Author: Andreia Soares e Castro

 In a globalizing world, it is not enough to have or to be an economic or military power. As Joseph S. Nye (2013) puts it: ‘if you can add the soft power of attraction to your tool kit, you can economize on carrots and sticks’, explaining why Russia seeks to leverage soft power. Coined by Nye in the late 1980’s, soft power is ‘the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion’ adding that ‘the soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority’.  Furthermore, Nye (2013) argues that ‘combining these resources is not always easy’.

The concept of soft power entered in Russia’s official 2013 Foreign Policy Concept. In its pre-election article on foreign policy ‘Russia and the Changing World’, Vladimir Putin (2012) observed that soft power ‘implies a matrix of tools and methods to reach foreign policy goals without the use of arms but by exerting information and other levers of influence’. There is a difference between the definitions offered by Nye and Putin. While Nye points out attractiveness as the key element of the notion of soft power, Putin views soft power as part of several ‘levers on influence’ Russia can use.

After his presidential inauguration in 2012, Vladimir Putin addressed Russian ambassadors and permanent representatives in international organizations and argued that ‘ soft power’ is all about promoting one’s interests and policies through persuasion and creating a positive perception of one’s country, based not just on its material achievements but also its spiritual and intellectual heritage. Russia’s image abroad is formed not by us and as a result it is often distorted and does not reflect the real situation in our country or Russia’s contribution to global civilization, science and culture’ (Putin 2012). Russia’s initial aim for exploiting its soft power was economic- to attract international investment in order to modernize the country and was framed as a need to improve its negative image abroad and establish stronger ties with Russian compatriots in other countries. More recently, the 2016 new Foreign Policy Concept establishes that ‘soft power has become an integral part of efforts to achieve foreign policy objectives. This primarily includes the tools offered by civil society, as well as various methods and technologies- from information and communication to humanitarian and other types (Russian Federation 2016). One of Russia’s foreign policy objectives is ‘to consolidate the Russian Federation’s position as a center of influence in today’s world (Russian Federation 2016). Other objectives are : ‘promote and consolidate the position of the Russian language in the world; raise global awareness of Russia’s cultural achievements and national historical legacy, cultural identity of the peoples of Russia and Russian education and research; consolidate the Russian-speaking diaspora; to bolster the standing of the Russian mass media and communication tools in the global information space and convey Russia’s perspective on international process to a wider international community’ (Russian Federation 2016). It is also important to point out other objectives, like ‘enhancing Putin’s domestic legitimacy by demonstrating Russia’s status as a global superpower, promoting specific Russian commercial, military, and energy interests.

To advance these objectives, Moscow counts on a wide collection of tools, including soft power ones, such as ‘diplomatic, military intelligence, cyber, trade, energy and financial tools to influence political systems, public attitudes, and elite decision-makers in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America’. President Vladimir Putin’s aim is to make Russia great again and to make the West respect Russia. Indeed, Russia sees itself as a major power with global reach. That is why it is looking to develop its presence in all corners of the globe to solidify its image as a world power. Underneath is Moscow’s desire for a multipolar international system in which it plays a more prominent role. Most importantly, Russia aims to increase its clout, refurbish its image and assert itself on key international issues where retreating Western power has created vacuums.

With a proud cultural legacy, Moscow has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in various soft power resources, like the state-controlled media outlets such as RT, Sputnik that promote a positive view of Russia to change Russia’s negative image in the world and counteract biased assessment: ‘Russia seeks to ensure that the world has an objective image of the country, develop its own effective ways to influence foreign audiences, promotes Russian and Russian-language media in the global information space, providing them with the necessary government support, is proactive in international information cooperation, and takes necessary steps to counter threats to its information security (Russian Federation 2016).

In today’s interconnected and globalized world, the dissemination of national narratives is very important. Victory depends on whose story wins.  Underneath is the power of soft power in promoting its national interests abroad and of effectively communicating a global narrative. Moscow has been using new opportunities in the digital domain to promote narratives conducive to Russian interests, be it through traditional and social media, educational, cultural, and entertainment programs or cyber-enabled information operations. Moreover, in countries with Russian-speaking populations, state-controlled Russian-language media, including pop culture and entertainment programs are powerful tools. To sum up, new technologies and information are key elements of Russia’s foreign policy toolbox.

While Russia came late to the soft power game, Russia made it an integral feature of the drive to restore Russia’s great power status, investing heavily to promote a positive image of the country abroad, However, Russian leaders have largely failed to develop soft power as an effective policy tool. Russian understanding of soft power strongly deviates from either the ‘classical’, Nye-based one or those suggested by other Western academics and practitioners, in which attraction to a country is the key to a country getting what it wants. Instead, ‘the Russian interpretation of soft power is instrumentalist, pragmatist and interest-centric. Moreover, Russia is often unable to use soft power in a coherent way, that is, ‘the need to match words and deeds in their policies, be self-critical and unleash the full talents of their civil societies’.

Russia’s ability to project its influence and ‘win hearts and minds’ on a global scale is constrained by serious domestic problems and challenges, as by Russia’s hard power image, which is why Russia has a long way to go in terms of effectively implementing its soft power. In other words, Russia’s soft power campaign is limited by the lack of coherence (and credibility) between the image that Russia aims to project and the country’s actions on the ground (domestically and abroad).

Finally, Russia makes the mistake of thinking that government is the main instrument of soft power. Actually, Russian soft power instruments are primarily government-based and controlled, disregarding that many soft power resources are outside the control of governments, and their effects depend heavily on acceptance by the receiving audiences. Moreover, Russia lacks the many non-governmental organizations that generate much of successful soft power countries.

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