In the post-Soviet age, Russia has relied on military muscle and energy dominance to help it achieve its foreign policy goals. Soft power, meanwhile, is something that has always been missing from Moscow’s diplomatic arsenal. But Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin’s resident macho man, now seems intent on putting a kinder, gentler face on Russia.
Since the Soviet collapse, Russian diplomacy has largely ignored soft power as a diplomatic tool. When last year at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Hawaii, journalists asked a high-ranking Russian official to define the components of Russia’s “soft power,” they received a blunt, enlightening reply; “Why talk about something that doesn’t exist?” blurted the Russian representative.
Russian diplomats have a lot of levers they could pull, if they made more efficient use of their resources. The Russian language, for example, remains a major means of communication in former Soviet republics, and many youths in the Caucasus and Central Asia feel the pull of Russian pop culture. The Russian Orthodox Church also exerts some spiritual influence in the “near abroad.”
What Russia has always lacked is the means to refine these advantages in ways that can win the hearts and minds of foreigners. Russia habitually has displayed a lack of tact, empathy and a nuanced understanding of its smaller neighbors’ needs, complexes and fears.
The soft-power initiatives that have been developed so far during the Putin era haven’t been so effective. For example, an English-language Kremlin mouthpiece, the Russia Today channel, is widely perceived as Pravda 2.0, offering the same old jargon with a hipper design.
Change may be in the wind, however. Recent Russian efforts to revamp the government agency in charge of the affairs of the Commonwealth of Independent States, along with an initiative to intellectually beef up the State Duma’s Committee on the CIS Affairs, suggests that the Kremlin is hoping to turn over a new leaf.
Russia’s push to improve its soft-power capabilities appears to be motivated by three factors. For one, it has not escaped Russian authorities’ attention how social networks, the blogosphere and other means of mass communication pose a threat to the authoritarian political model. In some cases, these new communications tools have played a central role in toppling authoritarian regimes, most notably in Tunisia and Egypt.
The second factor has to do with the stirring of political opposition in Russia itself, presenting the threat of a color revolution coming to Red Square. And lastly, Putin seems determined to press ahead with a plan to establish a Eurasian Union -- an economic body seemingly designed to enhance Russian influence in Central Asia -- even though there is tepid enthusiasm at best for the project in the region.
The appointment in March of veteran policymaker Konstantin Kosachev as the new head of Rossotrudnichestvo (the Federal Agency on the CIS Affairs, Compatriots, and International Humanitarian Cooperation), highlights a Kremlin desire to use soft-power to win support in Central Asia for the Eurasian Union. Kosachev, formerly the chairman of the State Duma’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, is known as an ambitious and influential politician. And he has already announced an intention to turn Rossotrudnichestvo into the Russian analogue of USAID.
In a lengthy interview with the political weekly Vlast, Kosachev forcefully advocated broadening his agency’s brief. Its task, he argued, should go beyond working with compatriots, and include robust engagement of the economic and political elites in neighboring states.
It would seem that Kosachev envisions the revamped Rossotrudnichestvo as the state agency that would spearhead Russia’s Eurasian Union integration strategy. He was critical of past mistakes made in this delicate sphere, but said the lessons learned would help Russia move forward. “Thank God,” he added, “that the Eurasian Union project has started working for real and is now making progress at fast clip.”
Kosachev was also quick to say that a defensive function of Russia’s soft power potential is vitally important for achieving the Kremlin’s policy goals. Better use of soft power is needed to protect Russia’s image, amid geopolitical jockeying in Central Asia.
“The image of Russia, as the image of any other country, is a factor in the [diplomatic] competition struggle [in Central Asia],” he argued. “Russia’s image is being purposefully lowered [by our detractors] in order to weaken our competitive edge in the areas where Russia enjoys natural advantages.”
The change at the State Duma Committee on the CIS Affairs involves the creation of an “expert council” to help formulate strategies to “protect the interests of our country and those of our allies,” according to the committee’s deputy head, Oleg Lebedev. Council members will be drawn from some of Moscow’s top think-tanks, including the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, the Institute for the Study of the CIS, the Anti-terrorist Center of the CIS, and the Institute of Political and Social Studies of the Black Sea and Caspian Region. Some analysts have already dubbed the expert panel a “counter-revolutionary brain trust.”
There’s little doubt that Putin’s Kremlin wants to become more diplomatically nimble. The central question is whether Russian diplomacy is capable of loosening up in a way that can help the Kremlin overcome its reputation for high-handedness in the eyes of Central Asians.
In contemplating this question, however, the words of former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin come to mind: “We wanted the best result, but things turned out as usual.”
Given the rot at Russia’s core, evidenced by rampant corruption and unbridled rent-seeking among the country’s political elite, it’s going to be hard for Moscow to mount an effective PR offensive, some experts say. “As a petro-state run by greedy bureaucrats, Russia lacks a soft power capable of influencing not only its nearest neighbors, but also its own citizens,” said Vadim Kozyulin, an analyst with the Moscow-based PIR-Center, writing in the Kommersant daily.
Kozyulin noted that capital flight from Russia remains high, adding that many affluent Russians tend to prefer spending time abroad than at home, and, when in Russia, tend to cocoon themselves. “Who, then, is going to see Russia as a role model if Russians themselves are running away from it?” asked Kozyulin.
Igor Torbakov is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Uppsala University, Sweden.