Moscow’s Soft Power Strategy

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Moscow’s Soft Power Strategy
In: Current History 112, 756, October 2013

Russia has recently expressed determination to develop soft power, or international attractiveness and increasingly rely on it in its foreign policy. Although Russia’s soft power is considerable, especially in Eurasia, Moscow faces important obstacles and international competition. At home, the Kremlin has much work ahead to develop non-military aspects of its power and influence – economic, institutional, and cultural. Externally, Russia’s development partly depend on its acceptance by the outside world, and it is imperative that Moscow continue to explain its objectives and the means of achieving them. With a clear vision and a confident moral authority, Russia is less likely to rely on coercion and tough talk in defending its interests abroad.

Soft Power Competition

When Joseph Nye introduced the concept of soft power, he meant to highlight growing prominence of American values and the importance of sharing them for economic and political success in the increasingly global world. To Nye, soft power meant the ability to influence others by example that is through attraction and cooptation, not coercion or inducement. Because of its reliance on example, soft power operates in a non-zero sum fashion by encouraging cooperation, and discouraging competition among states. In addition, it has the ability to speak to people and societies, rather than to governments and elites.

Today this liberal perspective on what the world is and how it ought to function is fundamentally challenged by events. Instead of the increased and U.S.-defined policy convergence, new cleavages and divergences emerged in the world. The world of globalization brought new poverty and socio-economic divisions. It reactivated arms races and created new areas of violence and lawlessness. And it enacted new and intensified some old processes of cultural reformulations and ethnic nationalism. Instead of relying on protection and welfare of the U.S. hegemony, nations often seek refuge in reformulating their interests to better protect their societies and re-adjust to their regional environments. Structurally, we still live in the familiar world of American promacy with the U.S. military predominance and global superiority in political, economic and cultural dimensions. However, dynamically the world is moving away from its U.S.-centeredness and is entering the uncharted water of what Fareed Zakaria called the post-American world. In sum, the new developments challenge the familiar world of globalization by revealing its competitive side.

With respect to soft power, the competitive side of globalization reveals that such power is of non-zero sum nature only to those willing to submit to the U.S.-defined policy direction. Others with distinct cultural values and foreign policy interests increasingly develop and promote soft power of their own. This is reflected in development of international relations theory across nations and evident in state policy. International relations theory is moving away from its universal pretensions, as Chinese, Russians, and others engage in discussing “national schools” and traditions of geopolitics and international relations. Europeans promote good governance, Chinese champion ideas of “global harmony” and regional hegemony, and Russian thinkers advocate sovereignty in international affairs. Among others, Russia feels threatened by democratization and regime changes in the Middle East, to which the Kremlin responds by promoting Russia-specific political and economic values. Even though Nye recently criticised China and Russia for not appreciating the non zero-sum and the non state nature of soft power by comparing their soft power projects with government propaganda, both nations continue to believe in balancing against the U.S. values. They remain skeptical of the liberal cooperation recommendations in the inherently hierarchical world especially given Nye’s own argument that soft power “is not just a matter of ephemeral popularity; it is a means of obtaining outcomes the United States wants.”

Who gets to be successful in building and applying soft power? Soft power expresses the overall national success in achieving sustainable economic growth, political stability, and cultural developments. The size of soft power is proportionate to state ability to achieve their international goals. The larger the national soft power is, the less likely its leaders are to rely on other tools of international statecraft in their foreign policy. On the other hand, in the hierarchical and competitive environment the relatively small size of national soft power will encourage states to rely on elements of hard power including military force, economic sanctions, and political intimidation. In addition to the soft power size, the success in using it is also a function of strategy and creativity. Even a relatively small soft power may be successfully exploited if a creative and committed leadership is in place.

Russia’s Offering

Russia’s soft power is strong and limited at the same time. Historically, Russia has been guided by Christian ideals, trans-ethnic imperial principles, and the model of strong state (derzhava) in domestic and international affairs. Soviet ideology transformed the national values by replacing Christianity and autocracy with beliefs in communism and single party rule. Today’s system of values is still in the process of being formed, but it is increasingly based on reviving pre-Soviet, rather than Soviet, Russian ideas. These values have had a strong appeal in Eurasia. In process of building their empire, Russians relied not only on coercion, but cooptation and co-existence with others. Not only Slavs, but many Muslims too were willing to submit to the empire’s general direction. Since Catherine the Great, the Russian empire developed special ties with Islam and the state even served as arbitrator in disputes between Muslims from the Volga River to Central Asia.

