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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Security Thinking

Russia may finally get what it has long been promised. President Boris Yeltsin's approval of an extremely important policy statement on Russian security policy in the coming four years could mean that the country will at last begin to resemble other countries.

Despite the fact that the document covers an unprecedented range of important questions -- similar documents are unknown in Soviet and Russia history -- the policy statement has gone unnoticed by the public, journalists and even several military experts. The reason is that it appeared on the eve of the presidential election, which was then followed by the summer recess of the legislature.

This did not prevent the Federation Council, however, from holding hearings on national security problems or Yeltsin from creating a new executive body -- the Defense Council -- which is meant to deal with "foreign" aspects of national security. Its precise responsibilities and those of the Security Council are yet to be clearly defined. But on the whole, this is largely owing to the summer lull.

September traditionally brings fresh political changes. What new approaches can the new policy statement be expected to bring about in Russian national security?

Despite the critical condition of the country, the president's statement sees Russia as belonging to a group of great-powers, even though much of the great-power baggage that Russia inherited from the Soviet Union has been lost. Russia is nevertheless defined as an "extremely important world center" whose opinion cannot be excluded in international affairs.

The most important change in the direction of ordering security policy priorities is the great emphasis on domestic factors. Calls are now being made to strengthen the country's weak democratic institutions in order to strengthen its security. It has been the absence of such institutions that has allowed for political struggles in Russia to take on extreme forms, including armed fighting on the streets of the capital, as was the case in October 1993. Moreover, the instability of democratic institutions accounts for the fact that elections on any level basically turn into a battle between the old and the new, a return to communist government is still a real threat and national and ethnic conflicts such as the war in Chechnya remain unsolved.

The current level of thinking about national security priorities is based on the recognition of Russia's temporary limited possibilities. This factor undoubtedly restricts its ability to carry out foreign policies on a global scale.

At the same time, there is an essential need first of all to establish order within the country itself and promote friendly relations with countries in the near abroad, former "members of a single family of brotherly peoples of the Soviet Union." Thus, instead of making relations with Western countries a priority, which was so much a part of the diplomacy of former foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev, much more effort will be concentrated on neighborly and interdependent relations with the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

But the most important trait of the new thinking on national security is the approach to the rights and freedoms of the individual as the highest value in the system of government interests. This represents a break in the way national security is conceived. It should no longer rely on the traditional notion of averting threats but on the idea of democratic development.

Regardless of all the difficulties Russia now faces, external conditions are more favorable than ever before for solving the critically important tasks of building democracy. Paradoxically, now that the Russian state has lost all of its military allies, the military threats to the country have decreased considerably. Yeltsin's policy statement recognizes a significant lowering of the potential threats of "direct large-scale aggression against Russia." But what is particularly important both in his statement of policy and in the draft entitled "National Security Policy (1996-2000)" is not only its theoretical implications but the possibility of putting them in practice. In the absence of "large-scale foreign military threats," Russia now has the opportunity to "use its forces and means to reach its highest priorities -- laying the ground for a constitutional and democratic order and spiritual and economic rebirth."

If many in the Russian military truly succeed in grasping the idea that there is room today for at least a "peaceful reprieve," which it should use to its advantage, instead of preparing counter-measures for a mythical "aggression" on the part of the West, then one could say without exaggeration that this would be a revolution in the Russian "military conscience."

In the absence of political oversight of the military and ensuring that government policies are strictly followed, the military could well fall back on its traditional task -- the search for and creation of enemies. It would be a shame if the conclusions and the important positions set forth in the document were not followed, as is often the case with practical measures in Russia.

Thus, the objective conditions in Russia today force us to turn once again to the key question of the development of democracy: Without stronger democratic institutions, even the most indisputable positions worked out in national security documents cannot be carried out. As a result, the answer to whether Russia will take new approaches to solving its national security problems depends first of all on whether the government itself can carry out the ideas it has set forth. Unfortunately, the current example of the Russian state system does not provide any definite answers to whether it can do so.

Sergei Oznobistchev is a member of the presidential administration's expert group on national security. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.