The Specifics of Russian Soft Power

7 october 2012

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life.”

Konstantin Kosachev is Head of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo). He is also the Russian President’s Special Envoy for Relations with CIS Member-States and a Member of the Editorial Board of Russia in Global Affairs.

Resume: Direct benefits from participation in integration projects with Russia most often outweigh “birds in the bush,” promised “at the end of a long journey,” after the aspirant has fulfilled an endless and arbitrarily changed list of conditions.

The 21st century is marked by an increased attention to the appeal and positive image of a country as instruments of influence in the international arena. There has appeared the concept of soft power, whose author, U.S. political scientist Joseph Nye described it as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” A nation’s image secures attractiveness and trust in a country, playing a crucial role as the key soft power component. Therefore, the efforts of states along this line relate not so much to the sphere of culture and information as to geopolitics.


Image (or its components) can be described as:

  •  a  set of outside observers’ ideas about a subject, i.e. a reputation which is often formed under the influence of persisting stereotypes (national, religious, historical or political) and information from intermediaries (the mass media, ratings, expert conclusions, etc.);
  •  an exact reflection of objective reality which one can see for oneself, the actual state of affairs, which in case of an open state can adjust excessively negative or unjustified positive ideas;
  •  a brand, i.e. whatever national authorities deliberately promote beyond their country, wishing to make it appealing; and, lastly,
  •  an anti-brand, a mass media and propaganda simulacrum – the image of a state (usually negative) which is deliberately formed in people’s minds by opponents or rivals of that state. In modern times, resorting to hard power negatively affects the image of the state, so creating anti-brands to discredit the opponent states, their foreign and domestic policy, economy, history, culture, and education is becoming a rather effective policy instrument.

For example, Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi’s regimes found but few supporters in Russia; it was the practice of foreign armed interference that caused concern among Russians. The foreign mass media presented it as support by an authoritarian Russia of its ideological brothers, and also as anti-Westernism, which looked in this context not as a mere disagreement with the West, but as an inherent rejection of Western values. The Syrian scenario is played along similar lines: countries that reject Western values (Russia and China) are defending the “ideologically close” al-Assad regime, and therefore will not have it defamed.

A majority of such examples are united by the notion of values. This notion is crucial for soft power, as the author of this term understands it. Elevating one’s own values to the rank of global standard is also a task and a result of soft power. It is only one remove from rating countries on a tough scale of ideological attitudes, monopolized by a group of states and permitting no alternative views. The alleged standoff between liberal values and “anti-values”(freedom – non-freedom, democracy – dictatorship) as the cause of almost all events happening in the world molds people’s minds accordingly, similar to the Marxist theory of class struggle as the driving force of history.

There is no doubt that countries where human rights enjoy maximum protection and where democratic institutions are well-developed look the most attractive. However, this does not necessarily mean that these countries will stick to democratic principles in foreign policy. Geopolitics and national interests remain a crucial factor, while the global crisis, the increased competition amidst the rise of new powerful economies, and a shortage of world mineral resources only fuels national selfishness, even to the point of using force.

Secondly, there is no direct link between the degree of development of democratic institutions and freedoms, on the one hand, and welfare and the level of the economy and social harmony, on the other. It is unlikely that people in the countries of the victorious Arab Spring will fare much better than they did under authoritarian rulers; rather they will see plunging standards of living. It is not so much democracy that generates welfare; it is actually the other way round: democracy at its highest level is increasingly regarded as a product of “the rich and well-fed.”

To claim that a revolutionary transition to democracy will momentarily resolve vital social problems of the poorest nations means to mislead them, yet this is what is actually instilled in many peoples. It is far more probable that a growing economy will require real democracy for society at a certain stage, as it is essential for further growth. For example, a sober and unromantic economic policy enabled many European countries to ensure optimal social conditions for political changes in their transition from the Socialist model to the liberal/market one.