At the same time, Russia’s soft power appeal is limited in several respects. First, with the exception of the brief Soviet period, Russian values were geographically local, not universal, and were based on Eastern Christian ideals predominantly popular in Eurasian and East European regions. After the fall of Byzantium in the 15th century, Russia emerged as the center of the Eastern Christianity and fought multiple wars with the Ottoman Empire to defend Orthodox Christians in the Crimea and the Balkans. Second, since the rise of Western powers, Russian economic performance was more commonly that of semi-periphery rather than core of the international system. Moscow had to play the game of catching up and its ability to attract others suffered in process. Third, being a vast continental empire Russia faced multiple challenges to its security and had to apply hard, rather than soft, power tools to defend its borders.

After the Soviet disintegration, Russia’s soft power suffered setbacks during the instability of the 1990s, but quickly recovered in the 2000s by manifesting itself in the areas of cultural values, economic interdependence, and political legitimacy in Eurasia. In the cultural sphere Russian soft power continues to stem from shared history and institutions. The new post-Soviet states shared external borders, fought the same enemies, and were subject to similar linguistic and cultural policies. Although the Baltics were independent during the interwar years and preserved a sense of national identity even while a part of the Soviet empire, other republics’ experience with statehood was too short and fragmented to develop a sufficiently strong sense of cultural distinctiveness. Russian was the common second language in non-Russian republics and the mother tongue of many professionals and politicians. Today it remains the common language uniting the former republics. The bonds across republics are strongest among people and elites, many of whom were educated in the same universities, worked in the same institutions, and served together in the Soviet army.

Economically, Russian soft power stems from the fact that the republics were linked together in what Soviet planners called a “single economic complex” that was anchored by Russia. The republics were directed by Moscow to trade primarily with one another, rather than with countries outside the USSR. International trade and investment networks from the Soviet era continue to facilitate commerce by keeping transaction costs low. After the breakup, Russia has been slow to withdraw its energy subsidies for the former Soviet states, and all of them have taken advantage of this discount. Transit states, such as Baltics, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus, profited handsomely by reselling considerable portions of Russian supplies to European consumers at the world market price. Today, millions of labor migrants from the poorer republics—Moldova, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, for example—earn a living in Russia because there are not enough jobs at home.

In the political realm, Russia has served as a state-building example in the region. Although it is in no position to offer a global competition to the United States’ liberal democratic ideas, Russia has been perceived by many in the region as generally successful in accomplishing other state-building tasks, such as providing citizens with order, basic social services and protection against external threats. Russia’s system of “managed democracy” is routingly criticized in the West as disrespectlful of human rights, yet it is viewed differently outside the Western hemisphere. Ordinary people and many politicians from Central Asia to Ukraine often rate Russia’s current leaders higher than their own. In 2011, a Gallup poll revealed that 61% of those living in the former Soviet region approve of Russia’s leadership performance, whereas the worldwide median approval of it across 104 countries was only 27%. Even outside the region, the influence of Russia’s state-building experience is considerable. In 2008, the report by the European Council on Foreign Relations noted rise in Russia’s ability to attract votes at the United Nations since the late 1990s from around 50% to 76% today, while support for the EU and US fell from over 70% and 75% to around 50% and a mere 30%, respectively.

Externally, Russia has been attractive to others because Moscow often used its dominant resources in ways that benefit the near abroad. The disappearance of the Soviet Union created a security vacuum and the contributed to several violent conflicts in the Russian periphery. Russia’s neighbors, especially those in Central Asia and the Caucasus, called for Russian assistance because there was no other entity with the ability and the willingness to intervene. With the exception of the military conflict with Georgia in August 2008, Russia sought to play a diplomatic role in the region through multilateral security organizations, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In process of doing so, Russia also acted to further its own interests including preservation of stability on its borders, economic opportunities, and ties with ethnic Russians living in neighboring states.

