Robert E. Berls Jr., PhD
Senior Advisor for Russia and Eurasia
Survival of the Russian State: Protecting It from Foreign and Domestic Threats, Part I
In the first essay in this series on “The Roots of Russian Conduct,” I examined Putin and regime survival as Russia’s most important national interest. It is debatable how important that is for the general population, but it is indisputably priority number one for those in power. Survival of the Russian state, however, is without question a priority national interest shared by virtually the entire Russian population. In this essay, I will examine how Russians assess the complex issues of survival of Russia and the policies the leadership pursues to protect Russia from foreign and domestic threats.
In addressing this critical national interest, the first task is to define the Russian state. The obvious definition is that Russia is the geographical entity that was declared an independent state when the Soviet Union ceased to exist at the end of 1991. But the answer is more complicated than that.
The Russian Empire and subsequently the Soviet Union were multi-ethnic states that included vast non-Russian regions that had been conquered and colonized by the Russian ethnic majority. When the Soviet Union collapsed, large numbers of ethnic Russians found themselves in newly independent countries. Many of these new countries were independent for the first time and had no experience with self-government. They had to deal with the potentially explosive problem that many of their inhabitants did not identify with their new country and either tacitly or openly expressed a closer affinity to Moscow. Although a significant number of Russians migrated back to their ethnic homeland after the fall of the Soviet Union, many others remained in what Moscow calls “the near abroad.” This ethnic displacement caused significant turmoil in these newly independent countries and became a major foreign policy challenge for Moscow. It also raised the question of whether the Russian state, as determined in 1991, would forever be limited to the borders established at that time or was destined to reclaim some or all of what it considered its legitimate historical territory. Events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, as well as previous aggressive moves by Moscow, indicate that Russia has not yet fully accepted the geographical boundaries set in 1991. Thus, the issue of how Moscow will proceed to defend its interests to secure the survival of the Russian state is much more complex and challenging for Russia’s leaders than it initially appeared.
The Soviet Union was not the first contiguous empire to break apart into separate independent states; it was just the most recent. Two great empires that were contemporaries of the Russian Empire—the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman—ended violently with their defeat a century ago at the end of World War I. They left legacies that still resonate today. The turmoil that continues in the Middle East owes its origins in large part to the way the Ottoman Empire was arbitrarily divided into new states by the victorious European powers. The ethnic and national problems in the western Balkans can also be partially attributed to the heritage of the Ottoman Empire. The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire also had negative consequences for parts of its former territory. But 100 years have passed and most of the problems that arose after 1918 have been satisfactorily resolved or reasonably managed. Ethnic rivalries still exist, but they are less likely to flare up. Thus, it is not surprising that the breakup of the Soviet Union, which occurred only 30 years ago and not as a result of a defeat in war, would be rife with ethnic and national challenges that will take more time to resolve, or at least peacefully manage.
Besides Russia’s historical heritage, there are important conceptual and linguistic concepts that contribute to defining the nature of the Russian state. There are two words in Russian to express the concept of the state—gosudarstvo—which is the more concrete term and is translated as “government,” “state,” or “nation.” The other word—gosudarstvennost’—is more abstract in its meaning. It is usually translated in one of two ways: “governance” (governmental organization) or “statehood” (the quality of being a state). Because of the ambiguity of the latter term, its use in official documents or speeches can be misinterpreted or can be used to purposely create confusion or doubt as to the actual intent of certain official pronouncements or policies. Such a case arose several years ago when Russian President Vladimir Putin, in referring to the Ukrainian region of Donbas, used the word gosudarstvennost’. Many interpreted it as referring to “statehood” for the region, when, in fact, according to Putin’s spokesman, the Russian president was only referring to its “governance.” This controversy raised quite a political storm and was seen by many as Russia preparing to change the status of Donbas.
In addition to two words for “state,” there are also two names for the Russian state: Russia and the Russian Federation. The Russian Federation is the official name of the country. It is so named as a federation because the country consists of 85 territorial divisions that have varying degrees of autonomy and governmental functions separate from those of the center. The name Russia is recognized as equal to the Russian Federation according to the Russian Constitution, but it is often used to refer to that part of the Russian Federation that is occupied by ethnic Russians, as opposed to such areas as Chechnya or Tatarstan where other ethnic groups predominate. It is also used to refer to the former Russian Empire. In general, however, these two names can be used interchangeably.
Finally, in addition to the two names for the country, there are two words for Russians. The word russkii is used to refer to a person of Russian ethnicity. The word rossiyanin refers to a citizen of the Russian Federation regardless of ethnicity. So anyone called russkii can also be called rossiyanin but not necessarily the reverse.