The rating of rich and developed countries differs from the rating of the happiest nations, so putting Western liberal values on top is incorrect in principle. There are more ancient civilizational values rooted in traditions, religion and basic ethic norms (respect for the elders, help to one’s neighbor, family, honor, dignity and love for the homeland). It is these values that rouse nations to defend their Motherland, produce national heroes, consolidate people in the years of trial and help preserve their nation after decades and even centuries of foreign yoke. These national traits certainly form the image of a nation to no less degree than democratic institutions.

Thirdly, the law has such a notion as public domain, which applies to works whose intellectual property rights have expired or never existed. The basic principles of democracy, human rights and freedoms are approximately in the same category. They are fixed in the fundamental international legal documents – the UN Charter, conventions and treaties and therefore cannot be construed as someone’s property (in this particular case as property of the West), or as an individual feature of someone’s soft power.

Freedom, democracy, lawfulness, social stability and respect for human rights have become “the consumer goods basket” of the modern world, which everyone would like to have. Any idea rejecting this standard 21st-century set of values would certainly fail to stand. As the world’s ideological bipolarity has become a thing of the past, people increasingly emphasize the uniformity of the basic values for a majority of nations, while understanding that there are differences in their individual manifestation due to national, historical and other specifics (a federative or a unitary state, a multi-ethnic or mono-ethnic country, etc.). Democratic institutions in a European country which has been developing them since the 16th century cannot be the same as in a former African colony which had been supplying European nations with resources until the mid-20th century, with no opportunity to use them for its own economic benefit.


The U.S. model is a classic example of soft power. According to Nye, its first pillar is the appeal of the U.S. culture and lifestyle. Among the major U.S. indicators are the number of immigrants the country receives, the output of mass media products, the number of foreign students in U.S. colleges and the plethora of U.S. Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry and economics, by which the U.S. is a clear leader.

The second soft power pillar of the U.S. is its political ideology, which half of the world’s respondents fully or partially sympathize with. It has greater universality and is therefore easier for other nations to assimilate. Yet the effectiveness of a foreign country’s cultural influence is often explained not by its superior quality, but higher “marketing and promotion” costs.

An overwhelming influence of alien soft power can cause resentment in intellectuals to no less extent than hard power. The most effective ideas are those that agree with the concepts and interests of civil society of other countries, when they do not dismantle national tradition and are useful and clear to everyone. Soft power is the ability to not only promote one’s values but also respect others’; the ability to co-exist with others without assimilating them, and create conditions for their development and preserving their culture and language. Of crucial importance is participation in producing public benefits, readiness to bring good to the whole community and realize one’s interests through common institutions and mechanisms, making sure that these interests can benefit others, too.

The Chinese experience is an interesting case to study. China’s strategy is based on the “harmonious world” concept, proposed by President Hu Jintao at the Asian-African Summit in Jakarta in April 2005, and further developed at the 60th Anniversary Summit of the United Nations in September of the same year. The Chinese leader invited everyone to build a new fair and reasonable international political and economic order. This agrees with the methods China employs in the international arena as it tries to expand its influence without interfering in the internal affairs of other states or imposing some civilizational models upon them. It acts in accordance with the ancient Chinese ideal of “unity without unification.” The new political initiatives, such as “smiling diplomacy,” “public diplomacy” and “good neighbor diplomacy” play an important role in Beijing’s striving to join integration processes and become an informal regional leader.

The Chinese definition of soft power is broader than the West’s, which opens new opportunities for its use. Chinese theorists often quote an ancient wisdom saying: “The softest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world.” President Hu Jintao said at the 17th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that culture was becoming an increasingly important factor in the aggregate power of a state, and called for enhancing the role of the cultural component of soft power. The theme was a subject of special discussion at the 6th plenary meeting of the CPC Central Committee in October 2011. It passed a resolution “on Major Issues Pertaining to Deepening Reform of the Cultural System and Promoting Greater Development and Flourishing of Socialist Culture.” It addresses two problems – strengthening China’s global attractiveness and neutralizing the “corrupting influence of Western culture on Chinese citizens.”