Competing Visions

Russia’s soft power in Eurasia has been challenged from various geographic directions. Western politicians frequently accused Moscow of “imperialism” by seeking to replace Russia’s soft power with one of their own. The U.S.-based ideas of democratization and the EU-generated project of “good neighborhood” have acted as potential constraints on Moscow’s soft power reach. China too has played an important role by influencing the region via the SCO and commercial expansion in the region. The global financial crisis made China’s economic influence on the region especially pronounced. China’s trade with Central Asia exceeded that of Russia and Beijing is increasingly successful in tapping into energy reserves and winning new contracts in the region. Finally, the two core Muslim states– Iran and Turkey –influenced the areas around the Caspean Sea and the Black Sea, respectively. Each of them has tried to capitalize on their Shia and Sunni cultural capital and status of a hub for energy pipelines connecting Eurasia, Middle East and Europe.

In response to these developments, Moscow has begun to advocate the vision of Russia as a civilization in the world of competitive cultural visions. In 2008, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has became the first official to argue that “competition is becoming truly global and acquiring a civilizational dimension; that is, the subject of competition now includes values and development models.” Since his election campaign, Vladimir Putin too has adopted the discourse of Russia’s distinctiveness and national values. In his meeting with Russia’s ambassadors he called to actively influence international relations by relying on tools of lobbyism and soft power. In his 2012 address to Russia’s parliament, Putin’s spoke of new demographic and moral threats that must be overcome if the nation is to “preserve and reproduce itself.” He further stated that “In the 21st century amid a new balance of economic, civilisational and military forces Russia must be a sovereign and influential country… We must be and remain Russia.”

Moscow’s civilizational idea is not necessarily anti-Western even though Russia feels threatened by its human rights rhetoric and is concerned with the West’s international policies. Such interpretation of Russia’s civilizational turn is premature because the Kremlin is yet to deviate from the standard line of preserving strong relations with Europe and the United States in a global world. Importantly, the recent Foreign Policy Concept signed by Putin into law in February 2013 describes the world in terms of “rivalry of values and development models within the framework of the universal principles of democracy and the market economy.” Faced with external competition, the Kremlin is preoccupied with reviving internal foundations for Russia’s soft power appeal. By adopting the language of a distinct civilization, the Kremlin is trying to articulate a system of internal values as the latent element of soft power. Regionally and internally, Russia is threatened by the fear of radicalized and militant Islam. The destabilization of the Middle East and the uncontrolled flow of migrants of non-Slavic nationalities threatened Russia’s internal peace with rising terrorist violence in the Caucasus and inter-ethnic riots across the country. The internal significance of the new civilization language is reflected in the new official nationalities strategy until 2025 signed by Putin in December 2012, which re-introduced Russia as a “unique socio-cultural civilizational entity formed of the multi-people Russian nation.”

In addition to these ideological trends, Moscow has established an infrastructure to influence formation of Russia’s image in the world. The Russia Today television network is now the third after BBC News and Sky News in terms of the amount of watchers. Several state-supported foundations and the Russian Orthodox Church have been actively promoting linguistic and spiritual relations to Russia across the post-Soviet region. More recently, the Kremlin instituted Rossotrudichestvo (Russian cooperation) as the organization through which to connect to those with ties to Russia in Eurasia by distributing foreign aid and creating “optimal conditions for promoting Russian business, science, education, and culture.” The organization’s annual budget is planned to grow from 62.5 to 297 million dollars.

The Limited Success in Eurasia

Russia’s record of influence in the former Soviet region has been that of steady growth relative to the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s. Despite energy conflicts with Ukraine and the use of force against Georgia in August 2008, Moscow views regional dominance in terms of soft power, rather than direct control over its neighbors' domestic and international priorities. By capitilizing on its soft power, Russia has been able to offset competitive influences and even initiate regional integration under its leadership. Other powerful states have revealed their limited interest or ability to concentrate on influencing Eurasia. The United States is beginning to recognize its over-extension in the world. The European Union remains heavily affected by the global economic crisis. China’s Eurasia reach is also limited given Beijing’s relatively peripheral geographic location as well as lacking energy reserves and cultural capital. Iran and Turkey’s ambitions in the Eurasian region are limited by competition for influence in the larger Middle Eastern region.