Given the ebb and flow over the centuries of peoples, borders, and the nature of the state itself, it is inevitable that defending the Russian state, however it may be defined, from foreign and domestic threats is a complex challenge that embraces not just military might, but also political prowess, economic strength, and social and cultural/linguistic soft power. This is clearly stated in law. Article 1 of the Federal Law of May 31, 1996, “About Defense” (revised on February 3, 2014), defines defense as “the system of political, economic, military, social, legal, and other measures to prepare for armed defense and the armed defense of the Russian Federation, the integrity and inviolability of its territory.”
In the first essay in this series, I defined the nature of the Russian state, as it exists within its current legally defined borders (Crimea not included), as authoritarian that survives through the acceptance of the status quo by three elements—the leader, the power elite, and the masses. The assertion that Russia is an authoritarian state comes not just from Western observers. It is accepted by Russians themselves. Sergey Karaganov, one of Russia’s leading defense experts, concludes that “Russia is genetically an authoritarian power.” He adds, “Russia’s authoritarianism was not imposed from above but is the result of our history which has formed our genetic code.”
I will use the more concrete definition of the state (gosudarstvo) in this essay to examine concepts and policies that the Russian state pursues to ensure its survival. In a later essay, I will explore the more ambiguous concept of statehood (gosudarstvennost’) because it can be conceived as a national idea or a means of self-identification in looking at the broader concept of the nature of the Russian state. I will include the potential impact on countries with significant Russian populations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, other East Slavic peoples who are closely identified with their Russian “brothers,” such as Belarusians and Ukrainians, and the broader Russian diaspora that is often referred to as the “Russian World” (Russkii mir). It is Russia’s relationship with these groups that poses challenges and contributes to instability in the region.
It is often said that Russia feels secure only if its neighbors feel insecure. This is a reflection of Russia’s historical sense of vulnerability, weakness, backwardness, and inferiority. Russia has traditionally compensated for its insecurities by building a strong offensive and defensive military capability matched by an equally offensive and defensive foreign policy. Domestically, it has created a strong authoritarian regime that rules over a subservient society subjected to state-controlled propaganda that portrays Russia as surrounded by enemies and vulnerable to domestic discord and instability resulting from anyone who dissents from official state ideology and policies.
For centuries, the outsized role of “the enemy” and a siege mentality have been essential to Russia’s determination to defend itself and ensure its survival. They serve as a source of legitimacy for the regime by rallying the public against both possible external threats and any internal dissent that could weaken tight central control. Convinced that the United States is pursuing regime change in Russia, the Kremlin pursues an active propaganda campaign through state media to convince the population that Russia is under siege. Moscow fears that the penetration of Western ideas, mores, and values will weaken Russia and warns that they are hostile to Russia’s interests. The regime also uses siege mentality as an excuse to deflect from its shortcomings and its failure to improve living conditions and prosperity for the general population.
This strategy has also been used quite successfully by Putin and his regime—as it was during the Soviet period and even earlier—to instill a sense of pride among the populace in Russia’s achievements and its sacrifices. The best illustration of this tactic is the way the Kremlin manipulates for its own purposes the horrible losses and sacrifices of the Soviet people during the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call their participation in World War II.
The Great Patriotic War was a catastrophe for the Soviet people. More than 26 million people perished, and the losses affected almost every family. It left an indelible mark on the entire population. For decades, the Soviet leadership made a concerted effort to keep the memory of the Great Patriotic War alive to bolster patriotism and loyalty to the Soviet Union. Military parades and associated events were held every May 9 to mark the anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. In the early post-Soviet years, the nature of the parades changed. While still honoring the heroism of the Soviet people, the display of military equipment became less prominent, and in some years, no military equipment appeared at all. Under Putin, however, military hardware was reintroduced, and the parades reached a size that surpassed any of the largest parades during Soviet times.
With the rise of social media and a much more sophisticated propaganda network, Putin’s regime has been successful in maintaining a high level of patriotism by playing on the emotions of a nation that was traumatized and decimated by a war that ended more than 75 years ago. As new generations replace those of their parents and grandparents, the effort to sustain the memory of the past and to use it to continue to identify the regime as the guarantor of peace and security of the Russian people becomes increasingly challenging. Consequently, the Putin regime has increased its efforts and dedicated more and more resources to ensure that it keeps the memory of past sacrifices and victories alive in the hearts and minds of every Russian citizen. Recently, a new television channel called “Victory” was launched that exclusively shows films and programs about the “Great Patriotic War.”
The Kremlin’s efforts seem to be successful. Although young people are much more connected to the outside world and surveys indicate that the siege mentality concept is gradually losing its appeal with them, many members of the younger generation appear to be as patriotic as their parents. They share the conviction that Russia must remain strong and resolute if it is to be respected in the world and recognized as a great power.
