Text by Anna Ryzhova
One of the central concepts in the discussion on global value promotion is “soft power” coined by Nye in the 1990s. It refers to the capacity of actors to use attraction to their culture, policies, or political ideas in achieving their political purposes. Public diplomacy, another key concept in the debate, serves as an umbrella term for government activities aimed at influencing the opinions of the public in foreign countries with the prospect of changing its foreign policies in a favourable direction. In this regard, Russia represents a curious case. Some scholars have argued that Russia has taken an oppositional approach to soft power. This means that instead of focusing on creating a positive image of Russia per se, government activities in Russia focus on improving the perception of Russia by criticizing and undermining the messages projected by the Western countries. The reality, however, is more complicated. Russian public diplomacy has significantly transformed in the past 20 years and now includes elements aimed at attraction, persuasion, and creating doubt.
“A latecomer to the soft power game”
Despite the violent events of the last decade and a half, such as the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 or the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, in 2019, Russia still ranks among the top 30 countries of the world in terms of soft power. Moreover, in recent years, we have witnessed the growing support for Russia’s policies and values resonating with some groups of the population both in the Western world and in the former Soviet republics. This makes it essential to look into the recent history of Russia’s public diplomacy to gain a better understanding and theorize about its future developments.
Russia is often called a latecomer to the soft power game. In the 1990s, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia has struggled with defining its image for both internal and external audiences. Was it a new country, created on the ashes of the Soviet Union, or was it an empire, losing its territories?; Did it belong to Europe or Asia, or was it a country that serves as a bridge to connect both? This situation was further complicated by the fact that Western politicians and elites held generally negative perceptions of Russia and that after regaining their independence, many of the former Soviet republics were not enthusiastic about the prospect of coming back to Russia’s geopolitical orbit. All that meant that Russia had to figure out its way of doing soft power to attract both Western and post-Soviet audiences at the same time. As a result, the foundation for the new Russian soft power strategy was laid only during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. Its realization began in the 2000s, with Vladimir Putin taking the lead.
With the countries of the former Soviet Union, Russia had a strong foundation to build its soft power upon. This includes its shared past, Russian diasporas, post-Soviet nostalgia, the Russian Orthodox Church, etc. In contrast, with Western audiences, Russia had to develop a different approach. As a result, from the very start, there was a distinction between the public diplomacy efforts directed towards Russia’s “near abroad” and the West. Still, in the 2000s, the strategies for both strands were primarily based on boosting Russia’s attraction through the means of cultural, educational, and economic instruments. During these first stages of Russian public diplomacy formation in the early 2000s, the Russian language served as a basis for Russia’s soft power strategy – in Putin’s words, it created a living space for the Russian speakers all over the world, transcending national, ethnic and political boundaries. In order to support this ideological vision, a number of multilateral institutions were established, the most notable of which were Rossotrudnichestvo and Russkiy Mir. “Russkiy Mir” or the “Russian world” is a foundation established in 2007. It is similar in idea and structure to Germany’s Goethe Institute and France’s Alliance Française, and today “Russkiy Mir” possesses more than 80 offices in 48 countries of the world and promotes Russian culture through language courses, public lectures, and workshops. Rossotrudnichestvo or the Federal Agency of the CIS, Compatriots Living abroad, was established in 2008 and represents an organization that coordinates different forms of Russian humanitarian assistance, similar in its mission and methods to the United States’s USAID. In order to increase the value of Russian education, several universities, sponsored by Russia, were opened (e.g., Russian-Armenian University). Existing Russian universities expanded with the overseas branches, as well as smaller-scale steps were taken, such as providing school textbooks or opening libraries abroad.
From building its media to investing in digital diplomacy
However, by the middle of the 2000s, there was a significant shift in the paradigm of the Russian understanding of soft power, when Russian elites saw the necessity of integrating international broadcasting into the toolkit of Russia’s public diplomacy and reinforcing its media presence. The reason why this expansion took place was that Kremlin was concerned with Russia’s portrayal in the Western media, but could not influence it. Creating a Russian voice in the crowded global media landscape that would offer its original outlook on events and potentially change the attitude of the audiences was seen as the best solution. Following this, several new media outlets were established. Russia Today, established in 2005, is likely to be the most prominent one, followed by Sputnik News. Sputnik News appeared in 2014 as a response to the events in Ukraine when Russia felt like the Western media severely misrepresented its actions. After the Russian-Georgian war, and especially in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis, when Russian foreign policy paradigm has got a clearly anti-Western sentiment, this media dimension of the Russian public diplomacy gained much greater significance. Even though in Putin’s initial words these media outlets were aimed at “creating a positive perception of one’s country, based not just on its material achievements but also its spiritual and intellectual heritage,” both Russia Today and Sputnik focus heavily on critical reporting of the EU, US, Baltic States, and the Western media, instead of creating a positive vision of Russia. This trend has become especially apparent after 2014 and was further complemented by integrating more populist, anti-elitist, and anti-Western conspiracy theories into the agenda of Russia Today. Consequently, this has resonated with the ideas of the populist and right-wing groups in Western countries and gained their support. Currently, Russia Today operates in six languages, and Sputnik possesses 30 adjoint websites in foreign languages covering local affairs. In combination, the Russian outlook is accessible to a wide range of audiences.
Finally, another notable development in Russia’s approach to soft power and public diplomacy, which has gained momentum in the last decade, is its increasing usage of digital diplomacy. Since political life today is heavily influenced by what is happening online, in the recent years Russia has developed a number of formats and instruments to participate in online discussions and promote its vision, e.g., the short viral videos published on Youtube by Russia Today, for example about Julian Assange’s case or numerous accounts of Russian embassy on Twitter and Facebook, that readily engage in discussions. There are other Russian methods of using modern internet technologies for the benefit of its public diplomacy., which are viewed by scholars and practitioners as highly unethical but efficient. They include not only innocent provision of Facebook or Twitter platforms for discussions, but also the production and spread of fake news, as it happened during the US elections in 2016, disclosure campaigns i.e., obtaining sensible information and making it public.
All in all, in recent years, it is evident that Russia puts a heavy emphasis on building its public diplomacy strategy on developing its international media outlets and enlarging its presence and influence online, while the strand of its public diplomacy based on Russian culture and language is neglected. This is a grim tendency, as the success of public diplomacy and soft power measures depend on the persistent promotion of a positive message. Russia, in its turn, due to its failure to produce a positive message, has shifted its strategy to “question more” as the motto of Russia Today says or “doubt everything” and to criticizing the Western regimes, values and policies. While this latter approach might attract the attention of some foreign publics as an alternative perspective and may generate support from the populist and right-wing groups in the United States and Europe, in the long-term, it does not improve the image of Russia. Instead, this reinforces the vision of Russia as an underdog in opposition to the West. The contradiction here is that behind all these critical opinions that Russia promotes towards the West, we can see that it still uses Western formats to frame the information, it aspires to bring international media outlets in line with the Western giants, such as BBC or CNN, and it aspires to win the hearts and minds of the Western audiences.