According to Yan Xuetong, Dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations, Tsinghua University, an aggregate power of a country is composed of hard and soft power, yet it is not their sum but product. Consequently, the loss of soft or hard power reduces aggregate power to zero (it is similar to Nye’s “smart power” concept – an ability to combine in various contexts hard and soft power resources into successful strategies). Yan Xuetong defines soft power as a country’s “external and internal mobilization capabilities”: the ability to use intangible assets as physical resources.

The strong point of the Chinese approach to soft power is its unobtrusiveness, non-interference in the affairs of other states, respect for others’ sovereignty and uniqueness, and the desire to create a harmonious and fair world order which would not infringe on anyone’s interests and which would contribute to the development of everyone through even development of all. However, the Western concept is effective, too, because it appeals not so much to countries or peoples as to every individual. Whereas China underscores its non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, the West’s soft power principle says: “Make things better! Don’t put up with infringements on your rights! Don’t wait for changes to ripen by themselves!” It follows that the Chinese variant addresses contented people, while the West’s one appeals to the discontent. Logically, it should stimulate the West to incite internal discontent in other states to create optimal conditions for projecting its soft power. (In the next issue of the journal, the author will dwell separately on the specifics of Georgia’s soft power – which has been actively discussed recently – as a special case of the Western soft power.)


Ernst & Young, in conjunction with the Moscow-based Skolkovo Institute for Emerging Market Studies (SIEMS), has launched a soft power index. It proposes 13 soft power variables which are organized into three major categories: global integrity, global integration and global image. The variables include the world’s most admired companies as listed by Fortune magazine, immigration, tourism, rule of law, English fluency, CO2 emissions, the number of a country’s citizens in the Times 100 most influential people in the world, a country’s standing in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings index, the number of Olympic medals won by a country, etc.

The choice of indicators could be challenged, yet the attempt to measure soft power looks quite interesting, as is the comparison of soft power indicators by countries and categories. China leads the emerging markets (EM) soft power index with 30.7 points, following closely Japan which is the last on the G7 list with 31.8 points. The U.S., the G7 leader, posted 87 points, and Germany has 43.2 points. Russia, with 18 points, is third on the EM list after China and India, and tenth on the combined list of the G7 countries and the larger EM economies.

Russia scores high in tourism, Olympic performance and immigration, primarily from former Soviet republics. The latter factor, which is broadly discussed in Russian society, appears to be a weighty competitive advantage from the point of view of soft power.

Russia can offer others not rosy ideals, but realistic models to resolve common and individual problems, worked out in close and honest cooperation, which can be applied precisely to their countries. It offers not a fish but a fishing rod, and presents itself as a method, not an objective.

Of course, this is a more complex pattern compared to what Western countries offer. They advertise a tangible model which shows a developed economy, high social standards, functioning democratic institutions, and implemented freedoms and human rights. However, many tend to believe today that this model is unique and cannot be reproduced, as it developed historically and stems from numerous individual features. If so, its social standards cannot be cloned or exported.

Russia cannot export some model as an alternative to what is offered by China, the West or the Islamic World because it has not developed any such model yet. Yet it offers, as an “item of export,” to other countries the conditions to work out their own development concepts, support and regional cooperation projects. The Russian approach would lean upon three pillars: cooperation, security and sovereignty.

Cooperation is based on equal conditions, without imposing ideologies, governance or obligatory geopolitical or civilizational orientation. The proposed format of relations is closer to the equality initially envisioned by the founders of European integration than to the “patronage” that has recently developed between the U.S./NATO/the EU and “aspirants.” Russia-proposed cooperation does not imply “homework check” or personal dependence of the authorities of recipient countries on donor countries, but cooperation and assistance in independent development.

Of course, the key condition for progress is domestic and external security of a state. If it is constantly threatened by internal conflicts, mutinies, radicalization of separatism, and mounting tensions with neighbors, normal development conditions are out of the question. An alternative point of view holds that ethnic clashes, chaos and even civil war are admissible for the sake of promoting proper ideas. However, the practical implementation of this approach in a number of countries has shown that stimulating unripe transformations may bring about permanent chaos, countless fatalities and the victory of radical forces.

