Soft power – broadly a country’s ability to persuade other nations to cooperate without recourse to force – has long been a tool of Western foreign policy, but in recent years Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has introduced his own much less benign variant of the initiative.
The term entered into common usage among Russia-focused journalists and academics in the mid-2000s, when Putin started to entreat Russian business and civil society to foster closer relations with other former Soviet republics, in order to create a sense of unity among Russian-speaking people. However, whereas Britain has wielded soft power through its prestigious educational institutions, the media, and the ubiquity of the English language, Russia’s approach has been more coercive and strictly managed by the state. The aim of the Russian policy is cultural infiltration rather than cultural cooperation.
Several historical and current strands of the Russian culture have been melded together to create a multifaceted approach to soft power politics. The notion of Russia as the Third Rome, an idea that first appeared in the 16th century, has re-emerged as a counterweight to what Kremlin propagandists describe as the “moral decline of the West”.
To this end, the Russian Orthodox Church has emerged as an important agent in legitimising Russia’s expansionism by extolling the Russian national myth and acting as the guardian of Slavic values. As recently as June 2015 Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, told the Ukrainian faithful they were not obliged to obey the “godless” Ukrainian authorities and, purportedly for humanitarian reasons, tried to play a significant role in “mediating” the armed conflict in the Donbass.
Simultaneously, state-sponsored mouthpieces and “troll farms” have pushed the Russian world view across all media platforms. On the London Underground, Russia Today advertisements implore commuters to get “a second opinion” by tuning into the government-funded television network. Meanwhile state-sponsored hackers periodically launch attacks on opposition websites and those of former Soviet states in order to discredit them. In 2007, for example, a cyber-attack against Estonia targeting government, university, bank, and newspaper websites was an attempt to demonstrate that the country was unable to control its own cyberspace.
This approach, bearing little resemblance to traditional methods of soft power, seeks to undermine the credibility of and general support for Western organisations such as Nato and the EU. Chipping away at both furnishes Russia with more opportunities to create disharmony. To help achieve this goal, Russian lobbyists have courted several far-right parties such as Jobbik in Hungary, Austria’s Freedom Party and Ataka, a Bulgarian neo-Nazi party, which have subsequently spoken favourably about Russia and Putin.
Closer to home, Russia exerts its own brand of soft power even more overtly. Through the policy of “passportisation” in the 2000s it became easy for Ukrainians, Georgians and citizens of the Baltic States to obtain Russian passports and subsequently visa-free travel. This, in turn, skewed population statistics and provided an explanation for subsequent aggressive military actions in Crimea and South Ossetia, which were ostensibly carried out in the name of protecting Russian citizens.
More recently, one of the reasons Putin has sought to bind the CIS together in a Eurasian Union is to foster interdependency among the former Soviet states and create a political pole to rival the US and the EU. By stressing Russia’s Eurasian qualities, Putin seeks to exploit cultural commonality to keep Central Asia and the South Caucasus within the Russian sphere of influence.
Ultimately, Russian soft power is better defined by the post-Soviet term “political technology”, which describes the dark arts used to manage public perceptions, similar to Western spin. Although relatively crude, this technique appears to have had some success in sowing enough doubt in the minds of many Russians and receptive international audiences to make them question the narrative presented by the West, and in turn embrace Putin’s view of world.
Septimus Knox is an analyst at Alaco. Alaco Dispatches is the business intelligence consultancy’s take on events and developments shaping the CIS region.