This leaves Russia as a critically important power. Thanks to high oil prices, Moscow strengthened its presence in neighboring economies and contributed to reversing the colored revolutions in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Georgia, which the Kremlin viewed as dangerous for Russia and destabilizing for the larger region. In all these countries, anti-Kremlin governments were replaced by those in favor of stronger ties with Russia. Following a change in government, Russia negotiated new terms for its influence. In Ukraine, Moscow negotiated extension of the lease on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and invited Kiev to join the Russia-influenced Customs Union, promising a major discount for gas prices. While the former deal meant to close NATO’s door for Ukraine, the purpose of the latter was to keep Ukraine within the area of Russia’s economic influence. In May 2013, Ukraine joined the Customs Union as an associate member. In Kyrgyzstan, Russia sought to bring to power a pro-Russian coalition and establish a political system with a strong central authority. Even in Georgia, the Kremlin is now finding a way to influence events without relying on force – by developing ties with members of Georgian elite critical of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

More recently, Russia has begun to promote regional integration in Eurasia. In 2010, it initiated establishment of the Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. In 2011, following the idea of strengthening ties with neigbors, Putin proposed to build a new Eurasian Union among the CIS states. Putin emphasized an open nature of the proposed union and laid out economic incentives from joining it, including increase in trade, common modernization projects, and improved standards of living. Expected to be completed by 2015, the new arrangement is proposed with an eye on the European Union, on the one hand, and China, on the other. It is also a response to domestic critics of Russia’s foreign policy, who attacked the government for lacking a “civilizational mission” or an “image of a future.” In addition to considerations of economic development and balance of power, Russia’s emphases on building the Eurasian Union is shaped by the new vision of Russia as a distinct civilization.

Russia’s success in Eurasia has been limited by weaknesses of its economy and cultural values, as well as external factors. The global economic crisis has revealed the tenuous nature of Russia’s regional influence and the remaining weaknesses of its soft power base. With GDP felling by around 8% in 2009, Russia was hit hard and had to spend a considerable portion of its reserves to bail out domestic enterprises and to scale down its activist foreign policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus. In terms of its cultural values, Russia remains divided between supporters of a strong state development model and those favoring European path. Externally, Russia’s use of soft power is limited by lack of trust in relations with Western countries. Lack of progress with solving issues such as missile-defense system in Europe or coordination of policies toward Afghanistan, Syria, or the former Soviet states may encourage the Kremlin to strengthen the hard, rather than soft, components of its power thereby presenting the states of Eurasia with difficult choices. The elites in the newly independent states are not infrequently unhappy with Moscow’s lack of sensitivity toward their interests even as they remain attracted to Russia and suspicious regarding other powers in the region. For example, in order to balance against Russia’s power, Central Asian states often seek to strengthen their ties with China and the United States. In June 2012, Uzbekistan went as far as to withdraw its membership in the CSTO – in part to signal its dissatisfaction with Russia.

Disconnect with the West

Russia’s relations with the Western nations are paradoxical. The United States and Europe view Russia as an important power and recognize its infuence in Eurasia and non-Western international coalitions, such as the SCO and BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). In recognition of Russia’s importance, Western powers tried to involve it in projects of mutual significance. The United States attempted to “reset” relations with Moscow under Dmitri Medvedev and is trying to preserve the momentum since Putin’s return to presidency. In particular, the Barak Obama’s administration has worked to reach understanding with the Kremlin on issues of nuclear arms control, Middle East, and counter-terrorism. More recently, the U.S.-Russia relations have survived two crises associated with the U.S. Congress passing Magnitsky Act and Russia refusing to extradite the fugitive former CIA analyst Edward Snowden. In the former case, several Russian officials presumed responsible for human rights violations were denied visas to the United States and their assets were frozen. In the latter case, Russia refused to extradite Snowden even after the Department of State threatened the Kremlin with “serious consequences” and hinted that the U.S.-Russia summit in Moscow scheduled for September may be cancelled. Relationships with Europe have been growing since the establishment of the coalition against the war in Iraq and Russia’s recovery as a leading energy supplier. The relationships have survived Russia’s heavy-handed approach in Chechnya, energy wars with Ukraine, and the August 2008 crisis in the Caucasus.

