It's often tempting to explain foreign countries by referring to their leaders: to see Vaclav Havel as the author of Czech democracy, or Slobodan Milosevic as the sole reason for Serbian aggression. Nowhere do we resort more readily to such oversimplified analysis than in our observations of Russia: Boris Yeltsin was often equated with the economic collapse of his country, just as it is now tempting to view the new acting president, Vladimir Putin, as the immediate cause of Russia's troubling new security policy.
Indeed, when Russia's revised "Concept on National Security" was published just over a week ago, several Western commentators saw this "bold initiative" as a prime example of Putin's efforts to "define a more assertive course for Russia after years of drift under Yeltsin." One writer claimed that Putin was "staking out a name for himself as someone ready to defend Russian interests."
Such speculation is misguided and dangerous. The new document, with its more aggressive language and militaristic posture, is not solely a Putin creation. It was first drafted last spring and was refined while Yeltsin was still in charge. Its adoption has less to do with the shift from Yeltsin to Putin than with four significant changes in Russia's security concerns over the past two years: the Kosovo crisis, proposals for the further expansion of NATO, disagreements about nuclear arms control, and the onset of Russia's vicious war against Chechnya.
Of course, Putin himself, with his 16 years of loyal service to the Soviet KGB, should give us grounds for concern, but a disproportionate emphasis on his leadership role risks deflecting attention from the broader events that shaped the new document--and from a better understanding of Russia's evolving foreign policy.
There is no true American equivalent of these national security documents. The Russian declarations are not binding and can be rewritten, but in the past they have offered useful insights into the thinking of Russian military and political elites. Putin was secretary of the Security Council when drafting of the new national security doctrine began last spring, but he was hardly the only one involved. It was the collective product of high-ranking national security officials. With the exception of a few minor changes adopted after a review by the Russian legislature and bureaucracy, the doctrine that just took effect is identical to the draft that was approved in October by the Russian Security Council headed by Yeltsin.
There is no question that the document marks a major departure from the previous Concept on National Security, which had been in effect since December 1997. Instead of referring to a "partnership" with the West, the new doctrine condemns alleged American efforts to dominate other countries through the use of force, and it dwells at length on the "increased level and scope of military threats" to Russia, as well as the "grave threats" posed by organized crime, separatism and terrorism. It also provides somewhat looser conditions for the possible use of Russian nuclear weapons, warning that a nuclear attack by Russia might be forthcoming to "repel armed aggression if all other means of resolving a crisis have failed."
As Russia has made abundantly clear to U.S. officials, Kosovo marked a turning point in U.S.-Russian relations. Whether rightly or wrongly, Russian officials believed that the Clinton administration ignored Moscow's concerns as the crisis developed. Russian leaders still describe NATO's actions in Kosovo as "aggression" (although the Russians have never officially condemned the well-documented atrocities committed by Serb paramilitary forces). The strong showing of Western air power in Yugoslavia came as a jolt to Russian military commanders, who realized how far their own forces had fallen behind.
The perceived slights, combined with the displays of Western air prowess, prompted a major reassessment in Moscow of the country's strategy--and provided the catalyst for redrafting the doctrine. The Russian government's harsh response to the crisis, replete with spurious charges of "war crimes" committed by NATO, inevitably affected the drafting of the doctrine, including the statement that NATO's operation, if adopted more generally, would be "fraught with threats to the destabilization of the whole strategic situation in the world."
The early drafting also coincided with NATO's 50th anniversary celebrations. Proposals to expand the alliance still further were viewed with alarm in Moscow, where Russian leaders have been vehemently opposed to the admission of the three Baltic states--Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania--which U.S. officials claimed last year was "inevitable."
Before the Kosovo crisis, Russian leaders had grudgingly accepted NATO's assurances that the expanding alliance (which absorbed three new members--Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic--in 1999) would be used only in self-defense. Seen from Moscow, NATO's more assertive approach last year in the former Yugoslavia--which went ahead without the approval of the U.N. Security Council, in which Russia has a veto--reneged on those earlier assurances. Military officers and some political leaders in Russia have since claimed that if NATO expands further, it would "create a base to intervene in Russia itself."
In addition to opposing NATO expansion, Russia has been at odds with the United States over strategic arms control. The Clinton administration has sought Russia's consent for amendments to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to permit the deployment of a limited system in the United States to defend against possible strikes by rogue states armed with nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. Russian military officers, fearing that such a system could be expanded and thereby erode the deterrent value of Russia's nuclear missiles, have been adamantly opposed to a modification of the ABM treaty. Some Russian political leaders have occasionally hinted that they might allow modest revisions of the treaty in return for concessions on Russia's nuclear missile deployments. Putin's proclaimed desire to have the Russian parliament endorse the pending strategic arms control treaty, START II, suggests that he may eventually seek some sort of bargain on the ABM issue. At the moment, however, the disagreement between the two sides about the treaty remains acute--as the new doctrine, with its more liberal language about the use of nuclear weapons, reveals.
The fourth major development shaping the new national security document is Russia's latest war against Chechnya, which commenced at the end of last summer. Comments by military officers reported in the Russian media suggest that the army began preparing last spring to reassert control over Chechnya--a republic that had been largely independent since a truce was signed in 1996. The incursions by Chechen guerrillas into neighboring Dagestan in August 1999, combined with the unsolved bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow in September, which were blamed (without any convincing evidence) on Chechen terrorists, gave an opportunity for the Russian army to embark on a full-scale campaign in Chechnya.
U.S. criticism of Russia's actions in Chechnya has been very mild, but Western European governments' complaints about Russia's indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas in Chechnya have been far stronger. These protests have been angrily brushed aside by Russian political and military leaders who insist that the conflict is an "internal affair." In referring to "threats to the existence of the Russian Federation as a sovereign state," the new doctrine reflects this combination of internal separatism and external diplomatic pressures.
The significance of Kosovo, NATO expansion, strategic arms control and Chechnya was already evident in October, when the draft of the new doctrine was adopted. Its tone and content were a direct reflection of the threats perceived--at least for the time being--by Russian political and military elites, rather than being tied to Yeltsin's resignation on Dec. 31.
The more confrontational outlook reflected in the new document is certainly cause for anxiety in the West. More important than the document itself, which may well remain a largely bureaucratic piece of paperwork, is an understanding of the factors that precipitated its drafting. We should not allow our focus on leadership politics and personalities to detract from a sound understanding of the forces driving Russia's new security policy.
Mark Kramer is director of the Harvard Project on Cold War Studies and a senior associate of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian Studies.