Russia’s international communications efforts are based on the belief that the country doesn’t get enough credit abroad.

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Russia’s understanding of soft power has evolved greatly over the past decade. From a very technical acknowledgement of a need for foreign communications, it has morphed into a good grasp of the inherent connection between a country’s foreign policy and its attractiveness and authority. Yet, in Russia’s view, soft power still largely results from government actions and can thus be effectively managed by the state.

Attempting to improve its image abroad in order to strengthen its international standing is no new policy for Russia. Scholars and politicians sometimes trace it back to the earliest days of Russian statehood, in the ninth and 10th centuries, when leaders of a young Russian nation performed symbolic actions in order to be treated as equals by the Byzantine Empire or by other established powers. As most nations, Russia has been trying to accumulate soft power long before this eloquent term was coined by Harvard Professor Joseph Nye.

Over the past decade, Moscow has been more active in pursuing soft power than ever before. However, these attempts seem to yield little fruit where the actual perception of Russia beyond its borders is concerned.

The Cold War propaganda struggle was one of the toughest battles ever fought on the information front in history, and the Soviet Union won the hearts and minds of numerous developing peoples.

However, when the actual concept of soft power was formulated in 1990, Russia could not be less interested in it. In 1989, the Soviet leadership already felt that the Cold War was over and all the foreign policy tools the Soviet Union had been using to promote its international influence became irrelevant.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Soviet propaganda machine was dismantled and remained out of service throughout the 1990s. However, in the 2000s, when Russia once again felt the need to invest in its international standing, President Vladimir Putin began reformulating the country’s public diplomacy.

The driving principle behind Russia’s international communications is a belief, shared by most members of the political elite, that Russia is not appreciated enough internationally.

This idea has been surfacing time and again in interviews with Russian politicians, diplomats and experts for over a decade.

The two most popular explanations cited by the elite concern either an anti-Russian conspiracy theory or a lack of communication with the foreign public. But while the alleged anti-Russian conspiracy cannot be pinpointed and fought head on, Moscow did decide to revamp multiple of its international communication channels.

One of the steps in this direction was the renovation of RIA Novosti, a state-owned news agency that traces its history back to the Soviet Information Bureau established two days after the start of the Nazi invasion in 1941. Voice of Russia – an international radio station created back in 1929 – was also rescued from a lack of finance and general support it experienced in the 1990s.

Setting up a round-the-clock English language news network Russia Today (now RT, broadcasting also in Arabic and Spanish) in 2005 was an entirely new development, which showed that the national leadership was embracing changes in the global communication environment. As it accrued and developed its audience, the policy of the channel changed several times since it first began broadcasting.

At first, the channel attempted to do BBC-style, quality global journalism, with only a part of the news coming from Russia. Then it switched to a regional focus on the former Soviet Union, following the model of Al Jazeera, which dominates the global mediascape with news from the Muslim world. Finally, the channel developed a policy of broadcasting “alternative” news that escape major networks and contradict the mainstream.

In 2007 these projects were augmented with Russia Beyond the Headlines – supplements about Russia inserted in major global print publications. The project started with the Washington Post and the Daily Telegraph, and later expanded to over two dozen top newspapers all over the world.

Besides leveraging international media projects, the Russian leadership started developing other public diplomacy tools.

In 2007 the Russkiy Mir (Russian World) Foundation was established to promote the Russian language and culture abroad, modeled on the British Council, the Goethe Institute, Alliance Française and similar agencies in other countries.

In 2008, changes were also implemented in the Roszarubezhcenter (Russian Foreign Center) government agency, which was subordinate to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was responsible for maintaining a network of official government cultural centers established back in the Soviet era. The agency changed its name to the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo). With a new name, status and scope, the agency kept its network of cultural centers and received additional funding and some more autonomy from the Foreign Ministry.

In 2010, the president also established the Russian International Affairs Council, a new think tank with a strong second-track diplomacy component, and a Public Diplomacy Support Foundation named after a 19th century diplomat Alexander Gorchakov. The Foreign Ministry, although largely uninvolved in the work of most of public diplomacy institutions, also became more open to the public. It increasingly relies on Internet communication and social networks, although there is no official e-diplomacy strategy or code of online conduct for diplomats.

Interestingly, however, the rapid development of institutions tasked with boosting Russia’s soft power was followed, and not preceded, by the development of conceptual foreign policy documents. Growing attention paid to public diplomacy and soft power in general is reflected in the evolution of national foreign policy concepts.

