The stark contrast between Western and Russian understanding of “soft power” has become evident during President Vladimir Putin’s third presidency. For the Kremlin, “soft power” is part of its arsenal of foreign policy tools designed to re-integrate Russia’s neighbors around a Moscow orbit.
Western “soft power” influences are therefore viewed as a form of geostrategic competition that must be curtailed and eventually eliminated. As a result, in recent months Moscow has mounted a campaign to sever links between Russian NGOs and Western institutions and is encouraging its neighbors to do likewise.
Simultaneously to its anti-Western offensive, Moscow deploys its own “soft power” weaponry to achieve specific regional integrationist ambitions. These have ranged from diplomatic offensives and informational warfare to energy blackmail and the exploitation of ethnic disputes. President Putin is also injecting a new form of “soft power” pressure by pursuing claims that Russian culture, language, history, and values should all predominate among the post-Soviet states.
SOFT POWER BATTLEGROUND
In Moscow’s calculations, Russia and the West are embroiled in a long-term competition over zones of dominance in the wider Europe and in Central Asia, despite the fact that the US and its European allies have refused to acknowledge or legitimize such a “great game.” Russia’s drive for its own sphere in a "multipolar" world contributes to retarding the formation of stable democratic states along its borders. Governments in these countries turn to authoritarianism to maintain the integrity and stability of the state or simply to cling to power. Such a process is invariably supported by Moscow as it contributes to disqualifying these countries from the process of Western integration.
Moscow opposes any “encroachment” by outside powers in its self-proclaimed “privileged” zone of interests or the further expansion of NATO, EU, and US influence. Russia views itself as a regional integrator, expecting neighbors to coalesce around its leadership, rather than a country to be integrated in multi-national institutions in which its own sovereignty is diminished. In this context, Russian “soft power” in all its manifestations is understood as a means for supplementing Russia’s foreign policy objectives and enhancing regional integration under Moscow’s tutelage.
In marked contrast, the West’s “soft power” approach is intended to generate reform, internal stability, external security, democratic development, and open markets to make targeted states compatible with Western systems and institutions. In the case of the EU, the prospect of membership itself has been the primary “soft power” tool as it entices governments to meet the necessary legal, economic, and regulatory standards to qualify for Union accession. However, EU or NATO membership remain voluntary and are not pressured by inducements and threats, as is the case with Moscow-centered organizations. While the West promotes the pooling of sovereignty among independent states, Russia pushes for the surrender of sovereignty within assorted “Eurasian” organizations.
To advance its strategic goals, the Kremlin needs to demonstrate that it is in competition with the West and that Washington and Brussels are seeking to impose their political structures and value system on the gullible Eurasian countries. This is a classic form of psycho-political projection, with Russia’s leaders acting as if Western objectives were similar to their own in undermining national independence and eliminating countervailing foreign influences.
Putin launched a blistering attack on Western “soft power” in an article in Moskovskiye Novosti (Moscow News) in February 2012. He claimed that this weapon was being increasingly used as a means for achieving foreign policy goals without the use of force, but by exerting informational and other levers of influence. According to Putin, Western "soft power" is deployed to “develop and provoke extremist, separatist, and nationalistic attitudes, to manipulate the public and to conduct direct interference in the domestic policy of sovereign countries.” Evidently, for the Kremlin, democratic pluralism is a form of extremism, national independence is a form of separatism, and state sovereignty is a form of nationalism.
Putin contends that there must be a clear division between “normal political activity” and “illegal instruments of soft power." Hence, he engages in scathing attacks on "pseudo-NGOs" inside Russia and among the post-Soviet neighbors that receive resources from Western governments and institutions, viewing this as a form of subversion. In reality, the Kremlin is envious that Western values are often more appealing to educated and ambitious segments of the population than traditional Russian values.
The global human rights agenda is berated by Putin as a Western plot, because the US and other Western states allegedly politicize human rights and use them as a means for exerting pressure on Russia and its neighbors. Human rights campaigns are depicted as a powerful form of “soft power” diplomacy intended to discredit governments that are more easily influenced by Moscow. Russia supposedly offers a legitimate political alternative to these countries - a quasi- authoritarian “sovereign democracy” and a statist-capitalist form of economic development. “Sovereign democracy” is presented as a viable option to the alleged Western export of democratic revolutions. Russia’s support for strong-arm governments is intended to entice these countries under its political and security umbrella and delegitimize the West for its criticisms of autocratic politics.
MOSCOW’S SOFT POWER INSTRUMENTS
In Putin’s version of “soft power," an assortment of tools can be deployed to achieve strategic goals. These include culture, education, media, language, minority protection, Christian Orthodoxy, pan-Slavism, and Russo-focused assimilation. All these elements can supplement institutional instruments, economic incentives, energy dependence, military threats, and the political pressures applied by the Kremlin.
In a landmark article on 23 January 2012 in Nezavisimaya Gazeta (The Independent Newspaper) Putin promoted his plan for uniting Russia’s multi-ethnic society and stressed the central importance of Russian culture for all former Soviet states. In sum, for Eastern Slavs Russia is supposed to be the model “older brother,” while for non-Slavs it is evidently the enlightened “father figure.” The stress is on uniting various ethnic communities in the Russian Federation and former USSR under the banner of Russian culture and values. Putin criticizes multiculturalism as a destabilizing force and instead supports integration through assimilation, a veiled term for Russification.
