Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Understanding Russia’s Efforts at Technological Sovereignty
Understanding Russia’s Efforts at Technological Sovereignty

Understanding Russia’s Efforts at Technological Sovereignty

Russia’s leadership has invented many stories about its invasion of Ukraine. To justify its invasion, Moscow argued that Ukraine is a failed and corrupt state in need of “denazification.” In addition, Russia has maintained that it was using “high-precision” weapons that only struck military targets, and that the West is responsible for the global food and energy crisis.

In recent weeks, another narrative has become more prominent in the Russian discourse regarding the war in Ukraine: the narrative of technological sovereignty. Specifically, Russian officials have highlighted the importance of not being reliant on foreign technologies. They have been emphasizing how technological independence from the West is critical for Russia, and that it will be able to achieve it despite widespread sanctions and its current economic situation.

“Technological sovereignty” or “technological independence” are not particularly new terms or concepts. In response to Western sanctions after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia has pursued a policy of import substitution. It has also tried to eliminate its dependence on states that have imposed those sanctions. Since 2015, the government has been engaged in efforts to promote domestic products and demonstrate Russian self-sufficiency in agriculture and defense, among other sectors. These measures were framed as part of a quest for “economic sovereignty” and Moscow’s conviction that the Russian economy should not be vulnerable to political decisions from abroad.

However, following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the economic response from the West has been much stronger than anticipated. In addition to governments imposing wide-ranging sanctions, dozens of firms decided to depart from the Russian market. In these circumstances, the narrative on technological sovereignty and the importance of developing homegrown technologies has been gaining momentum in policymakers’ statements and the media.

With this rhetoric, the Kremlin’s objective is to provide a sense of stability and confidence in Russia’s ability to repeat the technological successes of the past despite what it sees as Western attempts to destabilize the Russian economy. As sanctions and the withdrawal of hundreds of foreign companies are likely to become a long-term reality for Russia, the leadership is using the technological sovereignty theme as part of its strategy to appeal to the population’s memories of hard times and create a mirage of continuity during the crisis, thereby suggesting that Russia can remain a great power.  

High-Level Statements on Technological Sovereignty

In May, the former president and currently deputy chairman of the National Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, suggested that officials should use the term technological sovereignty instead of the previously used import substitution when talking about the process of replacing foreign products with Russian ones, especially when it comes to industry and critical technologies. In an interview with the newspaper Argumenty i Fakty, he highlighted the “creation of domestic products and components which will allow us to do without imported parts, software or services” as one of the priorities in Russian politics.

The presidential representative for digital development Dmitry Peskov has made similar statements. For instance, he called for the creation of a Russian Diamond Fund (in reference to the collection of jewelry exhibited in the Kremlin, the Almaznyi fond) of homegrown technologies. In his view, technological sovereignty would be achieved with the possession of thirty to fifty domestic technological developments which would be part of this Diamond Fund. President Vladimir Putin has also been promoting this idea. At the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June, he said that Russia needs to build “all spheres of life at a qualitatively new technological level.” He added that Russians should “not be simple users of other states’ solutions.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin mentioned the importance of achieving technological sovereignty in a short amount of time at the Innoprom international industrial exhibition in July. He argued that it is no longer possible for Russia to “be guaranteed with the supply of important products from abroad.” In an extraordinary meeting of the State Duma in July, Minister for Trade and Industry and recently Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov announced that the government wants to turn away from “an absolutely market-oriented industrial policy” towards a “policy of technological sovereignty” and has for priority to replace foreign technologies with domestic ones. In August, several large-scale events highlighted discussions about this topic. The military-technical ARMY-2022 exhibition near Moscow and the Technoprom forum in Novosibirsk featured “Russia’s technological sovereignty and sustainable development” as key themes.

Russian officials have represented the drive for technological sovereignty as key to Russia’s survival in the 21st century. Moscow has been portraying foreign products as security threats and arguing that Russia’s existence depends on being technologically independent. As Peskov wrote in an opinion piece, “the absence of technological sovereignty is when in any second the messenger through which you are chatting right now can be turned off. Before it used to be considered fantasy, but today it is reality, a risk, and a threat.” Medvedev called technological sovereignty, especially when it comes to critical information structure, one of the most important conditions for Russia’s security, adding that without it Russia “will simply be eaten”.

The official discourse also seems optimistic about Russia’s ability to develop critical technologies that will allow, in Putin’s words, “the production of any product” in Russia. The president cited the Mir card (which have replaced Visa and MasterCard) and the St. Petersburg Tractor Plant as “success stories” in import substitution. Peskov has also said that “it is categorically impossible to say that there is something we cannot do.”

To observers, this narrative on technological sovereignty and success seems distant from the reality of Russia’s import substitution results and its general economic situation. Expert analysis suggests that Russian industries such as electronics, transport, and the automobile sector “simply cannot replace imported parts and components,” and “Russia lacks the technological prowess to make, and illicit, shadowy parallel imports can only go so far.” High-tech sectors such as the development of artificial intelligence, robotics, and computer science, which the Russian leadership declared as priority technologies, are threatened by the sanctions and the brain drain of information technology specialists who have left the country.