The first foreign policy concept was published in early 1993 and reflected Russia’s foreign policy ambiguity. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country lacked the resources and vision to carry out a coherent public diplomacy strategy.

In 2000, Russia adopted a new foreign policy concept that reflected political changes both domestically and internationally. It acknowledged that some assumptions in the previous documents had never been true, and changed the overall approach to a more pragmatic and skeptical one aimed at international cooperation. For the first time, that concept emphasized the importance of information and communication in foreign policy, and it even has a special paragraph on informational support for foreign policy.

The next foreign policy concept was issued in 2008 and demonstrated a deeper understanding of international communication flows. For the first time, it mentioned public diplomacy as a foreign policy instrument in Russia. Two years later, in 2010, this foreign policy concept was supplemented by an additional document, titled “Basic Directions of the Policy of the Russian Federation in International Cultural and Humanitarian Cooperation.”

This is the first document to officially mention soft power and name cultural diplomacy as a key instrument of its promotion. Surprisingly, in the 27-page-long document, entirely devoted to international communication, the Internet was only mentioned once (the same amount of attention was paid in the document to the international cooperation of architects).

The utter neglect of the Internet was especially surprising given the fact that the document was signed by a very Internet-savvy President Dmitry Medvedev.

The latest version of the foreign policy concept, issued in 2013 after Vladimir Putin reclaimed the presidency, still has no mention of the Internet, but pays significant attention to the concept of soft power and underlines the importance of public diplomacy (although the two notions are entirely unrelated in the document).

One of the reasons for this could be the fact that the paragraph concerning public diplomacy was directly copied from the previous concept, while the soft power part was added based on Vladimir Putin’s presidential campaign articles and his address at the annual presidential meeting with Russia’s ambassadors.

In his February 2012 article in the Moscow News, Putin explained soft power as a set of instruments, such as universities, NGOs or “pseudo NGOS” that are used to achieve foreign policy goals. Speaking in front of Russian ambassadors following his re-election in the summer of 2012, the president was even more outspoken, noting a direct connection between soft power instruments and the Arab Spring.

It’s easy to notice that every development of the foreign policy concept in Russia followed an actual policy change. The term “public diplomacy” appeared in documents after international media channels were established. Cultural cooperation and soft power showed up in official documents after the establishment of Russkiy Mir and Rossotrudnichestvo. Finally, the latest understanding of soft power as a mechanism of applied influence came after the establishment of the Gorchakov Foundation, supporting NGOs abroad.

One of the reasons why concepts follow policies, and not vice versa, is that there is no unified decision-making center except the president himself. In the absence of a single agency that would effectively coordinate the nation’s public diplomacy, there is no strategy or efficiency-measuring mechanism. Even the Foreign Ministry is more of a follower than an initiator of soft power-related initiatives.

It can be thus expected that further conceptual changes in Russia’s understanding of soft power should also be preceded by a policy change. An expected change of Rossotrudnichestvo’s scope of work and policies is an indication of yet another step in the development of the soft power concept in Russia. The agency is to receive additional funding to become an analogue of USAID or British DFID. 

Over $500 million that Russia currently donates to international organizations may now be relocated toward bilateral projects between Russia and former members of the Soviet Union administered by Rossotrudnichestvo. If that plan is carried out, the agency will unofficially become responsible for the country’s soft power, because it will be managing over half of the overall international communication budget.

Professor Nye recently criticized Russian (and Chinese) understanding of soft power as a function of the government’s communication efforts, as opposed to seeing it as a result of how the nation is viewed as a whole, together with its businesses, media, nonprofits and citizens.

However, it may be the case that in Russia, it is not even a function of the whole government yet. The Russian leadership sees soft power as a very specific instrument that requires complex management and implementation, but still remains something entirely controllable if properly administered.

Most recently, Russian leadership has come to an understanding that soft power comes not just from outperforming alleged competitors in international communication, but also from actually presenting an attractive substance. 

If Rossotrudnichestvo becomes indeed a “soft power agency,” it may be granted coordination functions over other public diplomacy institutions. If it also becomes a national knowledge and strategy center for public diplomacy, it can also be a first step toward the acknowledgement that soft power comes not just from “soft power actions,” but also from any developments in foreign or domestic policy.

Currently, official rhetoric still portrays soft power as a set of tangible policy instruments, but the actual policies already demonstrate a change in this mindset. Long-term measures aimed at fostering international development and educational exchanges indicate that Russia’s view of soft power is gradually evolving and becoming more effective. It is not yet based on involving nongovernmental actors, promoting international exchanges and dialogue, but the dynamics indicate that this change may also be coming.