Russian soft power has experienced its share of ups and downs. Even showcase instruments of soft power  – such as RT – have met with their share of criticism, leading to concerns that “soft power” is simply not in Russia’s political lexicon.

A men dressed up to resemble Russian Czar Nicholas II, left, sets up a cardboard cutout of Russian President Vladimir Putin and another man, behind the flag, holds a red flag with former Soviet leader Josef Stalin, as they wait for tourists at Manezh Square near Red Square in Moscow. Photo: AP

The term “soft power,” which Natalia Burlinova, president of the Creative Diplomacy Center for Support and Development of Public Initiatives, has written about in detail, received a boost in the Russian vocabulary with a helping hand from President Vladimir Putin.

However, the term was later elaborated on by diplomat Konstantin Kosachev, now chairman of the International Affairs Committee under the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament. He used to head the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo), analogous to  the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID), which was set up in 2008. Remarkably, this agency was founded during the supposed “reset” of Russian-U.S. ties and the presidential tenure of liberal Dmitry Medvedev, the current prime minister.

Plenty of money, not much to show for it

It was assumed that the agency would focus on promoting Russian interests primarily in the post-Soviet space, given that the “age of threats was over” and Russia had all the resources needed to expand its influence in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) by “peaceful means.”

At the same time, Rossotrudnichestvo, began to actively develop its network abroad. Now the organization has branches in 82 countries, and commands an annual budget worth a solid $2 billion. But the agency fell short of its goals. According to Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs, “The agency failed to become a Russian version of USAID. It was talked about at first, and then forgotten.” Lukyanov believes that “soft power and Russia are not natural bedfellows — it’s not in our tradition.”

First of all, the failure of Rossotrudnichestvo is linked to the botched attempts to put in place assistance programs for Russian compatriots abroad, which were actively discussed at the highest political level, but never materialized. Suffice to look at how Russian-speaking communities in CIS countries react to the agency’s work.

Federal agency or meddler agency?” is the rough translation of the headline of an extensive article by Andrei Demagin of Rus, the oldest organization of Russian compatriots in Belarus.

“The events taking place in Belarus inside the Russian movement demonstrate the gross incompetence of Rossotrudnichestvo, which is hardly an eye-opening statement,” writes Demagin. “Scandals and splits inside the Russian movement in post-Soviet countries with the direct involvement of Rossotrudnichestvo representatives have become the norm.”

“Rossotrudnichestvo is an anti-Russian, essentially bureaucratic organization,” believes Dmitry Klensky, an Estonian political activist and journalist. The main charge he lays at the door of the agency is that Rossotrudnichestvo ignores the “lack of rights of Russian and Russian-speaking residents of Estonia.”

As Klensky points out, “Konstantin Kosachev stated publicly that the Bronze Soldier [a monument to Soviet soldiers in Tallinn] could be relocated, which put Night Watch in an awkward position — the grassroots organization that took it upon itself to defend the monument.”

Dozens of examples of similarly biting criticism of Rossotrudnichestvo can be heard elsewhere in the CIS. But whereas in respect of Belarus and the Baltic countries Rossotrudnichestvo supporters still have the right to argue their case, in a number of Central Asian republics, where Russian-speakers have long been turned into “pariahs” and artificially squeezed out of national communities, there can be no justification for the policy of appeasing  Central Asian authoritarian rule.

For a very different take on this issue, read "Russian soft power is just like Western soft power, but with a twist"

It should be added that at the beginning of this year the Audit Chamber of Russia (ACR) began to take an increased interest in Rossotrudnichestvo’s accounts. Particular attention was paid to expenditure on property maintenance and the many amendments to capital repair plans in respect of properties leased by the agency abroad.

“The lack of proper control on the part of Rossotrudnichestvo HQ over the letting out of properties locally creates risks associated with corruption,” notes the ACR’s Alexander Zhdankov.

