Russian matryoshka politics
Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a revised version of his country’s military doctrine on Dec. 26, 2014 to replace the document issued by his predecessor Dmitri Medvedev in February 2010.
Although some might argue that it was just another official document release and changed nothing, it clearly reflects the current perception of Russian authorities regarding the developments in international politics. It is also important in connection with the deteriorating relations between Russia and the West over Ukraine, as well as the crumbling international system.
Even though the new document maintains the core of the previous one, there are important nuances.
The expansion of NATO’s military infrastructure toward Russian borders was clearly highlighted as the top military threat in the document, as usual. Other external threats were classified as the destabilization of bordering countries and regions, deployment of foreign military forces on the territory of Russia’s neighbors, and the creation and deployment of global strategic antiballistic missile systems, which refers to NATO’s new missile defense system and the Prompt Global Strike Concept of the U.S. It seemed that these threats have become more vivid for Russia, especially after its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the ongoing dispute over its activities in eastern Ukraine.
The principles for using nuclear weapons remained unchanged in the revised document; they could be used in an event of aggression against Russia and/or its allies by using weapons of mass destruction or conventional weapons, or in case of “threat to the very existence of the state.” This is, of course, a rather open-ended definition of the rules of engagement regarding nuclear weapons.
In domestic challenges, the new doctrine differs from the previous one and broadens military risks to include “information-related activities” that aim at influencing the masses with the goal of undermining the constitutional system or achieving military and political goals. The previous one highlighted the “violent attempts” toward the constitutional system, but the new version considers the usage of information technologies and social media as threats: A clear reflection of social media’s influence during the Arab Spring.
The new doctrine was released at a time when Russia is facing several problems in and out of the country. The feeling of encirclement of Russia has been increased in the country, as its top leaders are being isolated in the international arena, heavy sanctions are imposed against it and NATO troops are being deployed to bordering countries.
President Putin has responded to all these challenges with retaliation, rather than prudent silence. He has been trying to project a show of force through strong-arm tactics, most recently in Ukraine. While Russia’s military spending has been increased over the years despite economic troubles, its air forces, too, have steadily increased tension with the West over European airspace. Although the Russian economy has been hit hard by the global collapse in energy prices and Western sanctions, Russia just announced another costly research and development initiative to develop a new strategic bomber, called PAK-DA, in response to the U.S. Air Force’s LRS-B.
In domestic politics, Putin’s popularity has been eroding as economic crises have started to bite into people’s pockets. Public protests toward the Putin administration are abundant though subdued due to a mixture of heavy security measures of and small concessions from the government. Although Russian authorities have so far been able to prevent mass demonstrations against the regime, Putin needs to find a way to ease the tension, both inside and outside of the country, in order to avoid future quagmires and stay on top of the developing troubles ahead.