The task of preserving national tradition should not be at odds with the universally acknowledged human rights, norms and the principles of international law that protects the basic democratic standards of the 21st century. The heads of state should be interested in accomplishing this task in the first place. Otherwise, people will start expressing their discontent with the regime sooner or later and migrate to better places or take part in protests, taking the risk to be manipulated by outside forces.

The theme of sovereignty is of paramount importance simply because it is deliberately being diluted compared to the role of values and the rights of non-state international actors and individuals. The relationship (and sometimes standoff) between human rights and the rights of a state/nation is one of the most complicated problems in international theory and practice today. Hence the arguments to justify interference in the internal affairs of states, which result in unexpected side effects, such as the removal of regimes, change of the owners of national natural resources, etc. Paradoxically for a post-imperial state, Russia is quite capable of offering smaller countries (primarily the former Soviet republics) real sovereignty and considerable geopolitical independence for the following reasons:

First, Russia definitely does not need new territories. To understand it, one has only to look at the map and Russian demography indicators;

Second, over centuries, it has forged a working model for the coexistence of cultures, nations and religions, which the years of the Soviet regime did not break up. It is based on the ability of the core Russian nation to not only live peacefully with others, but also make a considerable contribution to their development. This argument looks convincing against the background of the crisis of European multiculturalism and hence comes under propaganda attacks.

Third, Russia may be the only power for many of these countries in history which has “let them go” at least once, without war or use of force. Admittedly, there are no existentially important economic – and partly geopolitical – reasons for integrating this space in the closest way (although this goal does exist), because Russia is self-sufficient in many respects. Perhaps, that is why the processes in the post-Soviet space, if any, were running slowly for a long time. The most powerful stimulus was not one’s own motives, or the drive for post-Soviet integration (with the possible exception of moral duty to millions of compatriots), but the mounting activity of other states in the region to involve former Soviet republics in military and political alliances. It is the concern about these issues that became the main catalyst for Russia’s integration efforts, which the opponents’ propaganda immediately dubbed as Moscow’s attempts to “rebuild the empire” or “revive the USSR.”

The “integration without incorporation” concept can be quite successful for assimilation by national (and even partly nationalist) intellectual elites and societies. However, the process is not easy because the ideas of national independence as independence particularly from Russia are still strong. For these peoples, the very emancipation became the most important change against the background of the Russian factor in history and at present. Yet many have already encountered the practices of other major powers (often unceremonious ones), and could see for themselves that Russia has no interest in absorbing former Soviet republics (even if it is advantageous for the propaganda to claim to the contrary).

Moscow can take care about its genuine interests (such as its neighbors’ staying away from military blocs, non-deployment of weapons, ethnic Russians’ rights, etc.) without any detriment to the objectives of other countries. Direct benefits from participation in integration projects with Russia most often outweigh “birds in the bush,” promised “at the end of a long journey” after the aspirant has fulfilled an endless and arbitrarily changed list of conditions.


The Russian model is not fixed on universal human values, yet it does not exclude them from its guidelines – simply they do not make its image and cannot be used as a specific export product because they are res omnium communis. That is why it does not intend to reconfigure partnership to suit its own needs: in practices of other states it would result in the “de-sovereignization” of partners, the entry of powerful foreign business amidst eulogies for open borders and free market, and the dissolution of religious and traditional foundations.

Russia’s approach suggests a dialogue without imposing its own cultural code in the form of “universal values,” but through mutual enrichment of original cultures which have no moral right to regard themselves superior to others because of this very originality. Also, there should be the understanding that national statehood is part of national tradition and culture, too.

National elites should not view the participation in integration associations with Russia as a failure of their own project (“We are backtracking to what we gave up two decades ago.”). Over these years, Russia, too, has left many of its past ideas and illusions far behind. One of the simple conclusions of the past twenty years is that one has to heed the needs of ordinary people. We often see that the people in neighboring republics are keen to maintain the closest possible ties with Russia whereas their ruling elites and the expert circles working for them oppose rapprochement with Russia and look up to other centers of power.