A fundamental element of Russian, as well as Soviet and Tsarist, strategy has been to expand Russia’s borders as far from the center as possible until Russian forces reach natural barriers or run into countervailing forces. This has resulted in the creation of the largest country in the world but also one that contains numerous non-Russians who potentially represent a destabilizing factor. We saw what happened in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke apart into 15 independent states. The threat of further disintegration still exists, resulting possibly in a smaller, post-Soviet Russian state. The Kremlin is acutely aware of this potential threat and is ready to respond with force, if necessary, to any effort to weaken central control and the Russian state.
Russia’s expansionist policies over the centuries have included efforts to create a buffer zone along its borders to enhance its pursuit of strategic depth. The most recent successful attempt was the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and the creation of a military alliance in the form of the Warsaw Pact. The “Iron Curtain,” which separated the Soviet-dominated part of Eastern Europe from Western Europe, helped to maintain a relatively stable, though hostile, environment based on a delicate balance of military forces. Although the “Iron Curtain” provided a relative degree of security for the Soviet Union, it did not eliminate undertones of discontent in many of the countries that were dominated by the Soviet Union. Eventually, Soviet domination began to unravel. Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia broke away from Soviet control as early as 1948. Uprisings in Berlin in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s showed that the Soviet Union’s hold over Eastern Europe was tenuous at best and survived only because of the Soviet military presence. With the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and his efforts to reform the decaying Soviet system, political reins on Eastern Europe were eased. Aspirations in Eastern Europe for freedom and independence from Soviet domination intensified and were graphically manifested in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the collapse of Communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe, and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. For the Soviet Union and Russia as the successor state, a sense of vulnerability returned to threaten the stability, and potentially the survivability, of the Russian state.
In the initial years of the new, independent Russia there was little Moscow could do to ameliorate this sense of vulnerability because it had been drastically weakened militarily, politically, and economically. The new regime headed by Boris Yeltsin was incapable of resisting steps taken by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to consolidate their influence over the former Soviet satellite states and even a portion of the former Soviet Union (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). Moscow could only protest as its former client states become members of NATO and the United States emerged as the only global superpower.
Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has regained much of its lost power as it has taken steps to restore what it views as its rightful place as a dominant world power. This means, inter alia, addressing its perceived vulnerability and threats to its survival from abroad.
At the same time, as Russia attempts to reassert its sway over what it considers to be its legitimate sphere of influence that is essential to ensure its security, it contributes to instability in the region. As Russia pushes forward, its neighbors resist, and each vies for supremacy even as its sense of vulnerability increases as it perceives a growing threat from the other. Amid this psychological push and pull, a delicate balance of forces must be maintained to avoid an outbreak of hostilities.
By joining NATO, the former members of the Warsaw Pact have sought the protection of the alliance to strengthen their position vis-à-vis Russia. Russia has seen this as provocative and threatening to its own stability and survival but has reluctantly accepted this new reality.
However, Russia has drawn a red line as far as former Soviet republics are concerned (the Baltic States being the exception). Any encroachment—political or military—into the former republics’ territories is considered a direct threat to Russia. We have seen how this played out in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014. Russia pushed back vigorously against what it believes to be (1) dangerous steps to change regimes considered friendly, or at least non-threatening, to Russia, and (2) further inroads by the United States into Russia’s sphere of influence as part of Washington’s ultimate goal of regime change in Russia.
Emperor Alexander III—the father of Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II—used to say that Russia has only two allies—the army and the navy. This statement has been repeated by Russian leaders over the centuries and is even cited today by some Russian pundits. It reflects the preeminence of the siege mentality and the realization that Russia has few real allies. Those it has are fleeting at best and are mandated by situations that pose existential threats to Russia. Joseph Stalin’s alliance with the Allied forces during World War II is such an example. In less extreme circumstances, the Kremlin is convinced that it alone can guarantee its defense and survival.
In a future essay I will address in detail the current state of relations between Russia and its neighbors, including efforts by the Kremlin to influence other countries, exacerbate their weaknesses, support opposition forces more favorably disposed toward the Kremlin, and take other measures to weaken neighboring states and thereby reduce the perceived threat to Russia.
The bulwark of Russia’s defense against external enemies has been its armed forces. Under the Soviet regime, the armed forces were a formidable rival to the United States and NATO. Their overwhelming superiority in the number of conventional forces and the might of their nuclear arsenal became the cornerstone of East-West relations throughout the Cold War. In support of the Soviet Armed Forces was an enormous military-industrial complex, a highly skilled cohort of scientists and defense experts, a nationwide civil defense program, and a militarized civil society that focused on installing young boys and girls with ideological and practical training in military affairs. All of this came at a very high cost—a cost that over the years the Soviet system could not sustain. In the end, this huge economic burden contributed significantly to the Soviet Union’s collapse.
