Russia’s Soft Power Potential
No. 4 2010 October/December
Georgy Filimonov

Associate professor of the Department of Theory and History of International Relations of the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia

Russia to Build Up Its International Influence

Although global politics these days is utterly pragmatic and military might remains a key factor for national security, one cannot ignore the growing influence of “soft” instruments in international relations. The concept of “soft power” (a term American political scientist Joseph Nye coined in 1990, postulating the importance of non-force methods in foreign policy) is becoming more relevant. The United States has produced the most eloquent evidence of the effectiveness of soft power in its original version.

U.S. military might the way Nye formulated it is as follows: the term “hard power” means combined political, economic and military strength, while “soft power” is mainly a combination of culture, values and political ideology. “Smart power” is an effective blend of hard and soft power. It is the most applicable and appropriate mechanism (in modern conditions) of maintaining national security and achieving foreign policy objectives.

This is precisely the arsenal of U.S. foreign policy Hillary Clinton spoke about in the U.S. Senate during hearings prior to her approval as Secretary of State. She said then that “smart power diplomacy” would be the vanguard of U.S. foreign policy under the Barack Obama administration. Obama himself has repeatedly affirmed his administration’s course towards strengthening the role of soft instruments in Washington’s foreign policy.

These instruments include, above all, public diplomacy as a set of measures having a direct impact on the society of a specific country. These measures are aimed at creating an attractive image of the country abroad by informing the international public and maintaining contacts with people in other countries through education and culture.

Nye prompted U.S. experts to identify three basic parameters of public diplomacy: the so-called day-to-day parameter (which implies preparedness for crises and prompt information counterattacks); strategic communication (including elaboration of simple themes in both political or advertising campaigns, and their introduction into the mass consciousness over the course of one year); the development of long-term relations with key individuals over many years through various scholarships, exchanges, training courses, seminars, access to media, etc.

Moreover, public diplomacy is often seen through the prism of marketing, branding, and PR promotion – and not without reason, especially in the context of its practical implementation through the media and the development of an appropriate media strategy.

Thus public diplomacy is the fundamental basis of the more general and somewhat diffuse concept of soft power. Among its tools some researchers even list trading and economic assistance to other countries. Furthermore, some see manifestations of soft power in the engineering and implementation of “velvet” (“color” and other) revolutions. This is because public diplomacy is not just intervention in the minds, hearts and souls of people, but also an effective way of influencing the domestic affairs of a sovereign state.

I believe it is quite legitimate to treat the concept of public diplomacy as a system of strategic views aimed at forming a positive image of a country abroad through the implementation of multi-level information and advocacy policy. The main directions of this policy are foreign cultural policy, cultural diplomacy (one should not confuse these terms), information and ideological promotion, educational exchange programs, the involvement of a wide range of non-governmental organizations and other civic institutions, the corporate sector, etc. Moreover, in contrast to traditional diplomacy public diplomacy is addressed directly to the public. Therein lies its strength and effectiveness.

Does Russia need to strengthen this segment of its foreign policy? If so, what are the key tasks of building up Russia’s soft power? To what extent is it expedient to refer to the U.S. as an example and to borrow American experience? What are the main strategic directions of this component of foreign policy?


It goes without saying that the “game” being played in the territory of the former Soviet Union remains a priority for the Russian Federation in building its international influence and foreign policy strategy in general. Creation of Russian soft power resources by consolidating and organizing Russian diasporas is an indispensable condition for effective work on this foreign-policy track. One cannot but note the constructive practical measures carried out by the Russian Foreign Ministry to improve cooperation with Russians living abroad. Russian diplomatic missions help consolidate the diasporas and their organizations, which has led to the creation of the Global Coordinating Council and coordinating councils in most Russian communities in various countries. The councils convene annual world conferences of Russians living abroad. There is the Government Commission for the Affairs of Compatriots Abroad, and the Institute for Diasporas and Integration (the Institute of the CIS Countries); as well as a state program to assist voluntary resettlement to Russia. In 2007, then-president Vladimir Putin issued a decree to establish a Russian World foundation, which effectively extends the scope of its very useful activities. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed on July 24, 2010 a new law on Russians living abroad.