Furthermore, there are constant media reports, even in state media, signaling the failures of substituting Western brands. For instance, the Vkusno i tochka fast-food chain—which has attempted to replace McDonald’s—lacked potatoes and packaging, while the Sber bank has been re-using chips from old cards to produce new Mir payment cards because of a chip shortage.

The Real Reason Behind Russia’s Technological Sovereignty Narrative

Russia does not actually need to achieve technological sovereignty, however defined, in order for the effort to be successful. Instead, Moscow seeks to obtain a level of ontological security (i.e., “the security of being”) and confidence in its self-perceived identity as a great power. As the literature on ontological security in international relations argues, states pursue not only physical security, but also the security of the self, a feeling of safety and confidence in their identity. State actors can build and maintain a “sense of biographical continuity and wholeness” through certain narratives, defined as stories designed to make sense of the world, or cognitive tools used to construct realities.

As pointed out by political scientist Jelena Subotić, narratives can play a key role in “preserving state ontological security through providing autobiographical continuity, a sense of routine, familiarity, and calm,” especially during moments of uncertainty. To do so, autobiographical narratives often refer to historical memories. These stories use past experiences to explain the present, situate the state in the international system, and make sense of a situation, especially when a state’s identity feels challenged by outside events and actors.

The Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—which the Russian leadership views as part of protecting its great-power identity and nationhood—has brought a certain level of anxiety, ontological stress, and disruption to Russia. In turn, Moscow required the intensification of narratives to make sense of the situation and act as a “cognitive bridge” between the crisis and the need to demonstrate Russia’s identity as a great, sovereign power both to international (and especially Western) and domestic audiences.

Russia’s technological sovereignty narrative acts as this cognitive bridge by building upon the Soviet past to provide historical continuity and justify Russia’s policies of import substitution. The constant references to the Soviet experience of living under sanctions in the Russian discourse is an effort to provide security and reassurance about Russia’s self-identification as a great power. By telling the story that the Soviet Union managed to thrive technologically and remain a great power despite Western opposition during the Cold War, the Russian leadership wants to show its own population, as well as the world, that Russia can maintain its great-power status once again.

Peskov, for instance, said that “Russia is now leading trends in world development, as the Soviet Union often did in the 20th century.” He also noted that Russian people “work better under pressure,” suggesting that the situation is difficult but not unsolvable because of a certain characteristic in the Russian identity which allows the nation to overcome any challenges imposed from abroad.

Speaking during a visit to the Vostochnyi Cosmodrome, Putin said that during Soviet times, “the sanctions were total, but nevertheless the Soviet Union was the first to launch a satellite around the Earth,  the first cosmonaut, the first space station, the first spacewalk, the first woman cosmonaut … We did everything in circumstances of complete technological isolation and achieved such grandiose successes.”

As expected, these narratives only include known successes such as the Sputnik satellite or the first man in space, Yury Gagarin. They exclude the fact that few Soviet technologies or products became successful exports. In this way, Russia is activating select historical memories to provide a sense of security and stability.

Are Russians Buying What Moscow Is Selling?

An important part of the technological sovereignty narrative is directed at the Russian domestic audience. Survey results from the Levada Center polling agency (declared a foreign agent by Russian authorities in 2016) since 2014 suggest that most Russians consider their country a great power, and it is important for the official discourse to maintain this story.

So far, it seems that at least some parts of the technological sovereignty narrative resonate with the Russian population. The story uses historical memories which are combined with people’s obstinate conviction that, as a historical great power, the Russian nation can overcome any situation imposed by other states (as they see it). The narrative plays upon the experience of Russians who have lived in the Soviet Union or through the economic crisis in the 1990s. Evaluating the acceptance of the narrative, however, remains challenging without unbiased sociological studies.

A survey by the agency FOM published at the end of March showed that 49 percent of Russians thought that the departure of many foreign companies would not have any effect on their quality of life, while 25 percent said it would not make their life worse. In May, the state-owned polling agency VCIOM published a survey in which 70 percent of respondents said they do not fear a massive deficit of products and 69 percent said that Russian companies would be able to replace either all or most foreign firms that have left Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. In case two products have the same price, 67 percent of people said they would choose a domestic product rather than an imported one. The Levada Center had a survey among the population in Moscow where 81 percent thought that it would be possible to have substantial success in the substitution of food products, although only 41 percent agreed this would be possible for electronics and 33 percent agreed for the automobile sector.

Looking Ahead

Russia does not have the capabilities to achieve technological sovereignty. The fact that Russia’s leadership is pushing this narrative suggests that the goal is, instead, to provide a sense of ontological security and intensify the belief in Russia’s identity as a great power. The narrative leverages historical victories to provide continuity in times of crisis and demonstrate to both international and domestic audiences that Russia is “coping with external challenges with confidence,” as Putin said. But as the challenges to Russia’s technological capabilities accumulate, it remains to be seen whether this narrative will continue to resonate among ordinary Russians.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

Image: TASS (Photo by Bobylev Sergei)