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.”
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Igor Torbakov is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Uppsala University, Sweden.