Konstantin Kosachev, the head of Russia’s public diplomacy agency, talks about the impact of the Ukrainian crisis on Russia's ability to project “soft power” abroad as well as Moscow’s efforts to change the world’s perceptions of Russia.

Russian officials argue that higher education can improve the country's image. Photo: Shutterstock

In this interview, Konstantin Kosachev, the head of Rossotrudnichestvo (Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation), discusses with Russia Direct the impact of the Ukrainian crisis on Russia's ability to project “soft power” abroad.

He also explains the motive behind the new Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation in the field of international development assistance. As Kosachev notes, Russia is shifting its attention from multilateral projects to bilateral projects with global partners.

Russia Direct: Some believe that the crisis in Ukraine is having a major impact on Russia's ability to project soft power. This has been hinted at not only by Western experts such as Joseph Nye, but also by public opinion polls. How will Russia adapt its concept of soft power in these circumstances?

Konstantin Kosachev: I don’t see any need for immediate adaptation, but we do recognize the need for adaptation as part of creative development.

In my view, the soft power of any country is represented by people abroad who adequately perceive this country, understand all advantages of collaboration with this country and who are ready to contribute to this cooperation.

An so, if you take a look at social networks, the online environment, and the attitude of ordinary people around the world to what is happening in Ukraine, it is far less categorical than the attitude of Western politicians. Sometimes, it even contradicts the latter. 

For politicians, everything is black and white (or rather black): “We do not recognize Crimea as part of Russia! We support Maidan! We must isolate Moscow!” This view is being imposed in an attempt to fuel tensions in public opinion and force Russia to reconsider its actions.

It’s a struggle. And it is tough, but has no relation to how Russia is perceived broadly in the world, and I wouldn’t dramatize the situation.

RD: So you think the Ukrainian crisis is not affecting Russia’s image at all, other than on a narrow-minded level?

K.K.: It does affect. But for some people this image is improving, for others it is worsening.

There are attempts to destroy Russia’s image at a well-orchestrated level in a radical way. It’s because this image is definitely presented on Western TV and in some newspapers in a very negative way. And we clearly see it.

It’s enough just to claim in a newspaper that Russia occupied Crimea, and for many people who believe everything written in newspapers, they believe it to be the truth. And, of course, for those who are reluctant to seek truth, the image of Russia changes radically, because nobody likes occupiers.

But for those who look at the situation a little bit deeper, it is clear there was no occupation and annexation: It was the will of the people of Crimea, who after more than twenty years under Ukrainian governance did not feel like part of the country and who changed the status of their territory with this decision.

Our task is not to justify Russia's actions. Our task is to withstand the information campaign aimed at the discrediting of Russia and disseminate worldwide what really happened in Ukraine and Crimea.

RD: In this case, where is fine line between propaganda and soft power?

K.K.: Propaganda is a tool of direct influence on people’s consciousness. For propaganda, we have specially set up institutions, primarily, governmental ones, and many know about them.

Soft power is a different thing. It’s about people's own convictions that must come as a result of personal choice, not imposed in any way by means of propaganda. It’s not enough for the presence of government to make soft power more effective. Moreover, there should be less government, at least outwardly.

In the frontline, there should be activity of civil society, public organizations, and people who, even being in the minority, would not feel themselves outsiders and social outcasts under the pressure of a powerful government propaganda machine working abroad. And the number of such people is increasing now, not decreasing.

RD: You have called for a branch of Rossotrudnichestvo to be opened in Ukraine. What progress have you made?

K.K.: So far there is no progress in this field – the situation is very difficult. The matter is that opening such centers always requires the consent of both sides. We have an intergovernmental agreement with Ukraine that no one has canceled. It was signed in 1998, but ratified by Russia.

This agreement is valid and allows cultural offices to be opened outside our countries’ capitals. We have a center in Kiev; Ukraine has a center in Moscow. And both parties are entitled, in accordance with the agreement and with the consent of the Russian and Ukrainian authorities, to open branches in other cities.

