Russia’s 2021 National Security Strategy: Cool Change Forecasted for the Polar Regions

The Russian icebreaker '50 Years of Victory' on an expedition to the North Pole in 2015. Courtesy of Christopher Michel/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

The latest national security document from Moscow signals a shift in Russia’s strategic priorities, with an intention to ‘go it alone’ in the international system. This could spell trouble for the future of the polar regions.

In its new national security strategy, Moscow acknowledges the international system has thrown up a ‘new architecture’ which has been ‘accompanied by an increase in geopolitical instability’. This 2021 iteration unveils Russia’s plans to standardise its strategic engagement in the international system based on ‘mutually beneficial’ cooperation. The new security strategy signals that Moscow firmly sees itself as an independent stakeholder (and actor) focused on shoring up its national interests. While still committed to the existing international order – indeed, Russia remains a stalwart supporter of the UN Security Council and of principles of non-interference – Moscow’s engagement within the system will be shaped by its newly articulated strategic independence.

Russia’s 2021 national security strategy seeks to ‘improve predictability in relations between states’ but moves away from previous iterations which outlined how it would strengthen trust and with whom Russia would work. Dropping clear goal posts and interests in its relationships with Europe and the US from the strategic document signals the rebirth of an independent Russia. The problem is that – as the coronavirus pandemic continues to illustrate – states cannot go it alone in the global system. This becomes a stark challenge when we consider Russia’s strategic interests in the Arctic and Antarctica – two zones in which international cooperation and collaboration are considered crucial. In recent years, and certainly in the past few months as Chair of the Arctic Council, Russia has touted its strength through cooperation in polar affairs.

In contrast to the 2015 strategy which framed climate change in terms of ‘consequences’, the 2021 version reframes it as a security threat requiring ‘prevention’ and ‘adaptation’. There is also a clear departure from the 2015 iteration’s treatment of the Arctic, with sentiments shifting from ‘mutually beneficial international cooperation’ to ‘ensuring the interests of the Russian Federation’ in the region. Evidently, six years have allowed Moscow to grow more confident in its inalienable majority stake in the Arctic zone. It is likely this confidence, now underscored by the national security strategy, will see Russia double-down on Arctic region leadership efforts.

The 2021 framing of Russia’s Arctic stake is particularly interesting. This version speaks of ‘ensuring’ Russia’s interests related to ‘the development’ of the Arctic. Previous iterations viewed the Russian Arctic as a frontier to be managed, a sovereignty challenge on the horizon. Today, the economic potential and Moscow’s efforts to securitise the resource base of the Russian Arctic zone are paramount. Evidently, geoeconomics is the new strategic language of the Kremlin, with the 2021 strategy also unveiling new interest in the ‘development’ of ‘outer space, the world ocean’ and Antarctica. These global commons – particularly space and Antarctica – had not featured in previous national security strategies in development contexts. Indeed, this is the first ever mention of Antarctica in a Putin-era Russian national security strategy. The fact that Russia’s revised Antarctic strategy was approved by Putin in late 2020, and has yet to be made public, is also a somewhat ominous marker for Antarctic futures. Indeed, the recent Antarctic development plan signals heavy investments in Russian Antarctic capabilities and planned presence on the unclaimed continent.

People as Putin’s Priority

The 2015 strategy prioritised defence and security concerns when it came to the question of Russian national interests. Back then, fortress Russia had only just marked 12 months of war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, and Moscow was looking over its shoulder for a Western response which arguably never came. The revised strategy has taken some comfort in the past six years of Russia’s position vis-à-vis the West – a period of chilled relations in which every passing year manages to find yet another ‘new’ low in tensions. Having adequately tested Western resolve to fight for Ukraine, it would seem Moscow is exploiting the public relations opportunity it now has to sell Russia’s perceived victory in external security affairs to the masses. Here, the narrative put forward by the security strategy appears to be one in which Russia’s frontiers have been bolstered, and this in turn has afforded the Kremlin latitude to now look after its citizens.

When it comes to national strategic priorities, Russia now cites the ‘quality of life’ and ‘wellbeing of Russian nationals’ as the top national interest. Indeed, Moscow’s success in delivering on Arctic region development goals will rely upon Russia’s ability to improve living standards in the High North. Attracting the intensive work force required for energy projects and the development of the Russian Arctic will remain a priority and ultimately the prerequisite to realising ambitious economic goals in the Arctic (including shipping 80 million tons of goods via the Northern Sea Route). Often intertwined in the Arctic, Russia’s security, defence and economic interests are strategic priorities after its social, demographic, and human security interests. The revival of the Russian nation-state and a focus on its historical identity further indicate an interesting departure from previous security strategies. This disconnect may however pose serious problems for realising national development goals – equally demographic, economic and military in nature – in the Arctic zone.

In reorientating human security to the prime position among Russia’s strategic priorities, Moscow is also throwing down the gauntlet of a new culture war. The 2021 iteration of Russia’s national security strategy clearly facilitates the securitisation of Russian culture – a ‘manifesto for cultural conservatism’, if you will. In doing so, Russia clearly crafts its identity as an independent pole in the international system. References to ‘Westernisation’ and the unscrupulous principles and immorality of Western culture throughout the 2021 strategy serve to ultimately carve new divisions between Russia and the rest. The strategy underscores the threat posed by the West to Russia’s ‘cultural sovereignty’ – namely attempts to ‘falsify Russian and world history’ – and in doing so highlights the potential for Moscow to turn further inwards on itself. Of course, this injection of ‘spiritual and moral values’ into Russia’s national security strategy is not a new phenomenon. The 2015 iteration also underscored the threat posed to national security in the sphere of culture by the ‘erosion’ of traditional Russian values.

