After the war with Georgia in 2008 exposed weaknesses in Moscow’s ability to wage an “information war,” Russia is stepping up its efforts to promote its image abroad.

Since August 2008, the Kremlin has been struggling to win in the "information wars" with Georgia and the West. But will it be able? Photo: RIA Novosti / Andrey Stenin

After the August 2008 crisis in the Caucasus, I was invited to speak at a Moscow media conference on international broadcasting. As we discussed the reasons for the Western media’s one-sided coverage of the South Ossetia conflict, we talked at length about information policy as such – about whether Russia had any such policy and, if it did, why it was so weak as to allow the Western media to distort the image of our country beyond recognition.

August 2008 came as a reality check for many of those who had been counting on the Western media’s professional objectivity. It turned out they were not above bias, one-sided coverage, misuse of facts and even censorship – and then labeled this “editorial policy” with all the West’s trademark tact.

On the other hand, Russia’s media came across as totally incapable of competing with their Western counterparts in an “information war.” This reality, which had existed long before August 2008, came as a surprise to many in government circles, a surprise so nasty as to generate rumors that Russia was about to establish a state-sponsored corporation for image enhancement (in line with the established practices of the day). Yet the onset of the global financial crisis nipped those rumors in the bud.

Even so, the Russian government was vaguely feeling the need to do something with more vigor than before in order to get its point of view across to the world in general. Few Moscow experts were comfortable with the “soft power” concept at the time.

Only a narrow circle was familiar with the works of Joseph Nye Jr. Yet, as time went by, “soft power” joined “modernization” as a Moscow buzz word, although things such as “creativity” and “public diplomacy” still sounded strange to the ear of the  average Russian bureaucrat.

Of course, it would be wrong to say that no efforts had been applied in the area of the country’s “image enhancement” and “information policy” before 2008. The Russia Today TV channel went on the air in 2005 and RIA Novosti was busy creating major state-sponsored image enhancement endeavors, such as the well-known Valdai Club political science project.

Meanwhile, expert forums such as the ‘Dialogue of Civilizations’ and the ‘St. Petersburg Dialogue’ were taking place. Rossotrudnichestvo was hard at work and representative offices and desks of the Russian World Foundation were springing up.

However, all these projects were on a massive scale. Systemic, strategic fieldwork was lacking, and Russia’s NGO sector was a weak link sector acting as the key conduit for “soft power” elsewhere.

Until August 2008, Russia felt that it was able to broadcast its own opinion loud and clear, even if it was starkly different from that held by its Western partners. The events in Libya and Syria bear witness to this. Then the five-day war with Georgia happened.

Having learned the hard way in August 2008, Russia has become serious about strengthening its positions in the international media. After getting off to a rocky start, the Russia Today TV channel has been asserting itself. Its English-language version has been expanded with Spanish and Arabic outlets. The Arabic-language version of Russia Today is competing on an equal basis with key TV channels broadcasting to the Arab world, such as Al-Jazeera. The Voice of Russia, another multi-language radio broadcasting project, is growing in importance.

As Russia grows stronger internally, it consequently can promote substantial regional projects, such as the Eurasian Union. It also means that the work to strengthen Russian humanitarian institutions, state and public organizations, and “soft power”-related think tanks has been accelerating over the last few years. Attention is being paid to this process at the highest level, especially as far as state support for the NGO sector is concerned.

Rossotrudnichestvo, the federal agency in charge of humanitarian work in the CIS as well as policy towards Russian expatriates, is undergoing serious reforms. Expansion of Russia’s humanitarian, educational and cultural presence in the world is being planned, and new awareness programs for visits to Russia by foreign youth are being implemented.

Civic and public diplomacy have been getting a lot of attention. Substantial funds to finance public diplomacy have been allocated as part of the Presidential Grants. The key task in this area is to assist Russian NGOs interested in international activities aimed at making Russia’s opinions heard on various issues.

Such NGOs are few and far between and those that are actually working, especially in contact with their colleagues abroad, are even fewer. That is why the A.M. Gorchakov Foundation for Public Diplomacy Support was established in 2010 on the instructions of then-President Medvedev.

The Foreign Ministry-established Gorchakov Foundation, named after the prominent 19th century Russian diplomat, is responsible for lending support to Russian NGOs striving to do public diplomacy work. The Foundation is also implementing its own projects aimed at young experts on international relations.

Simultaneously with the Gorchakov Foundation, the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Russia’s first modern national think tank, was established. The RIAC’s mission is to integrate Russia’s expert community and to assist Russian experts in their promotion abroad.

Both the RIAC and the Gorchakov Foundation are examples of modern Russian NGOs that are aware of the importance of engaging in a dialogue with society in foreign countries, even where such a dialogue is complicated by the political situation. A case in point: August 2008, again.

It seemed that, after the war, all contacts with the Georgian side (except official diplomatic meetings) were ruled out. Yet, young experts from both countries decided, with support from the Gorchakov Foundation and Georgian partners, to establish an expert dialogue even in the absence of diplomatic relations.

According to press reports, a Russian-Georgian Civic Center will be up and running in the very near future, apparently for the purpose of building humanitarian bridges between the two countries.

Five years after the war, the policy of taking baby steps between Russia and Georgia is setting the stage for something bigger. Relations will be restored sooner or later – just look at the ads touting the legendary Borjomi mineral water coming back to the Russian market.

This might be still a long way off but the journey begins today. Society, or at least its young and active members, should be prepared for that time because they will need to work on the most important goal – to restore trust among people. And “soft power” will have to facilitate this from both sides. 

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.