile environment. This entails a crisis of its
institutions and social structure – a situation emerges that is
fraught with the country’s real disintegration.

This means that the content of the national security strategy is
inseparable from Russia’s reaction to global developments. Russia
stayed in a benevolent self-isolation or even euphoria of the
“Third Rome” until History could put up with this (until Peter the
Great’s reign). But as soon as the historical process put Russia in
the face of stronger and more advanced neighbors, modernization and
the assimilation of foreign experience began to determine the
contents of its security policy.

The Communist ideology and the self-appraisal of Russia as the
global political center (in essence, a revival of the Third Rome
concept) warded off the sensation of a risk of defeat in
competition for awhile, but the Cold War and the burden of expenses
it bore regenerated the understanding that Russia should stop
wrestling in vain with developed countries and should try to build
a relationship of the type and amount that would be comparable to
that of its membership in the Entente at the beginning of the 20th

The price of the understanding that came too late turned out to
be quite dire – the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This phase
of Russia’s development should not be over-dramatized, as almost
all empires fell apart in the 20th century. The Austro-Hungarian
Empire and the Ottoman Empire did so after World War I, while the
British, French and Portuguese Empires ceased to exist from the
1950s through the 1970s. Apparently, there is a sliver of truth in
the supposition that the imperial model of the state outlived
itself everywhere in the 20th century and the nation state model
came to dominate, as it helped integration in the international
community with the aid of an array of international organizations
and regimes. The disintegration of the Russian Empire, which began
in 1918-1920 when Finland, Poland and the Baltic countries became
independent along with the rise of national governments in Ukraine,
the South Caucasus and Central Asia, was stopped by the Red Army,
yet the inner prerequisites for it lived on, thus making the Soviet
Union’s departure unavoidable in many ways, in spite of the
stressful emotions associated with it.

However, stating these facts should not calm us down or
reconcile us to what happened. On the contrary, it should put us on
alert, since it is very difficult to identify the moment when the
disintegration of the Empire ends and conservation of the nation’s
core begins – the way it happened to Britain and France when they
lost their overseas territories. Unless proper conclusions are
drawn, the collapse – especially if one considers Russia’s size and
problems of government – may go on unabated. That is why a national
security policy must rely on a combination of modernization
objectives, increasing the quality of life, setting up efficient
systems of governance (not only the much-trumpeted “state power
vertical”), and Russia’s further integration with the global market
and world politics. These are the major parameters of the problem
of Russia’s national security.


It should be noted that the new Russian national security
strategy tries to look at this phenomenon from a different –
comprehensive – approach. It says much about the social and
economic aspect of this notion and the need to ensure society’s
consistent development.

Along with this the strategy gives extensive attention to the
importance of defending Russia from external threats. If one
considers the country’s entire history and its Cold War experience
in particular, this is not a bit surprising.

On the one hand, Russia has a huge territory and a wealth of
mineral resources that other countries have always perceived as a
challenge. On the other hand, Russia cannot stop its ongoing
demographic decline, which may result in an extremely low
population density, especially in some parts of Siberia and the Far
East. It is clear that the countries which view Russia’s resources
as an important element of global development may develop an idea
for the “redistribution” of territories some day. This has happened
on many occasions in the past and there are no grounds to think
that it will not happen again in the future.

It is clear, therefore, that the defense of territorial
integrity becomes a constituent part of a national security
strategy, since it is a component of fighting the permanent
national crisis in Russia, while the country’s neighbors may harbor
territorial claims against it. Yet the problem has one more aspect
– How should it be settled?

One possible way is to use past experience and move along the
“Fortress Russia” concept – that is, to erect massive barriers
around the country using military preparations, struggle against
foreign influence, hunt down spies and suppress intellectual
dissent. This has happened many times in Russian history, although
the country paid a heavy price for it each time; it remained
impoverished and backward, lost competitiveness on the global
market, turned into a pariah and became permanently dependent on
exports of natural resources.

There is another way to resolve the problem that has been tried
in the past as well. At the beginning of the 18th century, Peter
the Great succeeded in ensuring – by opening a window to Europe and
using very tough measures at times – that Russia, which looked
pretty much like Turkey or Persia in the 17th century, made the
governments of European countries take account of its interests and
became a leading European power. There is no doubt that this method
of ensuring national security bears a clear imprint of the leader’s
personality, yet it also has the traits of other ways that were
used by other countries, like Japan, to eliminate backwardness.
These methods include assimilating the experience of other nations,
educating young generations of the ruling class abroad and allowing
the free inflow of foreign capital and experts (including
foreigners as commanders of Russian Army regiments and ships).