The 2015 iteration underscored the significance of crafting strategic partnerships. Specifically, strategic partnerships with other states were to be built around concepts of respect and equality. The revised strategy has done away with ‘equality’ and now frames international engagement in terms of ‘mutually beneficial’ cooperation. This is a shift towards transactional statecraft from the Kremlin, a clear signal that Russia rejects ‘bloc-thinking’ and ideological alliances.

Connotations of an emerging Sino-Russian alliance have gained popularity since the last iteration of Russia’s national security strategy. However, the 2021 strategy throws cold water on suggestions of an alliance. The new strategy simply states Russia’s interest in ‘developing a comprehensive partnership’ based on ‘strategic interaction’ with China – whereas in 2015, Russia outlined plans for an ‘all-embracing’ partnership due to Beijing’s key role in the ‘maintenance of global and regional stability’. It would seem that in six years Moscow has figured out that ‘little brother to China’ is not a role it wishes to play.

As with China, India is again elevated to direct reference level in Russia’s security strategy. While in 2015 Russia simply assigned the ‘privileged strategic partnership’ with India an ‘important role’, the 2021 iteration sees the relationship unlock the status of a ‘particularly’ privileged strategic partnership. Russia plans to be an independent actor in a multipolar system, constrained by no external force and not acting at the whim of alliances and bloc-thinking. The problem for the West, of course, is that Russia will not fit ‘neatly’ into a box nor be any easier to compartmentalise in the international arena. Crafting a strategy to engage with such an actor will potentially become an even more challenging task.

Missing: The ‘Reset’ Window

This is a confident – somewhere between Galeotti’s ‘paranoid’ and Trenin’s ‘remarkable’ – document that spells troubled waters ahead for the West in navigating its relationship with Moscow. While the revised strategy does fall short of sabre-rattling, this iteration is void of the 2015 strategy’s ‘olive branch’ sentiments, in which Moscow sought to work with others to build a mutually beneficial international system. Indeed, with regards to the geopolitical landscape of the ‘modern world’, in 2015 Russia had its sights set on a ‘shaping role’ in the emerging ‘polycentric order’. In 2021, this order may have well and truly arrived, but Moscow no longer intends to shape the system, instead planning to carry out a strengthening role as an ‘influential centre’.

The 2021 strategy is bad news for Washington. The 2015 iteration underlined Russia’s interest in ‘establishing a fully-fledged partnership with the United States’ based on ‘coincident interests’. Russia also once signalled an interest in working with the US on arms control treaties, confidence building mechanisms and fighting global terrorism. Fast forward to 2021, and ‘important areas of this partnership’ between Russia and the US have been scrapped from the strategy. The only references to Russia’s relationship with Washington are a throwaway line or two jabbing at the US for ‘abandoning international arms control commitments’ and upping its global missile defence capabilities. The 2021 version also introduces plans to undertake a marked effort to ‘reduce the use of the US dollar in foreign economic activity’.

Furthermore, in the 2015 strategy, Russia assigned a lengthy paragraph to its relationship with NATO and the latter’s unacceptable ‘increased military activity’, as well as the approach of its ‘military infrastructure toward Russia’s borders’. The 2015 strategy also included reference to Moscow’s interest in working on ‘the development of relations with NATO’. The 2021 iteration does repeat the denouncement of NATO kit near Russian borders, but no longer includes interest in dialogue with Brussels. Europe is also a casualty of the revised strategy. While the 2015 version advocated ‘mutually beneficial cooperation’ with European states and the EU, and ‘the harmonisation of integration processes’ on post-Soviet territory, the revised strategy makes no effort to substantiate plans for Russia’s relationship with Europe. Aspirations of the past were not realised, so Moscow’s strategy now is to wait for Europe to come knocking. It would appear the Germans and the French are leading the pack in this respect.

The key takeaway of this new national security strategy is that it is no simple ‘update’. It is a considered ‘offramp’ Russia has taken to go it alone in the international environment. This spells trouble for the polar zones – which rely on the collaborative and cohesive policies which have shaped the regions since the Cold War and kept them free of conflict.

Russia has now cemented its intention for the next five years to ‘go it alone’ (unless it sees mutual benefit in collaborating). In practice, however, this raises a concerning point. The specific spheres of Russia’s 2021 national interest – space, the Arctic and Antarctica – are zones in which international collaboration is expected, if not required. In this new national security strategy, Russia promotes international law and underscores throughout the document the primacy of the UN system in place, so an interesting test will no doubt become whether Moscow plays by the rules in the global commons. A clear takeaway from the document is there will be no normalisation or reset, let alone integration between Russia and the West (or East – an uncomfortable truth for Beijing) in the coming years. At best, we should expect continued competition, with managed frontiers of confrontation and selective cooperation from Moscow.

Of course, we now await the updated Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation to get a clearer sense of the policies through which Moscow will navigate strategic competition ‘alone’.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Elizabeth Buchanan

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