Given the current international context, recent initiatives by Russia to boost its soft power abroad are losing their effectiveness. What’s needed now is a long-term strategy for Russian soft power.
Tourists hold a poster symbolically showing a Russian flag riddled with bullet holes as they pose for a photo at the place where Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic Russian opposition leader and sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down on Friday, Feb. 27, 2015 near the Kremlin, in Moscow, on Saturday, March 7, 2015.
The term soft power has many different connotations. However, it is important to remember that, in the end, soft power is still power – an ability to achieve desired outcomes with attractiveness and authority, not coercion or economic resources. Russia has long been developing public diplomacy instruments aimed at boosting its soft power, but the outcome has been suboptimal due to both internal and external reasons.
Konstantin Kosachev’s appointment as Head of Rossotrudnichestvo in March 2012 was expected to start the golden age of Russia’s soft power, but his resignation marked the end of those hopes, with this golden age never taking place. Just three years ago, when Kosachev took office, there seemed to be a window of opportunity for the country’s public diplomacy. For almost a decade, Russia had been building up its soft power capabilities with no apparent strategy or coordination mechanism. As neither has been put in place and the window of opportunity is now closed, the country’s public diplomacy needs a new long-term approach.
A brief history of Russian soft power
Starting from 2003, when prominent private sector media manager Svetlana Mironyuk was tasked with revitalizing RIA Novosti, a news agency, and transforming it from a Soviet-style newswire into a modern high-tech multimedia agency, Russia launched a series of projects aimed at reaching foreign audiences. Those projects included a campaign to host the 2014 Winter Olympics that started in 2005 and a 24/7 English language news network Russia Today (now re-branded as RT) launched the same year.
In 2007 President Vladimir Putin established the Russian World Foundation tasked with promoting Russian language and culture and modeled after the British Council in the UK, the Goethe Institute in Germany and the Confucius Institute in China. Besides promoting Russian language and culture, the Foundation was to develop ties with Russian diasporas internationally and second-track diplomacy channels with expert communities.
An international online and print media public diplomacy project Russia Beyond the Headlines was also launched in 2007 while RT started broadcasting in Arabic and prepared to launch broadcasting in Spanish that year. The Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo) was created in September 2008 by President Dmitry Medvedev. The world’s oldest international broadcasting radio station, the Voice of Russia, also received new leadership that year.
Then in 2010 President Medvedev established the Alexander Gorchakov Foundation for Public Diplomacy Support and the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). So, by the time Kosachev took the office, a broad variety of organizations tasked with improving attitudes towards Russia, was already in place. He did not lead the one and only soft power agency, but rather, one of the many organizations that are equipped with a range of soft power instruments from short-term (online and broadcast media) to long-term (education exchanges and development assistance).
For a very different take on this issue, read "Sorry, but soft power is not a part of the Russian tradition," "Russian soft power is just like Western soft power, but with a twist" and "The paradox of Kremlin propaganda: How it tries to win hearts and minds."
To make it even more complicated, each of the above mentioned institutions was headed by an ambitious leader that had their own relations with the Foreign Ministry and with various divisions within the Presidential Administration. Finally, Rossotrudnichestvo itself was far from a dream agency to manage as it combined old-fashioned representative offices built back in the time of the U.S.S.R., a chain of Russian schools abroad inherited from the Defense Ministry, and a tiny budget only sufficient for the lowest salaries among all the federal agencies with extremely ambitious goals.
Kosachev was therefore seen as a unique individual combining diplomatic and public policy experience, someone who could use his authority and direct connection to the national leadership to coordinate Russian public diplomacy. That, however, required rebuilding Rossotrudnichestvo first and Kosachev came up with a visionary strategy that could make it possible. The idea was to turn the agency into Russia’s international development vehicle and switch the aid budget that Moscow currently donates to international institutions towards bilateral products.