If one translates Peter’s experience into modern terminology,
one could say that his model of national security sought to get rid
of fears about making Russia a full-fledged player in international
politics and the world market at the expense of an inescapable
infringement on the rights of Russia’s top feudalists (the boyars
and upper bureaucracy) and by raising a new nobility and a merchant
class. It was the solution of the latter task that would make
Russian victories possible in the battles of Poltava, Gotland and
Gangut. The pre-reform Russia would not have dared to even think
about this. Russia’s breakthrough into the realm of the makers of
European history became possible due to the efficacious use of
foreign countries’ political, economic and technological

Consequently, the essence of the external aspect of Russia’s
national security is not ordering the security services to
guarantee its solution. We need to closely scrutinize the
experience of other countries (in fact, the Russian Academy of
Sciences and a number of other agencies are studying it quite
successfully), form national non-government and state-run
mechanisms for assimilating this experience, and create a favorable
external environment that would have no smaller interest in the
strengthening of Russian security than the Russians themselves.

The Russians have a generally poor knowledge about the outside
world and its real attitude towards their country, and this is one
of the most deplorable impacts that the Cold War ideological
standoff had on how Russians think. Hostility, mistrust, suspicion
and mere aversion dominate the public consciousness, propaganda and
even the mentality of some responsible politicians. That is why
they often consider the fairly explicable measures taken by other
countries to support their national security on the face of
Russia’s still impressive military might and nuclear potential as
tokens of malicious designs.

Moreover, there is a category of politicians and experts in the
West whose origin (especially in case of Eastern Europe) or special
circumstances have made them Russophobic (the same way that many
Russians, and in particular those affiliated with radical
nationalistic movements, dislike foreigners). It is their
statements that Russian propagandists like to cite masochistically.
But in the final run, it is not these people who determine the
policies of developed and/or many developing nations towards
Russia. There are plenty of competent leaders and specialists with
a sense of duty there and they understand that Russia – as the
world’s biggest country in territory and in the amount of natural
and mineral resources, as well as the largest nuclear power –
requires special attention and that it may become an invaluable
asset in the current global system.

First of all, the nuclear sphere. One of the most dangerous
topics in global politics in the early 1990s was the fear that
Russia could lose control over Soviet nuclear arsenals. The ruling
quarters in the U.S. and NATO did everything in their power to help
Russia remain the sole owner of Soviet-era arsenals in the first
place, and build an up-to-date system of storing and stockpiling
nuclear warheads (the so-called Nunn-Lugar amendment). The
soberly-minded Western political circles have a consistent and firm
position on the issue, which suggests that Russia is the only
country capable of ensuring efficient storage and utilization of
Soviet nuclear arsenals, and an all-round assistance should be
given to it in this sphere.

Another sphere is Russia’s resources. The acuteness of the
problem of resource supply for the global economy is common
knowledge. This is especially felt in the energy sector. However,
the situation is no less dramatic in other sectors where dependence
on resources is high. Given its mineral wealth, Russia is an
important player on the global energy market as it ensures that the
market is balanced; and, if one considers international politics,
Russia also ensures a global balance. Any shifts or re-division of
territories or wars related to them are completely inadmissible, as
they might fuel a global crisis. Thus, a rational approach consists
in supporting Russia on this issue and helping it maintain its
territorial integrity.

This means that those politicians and economic experts who
understand Russia’s importance for the global balance are its
natural allies in ensuring its national security. In this light,
identifying political and business groups that share Russia’s
security concerns and who are ready to become its allies must
become an important element of Moscow’s policy. This is a
complicated process and the opponents of Russia’s active ties with
foreign countries often play on its complexity. However, their
efforts make its importance even more obvious: the solution of the
problem of ensuring Russia’s national security lies in combining
independent actions of its government, political parties and
business quarters and the activity of its responsible foreign
partners who share Russia’s concerns for security, albeit for their
own reasons.

Compared with many other countries, national security has a
double or even triple significance for Russia. It is not a problem
for the Russian Federation alone. It embraces a much broader scope
of countries whose destiny depends – to a different degree – on the
course of events inside Russia. The bigger the country and the
higher its position in the global hierarchy, the greater the
significance that its national security has for the outside world.
In this sense it is very easy to make a mistake if one does not
fully understand to what extent the country should rely on its real
global role in ensuring its national security.

The theory and history of international relations abounds in the
misconception that the bigger a country, the greater its freedom of
action. In reality, it is the other way around. Small countries
have the prerogative to resolve problems relying on their
capabilities. A large country is simply obliged to observe the
rhythms and vectors of global politics to build an independent
strategy of action. Otherwise it may easily become an object of
apprehensions – well-grounded or not – that may force other
countries to form coalitions against it. NATO’s expansion should
have taught a good lesson to the Russian leadership in this

The international community needs a stable and strong Russia
that does not harbor hegemonic plans as the foundation for the
functioning of a steady and dynamic system of international
relations. In determining the priorities and structure of Russia’s
national security, it is essential that its legitimate interests in
building a modern nation correlate with the equally legitimate
interests of other countries if they do not contradict Russian
interests. This task may look simple, yet it is one of the most
complex and hard-to-resolve tasks of Russian national security