Despite this recognition of Russia’s importance, it tends to be perceived in Western countries as threatening and disrespectful of existing international rules. The elites and political experts mistrust the Kremlin’s intentions by frequently presenting Russia’s domestic and international policies as hostile and anti-Western. They are especially concerned by the Kremlin’s warning against external interference with Russia’s domestic developments and steps to restrict activities of Western NGOs and radical opposition inside the country. In addition, there are many who deny Russia its relevance as a significant international power and who are convinced that the country is fundamentally weakened by the competition of rival clans within the Kremlin. For example, Vice-President Joseph Biden questioned need for the United States to take Russia into a serious consideration. "The reality is, the Russians are where they are," Biden said in the midst of the global financial crisis. "They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they're in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable." Global mass perceptions of Russia too are not encouraging. According to Pew Research Global Attitude Project conducted in 27 countries, during 2007-2012 the number of people viewing Russia favorably decreased in 17 countries and increased in only three.

Aware of the problem, the Kremlin has hired PR agencies in the West, funded radio and TV programs with pro-Russian news coverage, and established organizations and rating agencies to combat the negative perception of Russia. In 2012, Putin ordered the government to improve Russia’s ranking in the World Bank’s Doing Business Index from 120th in 2011 to 20th by 2018. In 2013 Russia hired the U.S. banking company Goldman Sachs to strengthen the image of the country’s investment potential abroad.

Changing the perception of Russia and the Kremlin as unfriendly for business, disrespectful of political opposition, and engaged in energy blackmail against neighbors is going to be challenging, however. As a semi-peripheral country with ambitions to preserve a great power status and distinct cultural values, Russia is bound to continue to have difficulties convincing the West of being its part. Historically, Russians have not defined their system of values as anti-Western and, indeed, viewed the West’s recognition as a critical component of such a system. But the distinctiveness of Russian values and interest require a large capital of trust to make the relationship with Russia work – the capital that the two sides lack. They have had multiple examples of cooperation but more frequently in response to a common security threat than during times of peace. The weakness of soft power based on economic interdependence or attraction toward each other’s political values made it easier for Russia and the West to turn away from promising cooperation projects each time they found the other side’s actions to be disrespectful. This is especially true of the United States and Europe that view their institutions as “democratic” and therefore superior to those of “authoritarian” Russia.

The Future of Soft Power

In the next ten to fifteen years, Russia is likely to continue to experience difficulties with developing its soft power and using it in foreign policy. The Kremlin will do well to appreciate the limitations of Russia’s soft power in Eurasia and, especially, in the West. A realistic response from Moscow should address both supply and demand side of its soft power strategy. In the globally inter-connected world, the two sides are dependent on each other: development of domestic economy and cultural values depend on the outside world’s benevolent reaction, just as projection of a favorable image abroad requires domestic successes.

In the regional context, this means that a successful and mutually beneficial development of the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan union will undoubtedly become a source of improving Russia’s soft power. On the other hand, Russia remains internally constrained in building the Eurasian Union. Attempts to expand it by including new members such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan may require large subsidies on part of Russia thereby undermining, rather than strengthening, its soft power and future benefits from mutual cooperation.

In the context of relations with the Western nations, realism requires that Russia’s PR strategy and efforts to promote a favorable image abroad not come at the expense of developing its economy and internal values. The bottom line is that many political and business circles in the West will remain skeptical of Russia until it demonstrates the ability to generate consistenly high indicators of growth and development. The two sides’ differences in values and interests are not going to disappear and may only be narrowed gradually. Russia’s image-making strategy should target those constituencies in the West that are more inclined to view Russia favorably. It would be useless to try to win over those inherently skeptical by inviting them to various Kremlin-funded forums and conferences. Instead, the targeted audience should include those potentially interested to invest in Russia, cooperate on issues of global security, and benefit from Russia’s contribution to world culture. By their position and values, these groups are less likely to be driven by negative stereotypes, and more by Russia’s soft power.

For the Western countries, Russia’s soft power invites dialogue and possibilities for cooperation. Russia’s distinct values and interests do not make the country an enemy of the West. However, such distinctiveness produces the irony: the more the Western politicians expect the Kremlin to comply with their standards and institutions, the less likely Russia is to accept them at home and abroad. Instead of lecturing Russia on the virtues of democracy or single-mindedly promoting American and Western values and interests in the world, the Western governments would therefore do well to assess which parts of Russian and Western soft power are compatible. Just as many neighbors of Russia are comfortable with it, the West too can learn to benefit from Russia’s soft power by channeling it in a favored direction. Such approach will require patience, sensitivity, and sustained engagement. Over time, it may help to empower Russian moderates thereby improving relations with Moscow.

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