During Kosachev’s term, the country did adopt a new international development concept and Rossotrudnichestvo was put in charge of the policy replacing the Finance Ministry and was expected to become an international development agency. With Russia’s international aid budget (totaling about $500 million annually) shifted towards bilateral projects and greater private sector involvement, as Kosachev had envisioned, the policy could have become a game changer in terms of Russia’s soft power in the post-Soviet space.
A vastly transformed international relations context
However, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and a sharp decline in relations with the West in 2014-2015 created an entirely new international relations and soft power landscape as Moscow took a competitive rather than cooperative approach to its interactions with key Western actors. Coupled with Russia’s current challenging economic situation, the overall context puts the government into a “rapid reaction force mode” where decisions are made based on momentary policy priorities, not long-term strategies.
The situation in Ukraine resulted in a cascade of diplomatic, political and economic events happening quickly within a very short time span. They demand immediate actions and reactions and therefore they affect media and political rhetoric in a greater way than longer-term soft power instruments such as international exchanges or development aid.
Throughout 2014, Russia was “hardening its soft power policies” with greater priority given, of course, to media. As a result, the vast majority of Russia’s international communication efforts are currently used to create an alternative to most global media’s framing of political events coverage. Although potentially beneficial for the nation’s current policies, that approach does not, of course, contribute to greater international understanding or an overall cooperation framework.
Meanwhile, long-term public diplomacy instruments and institutions are essentially left out of the mix, as they cannot react fast enough to affect current events. Therefore, international development is no longer a priority and the policy was tabled indefinitely. Besides, limited financial resources make Russia less prone to engaging in international development.
Changed attitudes towards Russia are yet another reason to rethink public diplomacy. According to surveys, Russia’s approach towards political developments in Ukraine in 2013-2014 led to increased negative attitudes in other countries even before the start of fighting in the eastern part of the country. There is hardly any reason to think that situation improved since then.
Moreover, the Russian leadership’s changed rhetoric, implying that it intends to restore the “unity of historic Russia” shortly after Crimea was incorporated as part of Russia, also created tensions in relations with some neighboring countries. Russia’s soft power was greatly undermined.
What to expect and what to do now
According to Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, who originally coined the concept of “soft power,” the main resources of soft power are values, culture and policies. It is highly unlikely that Russia’s current policies will become more popular than they are now, so over the short-term, soft power prospects for Russia are rather limited. No immediate public diplomacy solution can improve the country’s soft power without resolving the foreign policy troubles first. That means there are years ahead when a breakthrough will not be possible, giving experts and practitioners time for a longer-term approach.
Therefore, the current situation leaves Russian public diplomacy almost no options but to continue improving operational efficiency and establishing a platform for cooperation in the future. That means investing in education exchanges and second-track communication channels, as well as promoting language and culture. Sooner or later, when the crises are over, all sides of current conflicts will still need to be able to cooperate with each other and that could lead to a burst of soft power. However, it will not be possible if the groundwork is not laid now.
That leaves Lyubov Glebova, who was recently appointed head of Rossotrudnichestvo, a surprising but apt choice as leader for the agency, given the circumstances. When there is not much money for development, one tries to makes more use for the resources that are already there and the education system is one of them. Despite certain drawbacks, Russia is still in the top ten countries in terms of attracting international students and it also covers tuition for around ten thousand foreign students annually.However, both the admission process and selection of universities to send students to are far from transparent and efficient, to say the least.
Given Glebova’s prior experience in education management as a former head of the Federal Agency for Education Supervision, it is reasonable to expect that she will be focusing on bringing order to the system of international education exchanges.
With almost no chances for immediate soft power results in the coming years, the national leadership also has a chance to rethink the overall approach, develop a public diplomacy strategy and design a coordination mechanism for all the various agencies involved in the process. Experts and practitioners have been correctly pointing out that clear KPIs and better interagency cooperation could radically improve soft power outcomes for the country.
Lastly, but most importantly, Russia could use the current soft power slowdown to invest in better understanding of international audiences’ attitudes towards Russia and the factors that shape those attitudes. With a rather sophisticated arsenal of disseminating its messages, there still is a lot to be done in terms of listening to what the world has to say.