This is yet another argument for directing integration efforts for the masses of people in the first place, not politicians (soft power differs from diplomacy in that they have different addressees). First, politicians tend to be replaced, and there is always the possibility that anti-Russian forces will come to power if society does not reject such an option. Second, a whole stratum of top politicians has already emerged in the post-Soviet space who have made playing the “Russia vs the West” card their main political resource. Third, the older generations are still around: they grew up together and feel nostalgic for all those good things that linked us, for the times which many regarded as the period of their highest personal creativity, stability and confidence in the future.

The collapse of unlikely associations, such as GU(U)AM, and the vague prospects for the Eastern Partnership – despite the high-flown words about their orientation towards values – do not mean that no new such attempts will ever be made or that Russian projects are destined to succeed. Leaning on soft power instruments is now taking precedence over building the economic foundation hitherto regarded as an absolute means to form stable alliances. The emphasis on the economy risks turning associations into a big social welfare department which will probably self-disband after its main source gets exhausted.

The so-called “post-Soviet world,” as we know it, might undergo transformation in the near future. Profound social processes with an unpredictable outcome may occur, which would involve (once again) the leading world players. The Arab Spring, too, is making an influence of its own, as are the situation in neighboring states, the world economic crisis, and the operation of external forces that hope to draw dividends from the post-revolutionary situation. There is also the population’s disappointment with their countries’ record over the two decades of independence and after the euphoria of the 1990s, when many believed that the main thing was to break free from Russia. Nowadays, many counties are displeased with their elites and governance methods (corruption, stratification, obsolete methods and authoritarianism). Foreign players play on this sentiment and try to relate it, in a far-fetched way, to the image of Russia and its integration projects.

At a conference of ambassadors and Russian envoys in July, President Vladimir Putin said: “The soft power policy suggests the promotion of one’s interests and approaches by convincing and evoking sympathy for our country on the basis of its achievements not only in the material but also in the spiritual, cultural and intellectual spheres. We must admit that it is not us who form Russia’s image abroad, so it is often distorted and does not reflect the real situation in this country or Russia’s contribution to the world civilization, science and culture; also, the position of our country in international affairs is interpreted one-sidedly.” It is clear that the issue is so raised precisely because Russia has the necessary potential and opportunities. And this resource is its most underestimated asset.


Soft power opportunities best meet Russian foreign policy tasks at present. These tasks stem from the needs of domestic development: ensuring a friendly environment, setting up modernization alliances, and stepping up Eurasian integration. They are not the ultimate objectives of Russia’s foreign policy, but means to modernize the country. It does not mean influence for the sake of influence, nor is it a desire to indulge some imperial complex. Russia seeks to promote its interests by combining them with the interests of other states and peoples, and forming favorable environments to develop and modernize both Russia and its partners.

Russia’s international status rests on the following powerful pillars: UN Security Council membership, parity with the U.S. in the “nuclear club,” and unquestionably high economic, research and cultural potential. These factors are groundwork “passive authority,” something that “cannot be invented or taken away.”

Modernization is an active process, suggesting no less active multi-support foreign policy. Today, the main trend of international processes is the ability to use “soft power” opportunities to realize one’s interests. It is an entirely new environment. It differs from traditional diplomacy as it makes use of other skills, personnel and resources, and analytical, methodological and organizational support. It requires special skills of working in the information space, in the first place in the field of new means of communication and on the most popular platforms, understanding their laws and being friendly, attractive and innovative there.

For example, there are some 5,000 officially registered non-profit organizations (NPOs) in Russia, specializing in various foreign policy areas, including 859 NPOs enjoying international status. In practice, we sometimes see a couple of U.S. or European foundations acting more effectively (which implies more economically) than Russian NPOs. Competence and good quality overpower quantity. We see similar things in many areas.