When the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991, Russia went into an economic tailspin that affected all sectors of society, including the military. Deprived of significant investment and shattered by the loss of personnel and equipment that were now spread over 15 independent countries, the new Russian Armed Forces became a mere shadow of its Soviet predecessor. It took more than a decade for Russia to begin the process of restoring the armed forces to a position worthy of a global power. Investment was significantly increased, reforms were undertaken to modernize the command structure and personnel throughout all ranks, and new weapon systems were developed and deployed. The practice of hybrid warfare and a more prominent role for the armed forces’ intelligence organization (GRU) brought new prominence to the Russian military. Russian society could once again claim pride in the military as the defender of the homeland.
Parallel with the buildup of the armed forces, the Kremlin has reintroduced historical patriotic symbols, traditions, institutions, and practices to rally the population around Russia’s foreign and defense policies and to strengthen support for the powerful state. There has even been a resurgence of the militarization of certain aspects of Russian society, particularly the expansion of military training among Russia’s youth.
Internally, the Kremlin relies increasingly on its security forces to defend against, and weed out, elements of Russian society that threaten the stability and survival of the Russian state. The flagship of Russia’s security service is the Federal Security Service (FSB), which is a direct descendent of the notorious Soviet KGB. Its mandate is counterintelligence, internal and border security, counterterrorism, surveillance, and fighting against organized crime and drug smuggling. Its headquarters is on Lubyanka Square in Moscow in the previous KGB building complex, which also houses the infamous Lubyanka prison. Since Putin (a former KGB officer and later a director of the FSB) became president, a Russian Orthodox church has even been built among the FSB buildings to serve the “spiritual needs” of Russia’s secret police.
The FSB is just one of several security organizations operating in support of the Russian state. The Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) focuses on foreign intelligence, much like the CIA does in the United States. The Main Directorate of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GU, but still commonly called by its previous name—the Main Intelligence Directorate, GRU) is reported to be the largest of Russia’s foreign intelligence organizations with covert agents spread around the world. Most recently it figured prominently in the news over the bungled poisoning attempt of former GRU agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England. The Federal Protective Service (FSO) is charged with protecting the president of the Russian Federation, several other high-ranking officials and certain federal properties. Finally, there is the National Guard of the Russian Federation. This organization, which was recently established, is directly subordinate to the President of the Russian Federation (the Commander-in-Chief) and combines both security and military functions within its mission. It has often been referred to as Putin’s private army.
These security organizations and their networks of agents throughout Russia and abroad serve as vital state institutions working to protect the regime and ensure the survival of the Russian state. They follow in the footsteps of their odious predecessors who trace their history back to Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union. Although the current state security agencies do not have the same grisly reputation as the Soviet KGB and the Okhrana of the Russian Empire, they remain a powerful and highly effective force within Russia and in Russian operations abroad.
The greatest fear among the Russian leaders as well as the population is disintegration of the Russian Federation. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and all the hardships it brought is not a distant memory for large segments of the population. If the Russian Federation were to fracture into an unknown number of separate states, the fear is that it would not be as peaceful as the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We saw what happened with Chechnya when it sought independence in the 1990s. There is little doubt if another region were to follow a similar path that Putin would resort to military force to prevent succession.
Much more likely than a political declaration of independence is the economic deterioration/disintegration of some of Russia’s poorest regions and the gradual replacement of Moscow’s control by an outside power, most likely China. This might be possible for sections of Siberia and Russia’s Far East that are already experiencing growing economic hardships and are increasingly relying on investment and assistance from China, including a mounting influx of Chinese companies and workers. Over time, China could take economic control over certain parts of Russia which could eventually lead to de facto and maybe even de jure loss of control by Moscow. If this were to happen, it would mean the further shrinking of the Russian Federation politically and economically. Of gravest concern to the world would be the fate of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. If Moscow were to lose control of some of these weapons, the outside world might need to step in to prevent a possible catastrophe, as the United States and others did after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister, and perhaps the most prominent and influential Russian economist, has been warning for years that if the Putin regime does not change course and devote more resources to the economic and social needs of the country, Russia, like the USSR before it, could disintegrate. As Putin appears to be more tightly squeezed than ever in his ability to manipulate his policy options and maneuver his resources, the prospects for implementing the changes Kudrin speaks about do not look good. Economic and social pressures are increasingly affecting Russian society in a negative way, the economy is stagnating, the people are feeling more detached from the authorities, and the prospects for a better life seem more remote. These domestic imperatives are realistically much more of a threat to the survival of the Russian state than is possible aggression by an external enemy, although you would never know it by listening to Russia’s leaders and state media.
How long the siege mentality and the threat of the “external enemy” can be perpetuated with the expectation that they will cover up for the regime’s weaknesses and failures to provide for the needs of the people will be increasingly tested in the months and years to come. It is not hyperbole to suggest that the survival of the Russian state, as it is currently constituted, could be in peril if Russia’s leaders and the Russian people fail to take appropriate measures to address the negative trends that could weaken the unity of the Russian state.
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