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Russia, the (threatening) West and Putin’s regime: a brief analysis of Russia’s National Security Strategy, by Tarsis Brito

This essay seeks to make sense of Russia’s relations with the West via a brief ‘discourse analysis’ of the ‘Russian National Security Strategy’ launched in 2015. More precisely, I try to understand how the discursive creation of the West as an empty signifier wherein Putin’s regime can deposit all notions of ‘threat’ relates to the production of ‘Russia’ as a cultural unity in need of protection. In addition to that, I argue that this phenomenon not only constructs particular notions of ‘West’ and a ‘Russia’, but is also responsible for ensuring the legitimacy of the regime as the only one capable and responsible for protecting this ‘so-called Russian identity’.

Bearing that in mind, this essay aims at understanding the process whereby ‘the West’ and ‘Russia’ are constructed as oppositional entities – being the former a ‘menace’ to the latter, a discursive move that plays in favour of Putin’s regime’s legitimacy (Doty, 1993). Those discourses, drawing on Hansen (2006), can be portrayed as ‘security discourses’, whereby actors create a ‘threat’ (the West), a ‘figure that must be protected from the threat’ (Russian identity) and, finally, the legitimate actor that is made responsible for fighting this threat (the regime). With that being said, this essay first exposes how the West is portrayed in the ‘Russian National Security Strategy’. Then, I address how Russia’s identity is enacted in contrast to the West. Finally, I try to show the existing links between the creation of the West and Russia and the construction of the regime’s legitimacy.

The West is, by and large, construed as a single threat to Russia that can be materialised in a myriad ways. I list here two of them. First, the West appears as a geo-political and geo-economic menace, inasmuch as it purportedly aims at dominating world affairs regardless of Russia’s national interests: ‘The Russian Federation’s implementation of an independent foreign and domestic policy is giving rise to opposition from the United States and its allies, who are seeking to retain their dominance in world affairs {art. 12}. In this construction, the West becomes a geopolitical entity – represented mainly by Europe and the USA, and NATO – whose hidden intentions – to dominate world affairs – have been guiding them to foment revolutions all over the world, especially in countries historically close to Russia, in an attempt to establish an image that Russia is their enemy. Accordingly:

‘The support of the United States and the European Union for the anti-constitutional coup d’etat in Ukraine led to a deep split in Ukrainian society and the emergence of an armed conflict. The strengthening of far-right nationalist ideology, the deliberate shaping in the Ukrainian population of an image of Russia as an enemy’ {art. 17}.

The West is also conflated with a series of perverse philosophies/ideologies that represent the cultural and moral decline of its own glorious past (Neumann, 2017, p. 174). In other words, the West is considered to be an entity that, despite its Christian past, has been contaminated by a ‘general lack of moral direction, homosexuality, transsexualism, paedophilia, incest, and so on’ as well as by a culture of secularism (not to say atheism) hidden behind a discourse of ‘good modernity’. Its threatening character, in this optic, comes from its potential to erode ‘traditional Russian and moral values and the weakening of the unity of the Russian Federation’s multinational people by means of external cultural and information expansion {art. 79}’. The distinctiveness of this construction of the West springs from the fact that those ideologies/philosophies themselves, in contrast to the geopolitical construal of the West, are ‘borderless’, which makes it into a silent and more dangerous ‘menace’ that can be activated at any time, as a ghost hovering over the country’s soul.

The West, thus, tends to be portrayed throughout the ‘Russian National Security Strategy’ as an ‘empty signifier’: ‘a concept open to various interpretations and irreducible to a single set of beliefs’ (Makarychek and Yatsyk, 2015). More accurately, the West becomes a mere repository wherein notions of ‘threat to Russia’ can be inserted, a global and borderless menace, so to speak (Schelin, 2016). The vagueness that underpins the concept plays an important role, though. For it allows the regime to interpret a plethora of events as simple epiphenomena of this same Western essence. Furthermore, because the concept is flexible and adaptable, the varied circumstances to which it is applied are not sufficient to destroy the validity nor the strength of the concept.

