Russia Direct talks with Andrei Kortunov, General Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), and Marina Lebedeva, head of the Department of World Politics at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), about the challenges Russia faces in improving its image in the aftermath of the Crimean crisis.

A concert in Sevastopol after the Crimean referendum. Photo: Reuters

The Ukrainian crisis and the Crimea referendum will obviously have an impact on Russia’s ongoing attempts to improve its image abroad.  

Russia Direct sat down with Andrei Kortunov, President of the New Eurasia Foundation and the General Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), and Marina Lebedeva, head of the Department of World Politics at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), to discuss the country’s attempts at using soft power.

In the interview below, Kortunov and Lebedeva discuss the reasons why Russia struggles to improve its image abroad as well as the controversial role of propaganda in modern geopolitics. 

Russia Direct: What are the major problems of Russian soft power?

Andrei Kortunov: I would highlight three levels of problems as well as three distinct types of problems.

The first level is having an objective foundation for using soft power. In other words, if a government isn’t attractive, if it has a lot of internal problems, if its development is starting to slow down, then it’s very difficult to use any tools of soft power in order to advance that government on the world stage. There has to be some sort of foundation.

You can see that in Russia, there are problems such as a slowdown in economic growth, an inability to innovate on a consistent basis, social inequality, corruption, etc.

The second level is the need for the government to realize the value of soft power in international politics. In Russia, we also have some problems, because traditionally the term “soft power” has had more bad connotations than good. For example, many see soft power as the West’s attempts to undermine Russian interests in various regions of the world by organizing “color revolutions.”

That’s why it is important that the Russian government take this very seriously. What I mean is, if all our capabilities and resources will be directed only into hard power, then there will be problems with soft power. Soft power isn’t financed enough, which creates certain problems.

The third level is the task of coordinating the work of various institutes and departments, creating pathways for partnership between the private and public sectors, and finding specific tools for implementing soft power. Every country looks for its own model and tackles the issue through trial and error. This is the challenge that is before us.

Marina Lebedeva:  At present, the idea of creating a “good image of Russia abroad” is too amorphous and general. There are distinct social and professional groups and different countries and regions that all have their own attitudes toward Russia. That does not mean that everything must be subordinated to a single concept, but some general areas of primary importance do need to be identified, in my opinion.

RD: What specifically hampers Russia’s image abroad? 

A. K.: There are many factors, both objective and subjective. Of course, Russia has many internal problems, and if we can’t solve them, then our image will probably suffer from that.

We have historical challenges abroad, especially in the West. But it’s not just there. There are ingrained stereotypes about Russia, many containing myths, which doesn’t help. We see how Russia is not always fairly treated, that Russia is not always objectively assessed. Here it must be added that our foreign policy propaganda, the actions of some of our media outlets and some of our politicians aren’t always that helpful.

RD: So, what do you propose to solve the problem of Russia’s image abroad?

A.K.: We need to think about how we can raise the level of professionalism and advance the role of public diplomacy, which has not been given enough attention for a long time. There is a whole range of mechanisms and tools that could help us. If they do not solve this problem, than at least, they can move us towards a solution.

M.L.: Pick some key areas, highlight the substantive aspects, and only then think about how to present everything.  

RD: Given the Ukrainian crisis, many are talking about the danger of reviving traditional propaganda. Taking this into account, where is the fine line between propaganda and soft power?  

A. K.: Propaganda is one of the instruments of soft power. But the traditional propaganda of the 20th century is becoming less and less effective in the current geopolitical environment. Because people have access to various sources of information, they can compare and have a different viewpoint on various issues.

In the current environment, propaganda should be something different. We need to redefine the concept of propaganda and what it means in today’s open, pluralistic and very mobile world.

RD: But propaganda is seen today as a very dubious tool that means something negative, maybe even something fraudulent. How can we talk about its efficiency in projecting soft power in this context?

A. K.: What does “negative” mean? Negative in relation to our opponents, to a certain extent, yes, that’s how it should be. But I think that propaganda does not always have to be negative.

It’s also important to propagandize our capabilities, achievements, and potential, but I will say again that propaganda should be adjusted to the development level of a society, the political system that exists in the society, the level of education, and the ease of accessing alternative sources of information.

That’s why it seems to me if we are thinking of propaganda as something out of Orwell’s “1984,” this type of propaganda in all probability would not work in the 21st century.

RD: So, you believe that soft power should rely on propaganda…

A. K.: Yes, if we understand propaganda to mean information full of analysis and some conclusions that are calculated to create a particular image in the minds of the target audience. There will always be this type of propaganda, and the task is to make it more effective.

M. L.: Frankly speaking, in all the literature on soft power, the question of how soft power differs from propaganda remains open. Joseph Nye defines soft power as “attractiveness to others,” and goes on to talk about the force of example, etc. It is important, in my view, to distinguish between two very different things.

Attractiveness can be visual, or it can relate to substance. Ideally, the two will coincide, in which case we are indeed dealing with soft power. But when there is visual appeal with no internal component, what we end up with is propaganda, which masks some important features. Let me use a metaphor. Propaganda is like bad candy in a fancy wrap. If you make a nice wrap for bad candy and then sell it, obviously someone finds it attractive.

But the appeal cannot and does not last long, because as soon as the buyer tastes the candy and realizes it’s no good, he or she might buy it again to double check, but after that, will look elsewhere. What’s more, he or she will begin to doubt the integrity of whoever made such a nice wrap full of yuck. And that, in my opinion, is the problem.