The fact that Kosachev, whose name carried high hopes for a revival of Rossotrudnichestvo, remained in his post as head of the agency for a little over 18 months also drew attention. Russian experts say that having lost his position as head of the Duma International Affairs Committee after the recent elections to the lower house, Kosachev simply took a break in his parliamentary activities.

And so it was. Since December last year, he has been a senator and the chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the upper house of the Federal Assembly. In the meantime, his place at Rossotrudnichestvo has been filled by Lyubov Glebova.

Who loves RT?

One other tool of Russian soft power cited by Burlinova is RT (formerly Russia Today), a TV station broadcasting to foreign audiences. In recent years its controllers have spoken time and again of the channel’s tremendous achievements. RT claims to reach a global audience of 700 million people, and to have 1.4 million subscribers on social networks.

The channel is certainly professional, but with a twist. Armed with a huge budget, it has the clout to hire top Western presenters and pay them more than the likes of CNN.

“Its audience seems to believe in RT’s marketing message — that the network covers the stories which the mainstream media ignores, such as Occupy Wall Street or the WikiLeaks scandals,” writes John O'Sullivan, director of Danube Institute in the article “The Difference Between Real Journalism and Russia Today,” published by The Spectator. “Western journalism is sometimes biased, usually unconsciously, but it is actuated by some concern for the truth which in major news organizations results, for example, in formal rules about sourcing.”

RT operates according to different criteria. In the words of Peter Pomerantsev, author of the book “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” during a visit to RT’s head office he was told: “It is a natural fact that there is no such thing as objective coverage of events.”

Disagreements over editorial policy have caused a number of RT’s well-known hosts to tear up their contracts with the station. They include Abby Martin, who denounced RT’s coverage of Russia’s operation in the Crimea live on air, as did Liz Wahl, and Staci Bivens, who was commissioned to do a report on Germany as a “failed state.”

The author of this piece also ceased to cooperate with the Spanish-language version of RT after every single one of his comments directly or indirectly criticizing the regime of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela was expunged.

As David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for one of his books about Russia, put it: “RT is darkly, nastily brilliant, so much more sophisticated than Soviet propaganda.”

“People are beginning to agree with Remnick that the ‘Russian point of view’ is generally Putin’s point of view,” agrees O’Sullivan.

Ostracized by leading Western journalists and some experts, can RT be a soft power tool able to promote a positive image of Russia abroad? It is very questionable. However, the main point at issue is not Russia’s “tools of influence,” but Russian reality. It is in fact ridiculous to talk about soft power in Russia at a time when politicians, military chiefs and journalists are increasingly sounding off about the use of nuclear weapons, issuing direct or veiled threats against the West.

Quite recently Dmitry Kiselev, head of the major state-owned news group Rossiya Segodnya (“Russia Today”), declaimed that Russia was “the only country able to turn America into radioactive dust,” whereupon the Russian ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin, clearly hinted that Moscow could use nuclear weapons against his host country if it went along with NATO’s anti-Russian military preparations.

An article also appeared in the publication Military-Industrial Courier in which author Konstantin Sivkov wrote that Russia needs a new “mega-weapon” able to rain down chaos and destruction on its enemies. In his piece entitled “Nuclear Special Forces,” he argues that Russia should develop a nuclear arsenal serviced by minimum personnel, yet capable of causing a tsunami off the coast of California and a volcanic eruption in Yellowstone National Park. He asserts that the new weapon will serve primarily as an asymmetric threat to the U.S., which is “advancing towards Russia’s borders.”

Western media cannot help but pay attention to the rapid rise in anti-Americanism in Russia. Such sentiment is backed up by the results of surveys in which an increasing number of respondents say that “in certain circumstances” Russia would be justified in using nuclear weapons against the West. At the same time an increasing proportion of the Russian public is inclined to support the methods employed by notorious Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to “restore order” in the country.

All in all, it would seem that promoting Russian interests in the world through the medium of soft power is a laborious and thankless task. One can agree with Natalia Burlinova that soft power is indeed a mirror of relations between Russia and the West, but it does not necessarily follow that this mirror distorts the West’s view of Russia, as Russian propagandists like to assert.

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