If the West becomes a synonym for ‘threat’, in the document, Russia, then, becomes equated with a ‘cultural unity in need of being ensured/protected’. After all, the threat must be oriented towards ‘something’ in order to make sense. There must be an understanding of Russia’s cultural identity that justifies the menace. Russia, therefore, must be created as something essentially apart from the West, the West’s very Other (Østbø, 2017).

The foundation of the common Russian identity of the Russian Federation’s peoples is the historically evolved system of unified spiritual-moral and cultural-historical values, as well as the distinctive cultures of the Russian Federation’s multinational people as an inalienable part of Russian culture {art. 77}.

Amongst those distinctive features that constitute Russia’s identity, thus, are the ‘spiritual-moral values’, which appear no less than 15 times throughout the document. Nonetheless, despite its constant presence, its content remains quite obscure, as if its denotations were less important than its connotations. In brief, the concept seems to allude to two things: (1) first, they (values) are constructed as ‘something self-evident, eternal, absolute, and unchangeable – but also something that is under attack and must be protected’ (Østbø, 2017, p. 201). It is not coincidental, then, that the term ‘cultural sovereignty’ appears in the document a plethora of times; (2) second, the terms seem to carry with them ‘strong anti-Western’ connotations, standing in opposition to a particular, constructed image of the West’, which is said to be ‘godless, decadent, and immoral’ (Ibid, p. 201). Russia’s identity is, therefore, constructed as the true European identity: ‘true Europe, on the other hand, is still alive, first and foremost in Russia itself, but also in the Russia-friendly European far right movement’ (Neuman, 2017, p. 174). That is to say that Russia, unlike the West, has not withstood a process of secularisation and moral degeneration, remaining, hence, part of the pure European spirit (Ibid, p. 177).

After having traced the process through which the ‘West’ and ‘Russia’ are produced via discourse, we have the following scenario. On the one hand, we have the threatening and formless West which is constantly hovering over Russia, always on the verge of emerging somewhere. Whilst, on the other, we have a pure Russian spirit grounded on its traditions and ‘spiritual-moral’ values which must be preserved at any cost. Between those two entities, I argue, the regime becomes able to create and maintain its legitimacy. After all, there must be someone who can contain this potential Western menace; and guarantee the survival of Russia’s spirit (Tsygankov, 2016a, 2016b).

This scenario, constructed in the Russian National Security Strategy and continuously reinforced by members of the regime in their speeches, then, is responsible for allowing Putin’s regime to create its own legitimacy, as it justifies its necessity as an entity that fights for Russia and against – especially Western – threats. The regime, thus, acquires the function of a legitimate protector whose political actions – regardless of how violent they may be – can be justified by its main task of protecting Russian cultural and physical existence. Domestically, then, the regime focuses on ‘the preservation and augmentation of traditional Russian spiritual and moral values as the foundation of Russian society’ and on the ‘preservation and development of the common Russian identity of the Russian Federation’s peoples and of the country’s unified area {art. 76}. Internationally, the regime becomes responsible for containing NATO’s expansion and the US and Europe’s hidden wills to destabilise the region.

By pointing to the construction of the West and Russia in the Russian National Security Strategy, I intended to show how the regime becomes able to enact its own legitimacy, as the entity which is capable and responsible for maintaining and protecting Russia’s cultural sovereignty in face of the West’s spectre. Putin’s government, though –quite paradoxically – needs to cultivate those threats, ensuring that they remain in the horizon as a perpetual possibility, in order to preserve the regime’s legitimacy as a protector par-excellence of its Society. The West, thereby, is not only a menace, but a necessary menace that must be controlled and, in a way, preserved.



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About the author

Tarsis Brito holds a Master of Science (MSc) in International Relations Theory at the London School of Economics (LSE).

How to cite this article

Cite this article as: Editoria, "Russia, the (threatening) West and Putin’s regime: a brief analysis of Russia’s National Security Strategy, by Tarsis Brito," in Revista Mundorama, 21/10/2018, https://mundorama.net/?p=24886.

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