International cooperation and all our international efforts in the humanitarian sphere should precede interstate cooperation, accompany and even substitute it occasionally, bringing discussions of current and prospective matters to an entirely new level. The most obvious example is the discussion of the future development of the Eurasian Union in the format of new relations arising among Minsk, Moscow and Astana. This issue should be discussed with the elites and “the intellectual class” of these states, so that the project is not viewed as purely bureaucratic.

The motto of the Club of Rome – “Think globally, act locally” – suits our humanitarian strategy: the global strategy to promote Russia’s interests and influence should be implemented locally with regard for specifics of individual countries. For example, approaches to Kyrgyzstan and France, Venezuela and Latvia cannot be the same. Uniform patterns and plans are inappropriate; well-targeted and goal-oriented efforts are required; this approach is both more effective and shows greater respect for other countries.

Russia has a powerful resource of millions of compatriots in foreign countries. However, it differs from other countries that have large diasporas abroad. Let us remember how a majority of our compatriots found themselves outside of the country: they simply woke up one day to find themselves abroad. They had to withstand the establishment of their new states which often took place in the form of emancipation from the USSR, Russia and everything Russian. They were (and still are) regarded as “the fifth column,” and ethnic Russians had to win back many of their rights which other, democratic countries provided to their ethnic minorities automatically. In this situation it was ethnic Russians who needed support and therefore they could not be Russia’s key resource.

The stronger Russia and its positions are, above all in the post-Soviet space, the more of its compatriots are reckoned with outside of Russia, and the more opportunities it has to help them in difficult situations which still abound. Conversely, our compatriots can and should be aware that they are an influential force that contributes to the establishment of lasting and friendly relations with the countries of their residence. This factor would decrease the possibility and popularity of anti-Russian trends in such countries. But this mutually useful approach can be feasible only if accepted by both sides. Russia primarily needs to step up its resource support for this process. Meanwhile, Rossotrudnichestvo, for example, whose full name [Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation – Ed.] includes the term “compatriots abroad,” has no funds for any serious efforts, except pure “club work.” In May 2011, President Medvedev signed an executive order to set up a foundation for support and protection of the rights of compatriots living abroad. It was co-founded by the Foreign Ministry and Rossotrudnichestvo. It was a landmark move and by no means the last one.

Russia should closely study the successful experience of other countries in building a positive image, strengthen its cultural and humanitarian presence abroad, and increase the efficiency of public and parliamentarian diplomacy and NPO work. The popularity of the Russian language in the world is a key advantage. It is not yet a fully developed and fully tapped resource of Russian soft power. The efficiency of our efforts is not great, and Russia still spends much to preserve what there is, without quantitative growth and quality return.

Theoretically everyone knows that the Russian language is “great and powerful,” but in practice we often refer to it as a language which is “losing ground.” Ensuring mere supply is insufficient for having more Russian language learners; we also need to work to increase the demand. The knowledge of Russian should become an important factor in employment opportunities for both compatriots and representatives of other nations at joint ventures and their branches, help foreign citizens enter Russian colleges and universities, and be a crucial factor in easing the acquisition of Russian citizenship.

Therefore, we need smart efforts to spread the language; these efforts should be targeted (addressing cultural elites, youths, migrants, participants in joint projects, and companies and persons interested in the country), modern (using information technologies and social networks), systemic and comprehensive (providing places in colleges and in the economic sectors, and preferential terms for holders of Russian language certificates, for example, discounts on tickets to museums, easy visa procedures, etc. Of course, there are many other practical ideas which Rossotrudnichestvo plans to develop.

The soft power of Russia is first and foremost The Russian World in the broadest sense of the word, comprising our compatriots and those who sympathize with and specialize in studying Russia. In any case, it is a real and influential factor of international processes, but this factor requires a strategic state approach and decent support with resources, personnel, analysis and information. It is time to stop showing false modesty or waiting for a valuable alternative to other countries’ projects or a new ideological utopia to appear in Russia. We have everything that can make us proud of our country and respected outside it, that can make our successful experience attractive and interesting to others, and that can make Russia’s image adequate to its achievements and be its strong side, rather than its problem.

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