Last year Russia’s president confirmed a plan on developing Russia’s cultural and scientific centers abroad for 2013-2015. The plan includes developing 11 centers abroad, nine of them in the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), including Kharkov. The branch in Kharkov was due to open this year and we had already begun consultations. But currently they are suspended, unfortunately. Today we are discussing other issues in Ukraine-Russia relations.

Regarding Rossotrudnichestvo, we would like to diversify its network in the future: I mean Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk, Lvov, Uzhgorod, and other cities. But I repeat that, so far, it’s only a wish, not reality.

RD: What role does education play in shaping the image of Russia, and is it an effective tool of soft power?

K.K.: That's exactly right, higher education is a competitive product linked to our image. Study abroad defines people’s outlook and worldview. It is very important for Russia to have as many partners overseas as possible [through higher education].

Konstantin Kosachev, the head of Rossotrudnichestvo. Photo: RG

RD: Do you plan to increase the role of education by introducing, for example, more exchange programs and educational projects to promote Russian soft power?

K.K.: The first task we set was accomplished this year: The annual quota for inviting foreign students to Russia rose by 50 percent from 10,000 to 15,000 people.

We are also deciding the issue of how to make the learning environment in Russia for foreign students competitive. What do I mean? Currently, Russia does not pay foreign students’ travel expenses or health insurance, and pays them the same living allowance as Russian students.

But whereas most Russian students have either parents or an opportunity to work part time, foreign students have fewer alternatives.

This year, we were able to compensate the travel costs of 1,000 out of 15,000 students. Of course, it’s a small but important step, since last year the figure was zero.

A very important aspect of all this is why we invite foreigners to study in Russia in the first place. There are two answers. First, so that in theory they stay here, help strengthen the country, improve the overall level of education in the country, provide demographic diversity and diversify the labor market.

And the second probable answer is to ensure that having been educated here [in Russia], they become our partners on returning home. I support the second scenario if we talk about the effective usage of government funding.

RD: Recently the U.S. has been cutting back on many programs aimed at Russia, for example, Title VIII, Muskie, Fulbright. The office of the Kennan Institute in Moscow is also closing. Does this mean that America is losing interest in Russia and switching its focus to other regions?

K.K.: I don’t know if it’s losing interest or not, but I understand very well that if Americans are really losing interest, they are making a very big strategic mistake, because most problems in today’s world are simply impossible to be solved without Russia. After all, most of these problems directly concern the U.S. as well.

RD: Last week, Vladimir Putin signed a decree on the new Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation in the field of international development assistance. According to the document, Russia is changing its approach to international development assistance and focusing on targeted bilateral aid programs. What is this decision based on? How will it affect Russian soft power?

K.K.: We talk about aid for developing countries based on two principles.

Of course, the major one is that implementing such problems should resolve domestic social and economic problem of such countries. No less important is that, as result of such programs, Russia could feel more confidently in dealing with reliable, predictable and stable partners, which will stop exporting their own problems to our country. This is the sense of this work.  

At a certain level Russia has realized for itself that as a global leader it should maintain its leadership as a donor. In this context, there is an increasing role for understanding what we are doing.

And so, under the new concept, we are moving from a passive role as a participant in multilateral programs to an active role as a designer of such programs.

And these programs will be structured primarily on a bilateral level — under the Russian flag, so to speak, and not only through our contributions to international organizations, where they inevitably get de-personalized.

Second is identifying the geographical priorities of this assistance in line with Russia’s national interests. In other words, we are not only engaged in global philanthropy for all who need it, but also we purposely provide help for those who are close to Russia and whom Russia is interested in. I mean, of course, the CIS countries.

It should be noted first of all that the bilateral format allows us to retain control of the projects and choose the countries as we see fit. Second, two-way channels are far more effective in promoting the interests of domestic business.