Speaking about Russia’s soft power within its neighbourhood at a time when the country is putting its hard power tools to good use might appear counter-intuitive. However, analysing Russia’s soft power potential is necessary to understand the very nature of its strategy, writes Eleonora Tafuro.
Russia is mostly described as a classical realist power, that thinks in geopolitical, zero-sum terms and is more prone to using hard power than relying on its power of attraction. The latest developments in Ukraine have reinforced this image. In light of increased integration between the EU and countries seen by Russia as its own backyard, the Kremlin has resorted to every instrument in its hard power toolbox to reassert its influence and defend its ‘legitimate interests’ in the post-Soviet space. These range from trade restrictions and bans to threats to expel immigrant workers from neighbouring countries and massive financial and political support to breakaway regions in the neighbourhood.
But Russia is not neglecting the use of soft power. Russia has a number of advantages for implementing a soft power strategy in its neighbourhood: the presence of large Russian minorities; a shared history; cultural and linguistic proximity; a larger economy and energy resources. The Kremlin’s soft power tools include cultural and linguistic programmes, scholarships for foreign students, well-equipped and Kremlin-aligned media outlets, Christian Orthodoxy, and a visa-free regime with many neighbours that makes Russia’s labour market relatively accessible.
The power of international attraction in general is based on political values, and the Kremlin tries to offer an alternative narrative to the West. This vision is not only based on multi-polarity, but also on Russia as a defender of conservative (anti-liberal) values – a world view that appeals to many in the neighbourhood. During his presidential address to the Russian Federal Assembly in December 2013, Putin outlined his conservative vision, presenting the EU and the West more generally as decadent places where traditions and values are ‘eroding’, places that accept ‘without question the equality of good and evil’. Putin’s conservative outlook is also appealing to many far-right European leaders, who have expressed their support for and cultural affinity with the Russian leader.
Russia offers its neighbours a path for regional integration through the Customs Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the envisaged Eurasian Union, in competition with the EU and NATO. Plus, Moscow funds cultural programmes based on the idea of a common identity, language and history in the post-Soviet space, and tries to spread its messages through well-resourced Kremlin-linked media outlets. Russia’s most important soft power organisation is Rossotrudnichestvo – the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation. It funds projects for the promotion of the Russian language and recurrent commemorations of crucial episodes in Russian history, drawing upon the rhetoric of fraternity and nostalgia for the ‘glorious past’, especially the Soviet empire. The agency was recently mandated with international development, with Putin pledging to increase its budget from the current 0.03 per cent of Russia’s GDP to 0.1 per cent by 2020, as a way to promote Russian values in recipient countries.
‘Compatriots’, meaning Russian minorities in other countries, are central to Russia’s soft power in the post-Soviet space. They include Russians living abroad, former citizens of the Soviet Union, Russian immigrants, descendants of compatriots, and even foreign citizens who admire Russian culture and language – a community that is estimated to consist of roughly 35 million people, mainly concentrated in the post-Soviet space. The alleged defence of their interests has often served as an excuse for the Kremlin to meddle in other states’ internal affairs in much harder ways. For example, Moscow’s issuing of passports to citizens in neighbouring states is an easy way to create or strengthen pro-Russian sectors of the population and influence local politics.
Moscow’s deployment of both hard and soft power measures seems to suggest that Russia is trying to balance its power strategy in a ‘smart’ way, to paraphrase Harvard scholar Joseph Nye. However, there are three main objections in Russia’s case. Recent events in Crimea are a case in point. Russia had considerable soft power in Crimea, based on historical ties and the large Russian minority there. However, by using military power, the Kremlin sent a strong message to its neighbours that it is prepared to coercively assert its authority – which in turn undermines its efforts to become a pole of attraction. Second, while soft power in the West is mainly generated by a pluralistic civil society, culture and the ‘way of life’ in general, in Russia the Kremlin is the main soft power actor, reinforcing the impression that Russia’s soft power is largely Soviet-style propaganda in support of Moscow’s foreign policy goals. Lastly, due to its neo-imperialistic and polarising rhetoric and by targeting ‘compatriots’, Russia’s soft power policies do not seem to have been very effective in promoting Russia’s image amongst non-Russians. In fact, Russia’s soft power policies are likely to deepen political cleavages within neighbouring societies, mobilising people who are already pro-Russian but generating the opposite effect on those who are not.
In sum, Russia’s willingness to use hard power to impose its goals, and the lack of a positive vision to attract non-Russian populations in neighbouring countries mean that its soft power is unlikely to endure in the long-term.
Eleonora Tafurois a junior researcher, FRIDE, a European think tank based in Madrid. A longer version of this article was originally published on FRIDE’S webpage