However, notwithstanding the significance and persistence of these steps, we have to admit that they hardly cover a third of Russia’s need to further strengthen and expand opportunities for implementing “soft” influence along the perimeter of Russia’s borders.

A major condition for strengthening Russia’s authority in the territory of the former Soviet Union is expanding the Russian cultural presence there. Work to preserve the role of the Russian language as a means of interethnic communication between the peoples of the former Soviet Union and the expansion of Russian language studies in the areas of Russia’s strategic interests remains an indisputable priority.

Unfortunately, the current state of affairs in this sphere is not exactly encouraging. The number of Russian schools has declined since the 1990s and this has exacerbated the problems standing in the way of advancing education in Russian. The number of Russian speakers in the countries that are Russia’s “near neighbors,” including the Baltic countries, has fallen by half since the 1990s. As many as eight million people in Ukraine and one million in Georgia do not speak Russian at all. Instead of the original 20,000 Russian-language schools in the former Soviet Union, now there are about 7,000. The number of children that are educated in the Russian language has fallen by more than two million to 3.1 million.

In Tajikistan the number of schools that use Russian as the language of instruction decreased by two-thirds from 1991-2001 – from 90 to 29 – and the number of schools that use mixed language instruction declined by one-third. The hours allotted in the curriculum for Russian language and literature classes is rapidly decreasing in Kazakhstan. In Uzbekistan the number of hours spent in teaching the Russian language has been slashed to 170 in grades 7-11. The hours spent in Russian language instruction are being reduced in Kyrgyzstan as well.

The demand for new Russian schools remains far above the supply. Except for the very few cases in which Russian schools are opened at sites where there is a Russian military presence, no permanent mechanism of opening schools has been created to this day.

It is common knowledge that several Russian universities have been given the status of base educational establishments to support education in the Russian language in the CIS. Some member-states of the Commonwealth have opened joint institutions of higher learning. A CIS Network University was created in 2008 at the initiative of the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, with assistance from the Interstate Foundation for the Humanitarian Cooperation of CIS Member-States.

However, despite the steps being taken, including those to promote long-distance learning programs at branches of Russian universities in the CIS, a majority of these Russian educational institutions, especially those in the Central Asian republics, suffer from insufficient funding. There are practically no guest lecturers from Russia, while the U.S., for example, acting in the spirit of its long-standing traditions, has been quite successful in creating a system of influence in the CIS by actively recruiting U.S. teachers for work at universities abroad. Ample financial opportunities (such as grants) allow local students to study in the U.S., the European Union and other countries.

It is clear that a significant obstacle to the development of the Russian language in the former Soviet Union is the politicization of this problem by regional elites. Also, the language issue is often exploited as an argument in bargaining for other items on the bilateral agendas. But all of these obstacles must serve as a good incentive for activating Russia’s efforts to broaden its presence at universities across the CIS.

There has been an undoubtedly positive, but still not very large, effect from activities carried out by Russian cultural centers, the Russian Education and Science Ministry and the Federal Agency for CIS Affairs (Rossotrudnichestvo) in implementing the international part of the federal target program Russian Language (2006 — 2010) and in drafting a similar program for 2011-2015. However, one has to acknowledge that the practical usefulness of these steps for ordinary people is not obvious yet. There is still no systemic approach to teaching Russian (for instance, language courses working on a permanent basis). Existing language courses are scarce, and far from all people in the CIS countries can afford to pay for language training, although the desire to study Russian is unmistakably real. People in Tajikistan, Armenia, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan, whose economies rely heavily on Russia, are particularly interested in studying the language.