According to Putin, Russian people and culture are the binding fabric of this “unique civilization.” He extolls the virtues of "cultural dominance," where Russia is depicted as a “poly-ethnic civilization” held together by a Russian “cultural core.” The President notes with satisfaction that many former citizens of the Soviet Union, “who found themselves abroad, are calling themselves Russian, regardless of their ethnicity.” Russian people are evidently “nation-forming” as the “great mission of Russians is to unite and bind civilization” through language and culture. According to such ethno-racist thinking, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Georgians, and other nationalities simply do not match the historical importance of the Great Russian nation.
For Putin, the Russian state has a key role to play in “forming a worldview that binds the nation.” He has called for enhancing education, language use, and national history to buttress Russia’s tradition of cultural dominance and lists numerous tools for promoting Russian culture, including television, cinema, the Internet, social media, and popular culture. All these outlets must evidently shape public opinion and set behavioral norms.
An additional important “soft power” instrument for the Kremlin is the campaign to defend human and minority rights in neighboring states - a ploy designed to increase Moscow’s political leverage. Russian leaders claim the inalienable right to defend their compatriots abroad regardless of their status and citizenship. This has involved promoting Russian as a second state language or a regional language in all former Soviet republics, including Ukraine and the Baltic countries.
Issuing passports to citizens of neighboring states has been a favored way of developing pro-Russian sectors of the population, influencing local politics, and providing a potential pretext for intervention in case of internal conflict. Some observers have dubbed the policy as “re-occupation through passportization.” Georgia is believed to have about 179,000 Russian passport holders, the Transnistria enclave in Moldova about 100,000, Azerbaijan 160,000, Armenia 114,00, and up to 100,000 reside in Ukraine’s Crimea out of approximately half a million Russian citizens in Ukraine.
In September 2008, the Federal Agency for CIS Affairs, attached to the Russian foreign ministry and answerable directly to the President, began its operations. It was designed to project Russia’s soft security tools toward former satellites and to assist Russian citizens in neighboring countries, thereby indicating more systematic intervention by Moscow. Other organizations, such as the Institute of CIS Countries, have been created to channel funds to Moscow-friendly political parties and NGOs in the region. Russian media supportive of the Kremlin is also beamed throughout the CIS or has established joint ventures with local media.
In Putin's estimation, Moscow must expand Russia's educational and cultural presence in the world, especially in those countries where a substantial part of the population understands Russian. Support for compatriots and Russian culture abroad involves expanding the rights of co-ethnics and co-linguists in all nearby states so they gain increasing political influence. Hence, we have witnessed persistent attacks on Latvian and Estonian authorities for supposedly abusing the Russian minority as both countries have linguistic stipulations for citizenship. Meanwhile, a high percentage of post-World War Two Russian colonists view their language as superior and have not made sufficient effort to learn Estonian or Latvian.
CONFLICTING STRATEGIC OBJECTIVES
In assessing the context of “soft power” projection, analysts often overlook some important differences between American and Russian spheres of influence. In order to grasp Moscow’s objectives and understand how its “soft power” instruments fit into grand strategy it is useful to consider four significant contrasts with Washington's approach.
First, US administrations accept the right of each state to choose its alliances, while Russian officials endeavor to impose security arrangements on neighbors. Countries enter the Western sphere and the NATO alliance voluntarily as this contributes to their security and is not seen as a threat to their sovereignty. States invariably join the Russian sphere as a result of inducement, threat, or outright pressure. Oftentimes, there are no viable alternatives to the Russian-centered alliance because of energy dependence, trade links, and other forms of entrapment. Governments seek to avoid potential destabilization from Moscow by partially acquiescing to Kremlin demands. Nonetheless, disputes continue to simmer as various capitals from Belarus to Uzbekistan resist surrendering the most important elements of their sovereignty to Russia.
Second, NATO and the EU have not created spheres of influence orbiting around one power center but voluntary alliances operating on a consensual basis and in the case of the EU pooling elements of their sovereignty. By contrast, Russia has developed a post-Soviet version of the Brezhnev doctrine, whereby countries within Russian-sponsored institutions have serious limitations on their sovereignty, particularly in their foreign policy and security orientations.
Third, while the US promotes cordial relations between its own allies and Russia, Moscow remains fixated on its own primacy or exclusivity. For instance, Washington supports closer bilateral relations between Poland or other Central-East European countries and Russia as it believes this generates regional stability and lessens the need for U.S. security guarantees. In stark contrast, the Kremlin does not support closer relations between Ukraine or the CIS states and the US, calculating that this deprives Moscow of its political leverage, undermines its privileged interests, and could be the harbinger of a political and military alliance.
Fourth, the Kremlin actually promotes conflicts between its allies and the US to weaken America’s influence or seeks to capitalize on disputes between Washington and third parties. For example, Moscow has endeavored to buttress the Hugo Chavez government in Venezuela into a more assertive regional player in Latin America that can create security headaches for the US. By contrast, Washington actively discourages disputes between Moscow and its former satellites. Moreover, it is not obsessed with alleged Russian encirclement when Moscow sends military vessels to Cuba or Venezuela. However, when a U.S ship sails into the Black Sea or Washington sells military equipment to Georgia, the Kremlin claims that Washington is launching a new Cold War.
For Russian officials, alliances and partnerships are in themselves zero sum calculations in a constant struggle for influence and advantage with the United States. “Soft power” is thereby understood by Moscow as an arm of Russian state influence and a valuable tactical tool employed to achieve specific geostrategic ambitions.
Janusz Bugajski is a policy analyst, writer, lecturer, and television host based in the United States, and the author of 18 books on Europe, Russia, and trans-Atlantic relations