Russian Threat Perceptions: Shadows of the Imperial Past

February 4, 2015

Russia’s new military doctrine is making waves and has already generated a great amount of analysis. However, in general it does not give an answer to certain questions: why does Russia see NATO as a threat to its security? In what way is NATO enlargement a military risk? And how is NATO a rival for Russia?

In the new doctrine, published last month, Russia named NATO as its greatest enemy. This was not the first time an official Russian document has portrayed NATO as an enemy. The 2014 military doctrine was Russia’s fourth since the fall of the Soviet Union: military doctrines were issued previously in 1993, 2000, and 2010. But the tone of the latest doctrine is significantly different. NATO is more clearly identified as the “fundamental external threat” to Russia. Global rivalry is identified as the key driver of international politics in this document, rather than international cooperation as it was portrayed in the 1990s. Since the task of a military doctrine is to define threats and inform the defense policy of a nation, it is a document well worth getting acquainted with when considering current security policy among the Russian ruling elite. It also tells us something about the future pathways of Russian security thinking.

These types of doctrines always have an element of continuity that is important to understand, and then there is an embedded message regarding what has changed. What remains unchanged is the overall picture – Russia will deter aggression with its nuclear arsenal. Since 1993, Russia has felt that the possibility of a large-scale war is small, but doctrine by doctrine, the security environment has become more dangerous, according to Moscow. When it comes to NATO, the Russian way of talking about the threat informs us of the Russian leadership’s deepest worries.

The post-Cold War period did not start out this way. Most of us remember the period after January 1992 when the world seemed a different place. Some even advanced a bold argument about the end of history. The Soviet Union was a thing of the past, and it was time to look forward to a better future and a more democratic world. This was the way Russians felt about the situation, and only this kind of thinking was possible in the hardship the nation was experiencing. The Russian leadership proclaimed in clear words that Russians had defeated communism, Russians wanted democracy, and it alone would bring the nation new prosperity. The West welcomed the Russian words and agreed, although with slight hesitation. For them it was hard to differentiate Russia from communism, and many in the United States believed it was America that had defeated communism. But was it really communism that was the problem in the West’s relationship with Russia or was there something deeper and older causing tensions?

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation was in a hurry to gain membership in as many international organizations as it could. It applied for membership in the Council of Europe with the aim of perhaps becoming a member of the European Union (EU) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) one day. President Boris Yeltsin also raised the prospect of Russian membership in NATO, which was not so well received in the West. Russians also floated the idea of reforming the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to become a pan-European security organization that replaced both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. One of Moscow’s main aims was to join the G7 as a full member and also become a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). What seems to have come as a surprise for Russia was that membership was not just given if a country asked for it. Rather, these organizations had entry requirements, norms, and rules to which each member needed to subscribe.

Russia did become a member in the Council of Europe in 1996 but without any hope of becoming a member of the EU, and its WTO membership negotiations took a record 18 years. Russia finally became a member in 2012. The Denver Summit in 1997 was the first G8 meeting with Russia participating as an equal member. In the two most important fields—economy and security—Russian efforts were not crowned with success. Russia is still not a member of the OECD, and its status in the G8 is suspended. Hopes of creating a free trade zone and visa-free cross-border travel with the European Union have been knocked back as a result of the Ukraine crisis. As for the OSCE, Russia has not managed to convince the other members that the OSCE should be the only security organization in Europe. Moreover, despite Russia’s objections, NATO has enlarged several times.

Thus, the relationship between Russia and the West failed to rise to the level of expectations in the early 1990s. But why should NATO be Russia’s greatest biggest enemy? The reasons for this might not be at first so obvious, but they are there.

When the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the ideological battle between communism and capitalism, many observers failed to see other trends that were present and perhaps much stronger than rivalry between two essentially economic ideologies. These go back to the 19th century. Before the Soviet Union, there were Great Power rivalries in European politics involving Imperial Russia. The European Great Powers in the early 19th century were Russia, Austria-Hungary, Prussia (later Germany), France, and Great Britain. In this picture there was a division between the more liberal states—France and Great Britain—and the more conservative ones—Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. These countries were at odds with each other in terms of human rights and the acceptable conceptions of forms of government, as well as clashing over imperial rivalries and economic interests. Alliances tended to be formed between liberal states on the one hand and conservative ones on the other hand, but the actual level of cooperation within these alliances proved to be extremely difficult when state identities (the values and forms of government of each country) were far apart.

Even if communism was the main threat during the Soviet era, the real difference between Russia and the West rested on something other than an ideological dispute between communists and capitalists.

When transferring all this to the current situation, the Russian threat perception of NATO can be explained by Great Power rivalry and differences in state identities. Russia perceives that behind NATO’s great military capabilities—which exceed Russia’s own—is an agenda of expansionism that threatens the Russian sphere of influence. The state identity that NATO member states represent is a threat to today’s Russian power elite in much the same way that the French revolution and 19th century British liberalism was to the tsars. Western norms of government and society, based on equal rights, tolerance of minorities in all areas, and regular changes of government based on elections did not fit comfortably with traditional Russian forms of identity. In the 1990s, it was widely assumed that Russia would follow the path of liberal democracy associated with Western state identities. But Russian elites were unwilling to commit to the possibility of giving up power in response to democratic elections, while Western conceptions of human rights did not always fit comfortably with Russian perceptions. Hence the liberal democratic Western state identity came to be widely viewed as a threat to both established political elites and the Russian way of life.

Russia views the European Union as a threat similar to NATO, but since the latter has firepower in a way that the EU does not, it earns a higher ranking in the threat perceptions as well as greater respect. It is also important to remember that the Russian view of respect is often associated with fear, while in the West it comes from the ability to compromise, the honor of norms and rules, and living up to one’s responsibilities.

The new Russian military doctrine clearly spells out what Russian leaders fear most, and the reason why can be found between the lines. NATO was a threat to Russia’s Great Power identity in 1993, and it still is. The way Russia has decided to tackle the threat is to become stronger in its military capabilities, ensure a greater control of the areas it considers its spheres of interests, and to suffocate the critical but still patriotic voices of Russians who would like to see Russia as a prosperous Great Power but disagree with the “Besieged Fortress” approach of Putin and the current Russian leadership. These methods have been used by Russia in the past. However, there is not a historical example where this would have made Russia a stronger country. Fundamental weaknesses in the economy and the political system are only being further exposed by the emphasis on a strong military, and Russia and Russians look set to pay a price for this approach.


Dr. Hanna Smith is a researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki and in the Finnish Academy Centre of Excellence on Choices of Russian Modernizations. She specializes in foreign and security policy particularly in Russia and the post-Soviet space.


Photo credit: Pavel Kazachkov