Russia’s concept of “soft power” is similar to the one first articulated by Harvard’s Joseph Nye decades ago, but it is based much more on the use of information to present alternative viewpoints.

A resident of the village of Frunze, Omsk Region watches live broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin's news conference. Photo: AP

In late March, Russia’s federal agency for soft power, Rossotrudnichestvo, changed its leader. Lyubov Glebova became the head of this agency, replacing Konstantin Kosachev. This raises important questions about the current state of Russian “soft power.” How effective has it been? What are the distinct features of Russian soft power? Will the Kremlin revise its concept of soft power?

Events in Ukraine have changed the mindset of many people in Russia, who in recent years had believed that their nation was starting to exist in the same reality as the West. As it turned out, things were quite the opposite. Russia and the West are living in completely different, sometimes diametrically opposed spaces, where black is white and white is black, depending on one’s viewing angle. Under these conditions, everyone wishes to convey to the world his or her own truth, his or her reality and his or her views on things.

As part of any information war - and especially as part of the one in which Russia and the West now find themselves, tools aimed at delivering information and establishing contacts with people play an important role. All this is usually denoted by the term “soft power.”

Russian “soft power” is a relatively new concept. Wide acquaintance with this idea occurred just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but its active implementation into life began only in the 2000s, after the creation of the federal agency on soft power, Rossotrudnichestvo.

For the first time in the Russian political space, the word “soft power” was used by President Vladimir Putin in his article on foreign policy, “Russia and the Changing World,” published in February 2012 as part of his election program.

Of course, experts were familiar with this term, in one way or another, a long time before this; after all, Russia has significant and very successful experience in working with foreign societies during the period of the Soviet Union. However, those days have passed, and the concept of “soft power” borrowed from the Americans implies something that is somewhat different from just mere propaganda.

Putin gave his own interpretation of “soft power,” which became a defining term for all who work in this field in Russia. As Putin noted, “Soft power is a set of tools and methods to achieve foreign policy goals without the use of weapons, through the use of information and other levers of influence.”

Based on the definition made by President Putin, one can understand that for Russia, “soft power” is characterized not by an emphasis of creating an attractive image (as is the case with the way America works), but rather on informational work with the surrounding world.

Very likely, the Russian leadership based this concept on the historical experience of Russia. The Kremlin believes that history has demonstrated that the attractiveness of the country in the West increases only when Russia is seen as weakening, as it was in the 1990s. However, when Russia occupies a strong position in the world, its attractive image in the Western mind abruptly ceases having this positive character, and quickly turns into a frightening image, according to the Russian authorities.

For example, if we look at the cartoons about Russia in the European press during the Crimean War – the years 1853-1856, when in fact the first European information war was launched between Western Europe and Russia - one can find a lot of similarities between what they wrote back then about Russia, and what they are writing today.

Moreover, the experience of recent years on working on the image of the Russian state and Putin personally, for example, by using the Western PR agency Ketchum, has shown insignificant results.

Therefore, the main focus of the Russian “soft power” system is being placed on the country’s own information content. And it is starting to pay off. In the West, particularly in English-speaking countries, there has been a growing demand for information that, as an alternative to the major Western media, is being offered by Russia through its own information broadcasting channels, especially by RT (formerly known as Russia Today).


For a very different take on this issue, read "Sorry, but soft power is not a part of the Russian tradition" and "The paradox of Kremlin propaganda: How it tries to win hearts and minds"

Despite the fact that many Western experts view this channel as mere Kremlin propaganda, in all fairness, it should be said that in just a few years it has achieved enormous success. RT has expanded its broadcasts into several languages, and in some areas, it has overtaken, in terms of efficiency and interesting information content, such media giants as CNN and the BBC.

The bedrock of the success of RT is the use of alternative viewpoints. As it turned out, the Western information consumer, in general, is now ready to listen to another point of view that is not broadcast on local TV channels. Alternative content, and the ability to connect with the audience – are the basis for the success of RT. And it seems that its opponents have taken notice of this.

In a situation where there is an information war between Russian and Western realities, all the information that is broadcast from Russia is declared to be a form of propaganda that should be prohibited. Attacks on the TV channel have started in some of the most democratic countries of the West. Some Western political leaders have also started to criticize the TV channel, for example, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Against the backdrop of the Ukrainian crisis, in the European Union they started talking seriously about the need to create a Russian-language channel, which would work against the Russian media, conquering the minds of Russian-speaking inhabitants of Europe, which are many. Western leaders, without noticing it, are now adopting the worst features of the Soviet approach to information.

In these circumstances, Russia has decided to act differently – namely, nothing is to be prohibited. For example, just recently they renewed CNN’s license to broadcast in Russia. And the results have been excellent. Very few people watch CNN in Russia, except those with special interests. Not being prohibited, it is no longer so alluring.

Russia's soft power and public diplomacy 

But Russia’s “soft power” – this is not just working with informational tools, although, of course, they are seen as very important for the presentation of Russia to the world. Along with their informational policy, during all these years,  the country’s leaders continued to develop another component of Russia’s “soft power” – public diplomacy in all its manifestations.

Interestingly, in Russia, as is usually the case, there is almost a mirror image of the language adopted in the West. That is why in Russia, democrats are considered to be the Right and the communists and socialists as the Left. Meanwhile, the conservatives are somewhere in the middle, and usually referred to as the statists.

This division also occurs in the diplomatic sphere, which in Russia has acquired several incarnations – including both “public diplomacy” and “people’s diplomacy.” All these in the English language are designated by one term, but in Russia, everything has its nuances.

A major player in the public diplomacy direction is the agency with a very long name – the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation. In Russia, the shortened name of this agency is Rossotrudnichestvo. This is sort of an analogue of the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID). But not quite. The history of this agency is closely linked with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was necessary to consolidate the humanitarian and cultural ties that existed between the republics of the former Soviet Union. So there was a precursor formed – the Roszarubezhcentr and then the very Rossotrudnichestvo. For a long time, Rossotrudnichestvo played a secondary role in Russia’s “soft power,” remaining in the sphere of cultural and humanitarian contacts. However, as the agency gained the responsibility to work with so-called compatriots – ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers, which after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. were left outside the boundaries of modern Russia – the agency began to gain political weight.

The modern role of being the primary conductor in the field of “soft power” and public diplomacy, the agency acquired under the leadership of famous Russian diplomat and international relations expert Konstantin Kosachev. A former Duma deputy, now a senator, Kosachev was one of the few Russian “spokesmen” who actively communicated with foreign audiences.

It was Kosachev who brought to Rossotrudnichestvo the idea of that this structure should concentrate in its hands all the basic programs that constitute the various parts of public diplomacy, including programs for young foreigners, promoting educational opportunities in Russia and supporting the study of the Russian language around the world. It was under his leadership that Russia launched a program promoting international cooperation, analogous to USAID.

Kosachev left his post at the end of 2014 and Lyubov Glebova became the new head of this agency on March 23, 2015. Glebova, in terms of Russian “soft power,” is a new and unknown figure. Therefore, the path of further development of Rossotrudnichestvo is open to much speculation.

One thing, though, is certain: the continuation and expansion of awareness-raising work about Russia will remain relevant for the agency under this new leader as well. And Russia’s “soft power” will continue being generated based on informational content and the importance of bringing the Russian point of view, an alternative to Western views, to the widest possible audiences.

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