As to popularizing the Russian language in non-CIS countries, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a very telling statement at a meeting with graduates of Soviet and Russian universities on October 31, 2010 during an official visit to Vietnam. He focused on the need to create new information capabilities and technologies for studying Russian. Medvedev said one should not be afraid of spending money on this, because “ultimately the effect of working with representatives of foreign countries who speak Russian is much higher… and it must be one of the priorities…”


Shaping a foreign cultural strategy and developing foreign cultural policies and cultural diplomacy are a separate and very significant segment of Russia’s public diplomacy and soft power in general.

Almost ten years ago the Russian Foreign Ministry drafted a concept paper called Russian Foreign Ministry Guidelines for the Development of Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, a so-called concept of foreign cultural policy – that is, a tool for achieving foreign policy goals of the state through the development of international cultural cooperation. These policy guidelines should now be further extended and brought in line with the challenges of our time.

It makes sense to go ahead with efforts (supported by both government funding and extra-budgetary sources) on two main fronts:

  • High culture and high art as Russia’s easily recognizable image in the world and its main cultural export item (measures to promote exhibitions of works by Russian masters of classical art and its contemporary forms, an increase in the number of tours by Russian performance companies, cultural exchanges, etc.).
  • Wider production and export of domestic products of mass culture, but not through cheap imitations of Western patterns of different trends in contemporary music, choreography, etc., but by cultivating original, exclusive styles based on all available formats. Furthermore, the highly professional execution of original ideas in each niche of pop culture and sub-cultural movements, as well as authentic music styles which can by no means be attributed to universal mass culture (folk songs, Russian romances and various trends in contemporary Russian folk music, etc.).

In this context a detailed analysis is required of the contemporary Russian film industry, of how to increase its share of the Russian market and its export potential, especially in the territory of the former Soviet Union, and particularly in the segment of “smart” high concept movies and big budget blockbusters that are based on military history themes. From the viewpoint of presentation historical events must be interpreted advantageously and bear a clear ideological message. Cinema must be approached as a political tool – the experience of Hollywood may well serve as a worthy example for Russian filmmakers to follow.

Next on the list of key factors contributing to the success of “soft” tools of external influence used by the state and to its ability to earn the international community’s friendly attitude is the availability of higher education at its universities for foreign students. Graduates will eventually return to their home countries, where some of them in due time will take leading positions. While considering the U.S. experience as a model it is worth recalling the extremely effective system – polished to perfection over decades – of bringing up loyal or friendly political and business elites in those countries, whose students once received education at American universities under international programs. More than 200 current and former prime ministers and presidents are graduates of such programs – among them Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Gerhard Schroeder, Mikheil Saakashvili and Victor Yushchenko; 80 members of the Saudi government were educated in the United States; 75 members of parliament in Kenya were trained at U.S. universities, etc.

In this context the practice of giving foreign citizens a chance to receive higher education in the Soviet Union deserves attention. During the Cold War it was an effective instrument of ideology and of forming friendly political elites in other countries. It is noteworthy that American researchers who analyzed U.S. cultural exports in the late 1950s and 1960s concluded that advocacy efforts by the U.S. government on the information front and cultural exchange programs were nothing but a timid reaction to the Soviet ideological offensive.

The most graphic example of this aspect of public diplomacy in Russia is the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (formerly, the Patrice Lumumba University of People’s Friendship). Established in 1960 as one of the priority national projects in order to create “controllable” political elites in the areas of Soviet influence around the world, the university proved to be the first and, regrettably, sole example of large-scale government support for such a resource forming the country’s soft power. The university confirmed the effectiveness of this tool by actively participating in the actual “engineering work” to create the establishments of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and it has earned international repute as a Soviet stronghold of the very same soft power (although the concept itself emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union). The university’s multiculturalism is unparalleled elsewhere in the world and it still serves as an effective means of creating a favorable climate of interethnic communication among the peoples of Russia. It could be much more effective in this regard, yielding significant benefits for the government’s nationalities policy if it enjoyed appropriate attention from the state.

With this in mind one cannot but ask whether the time is ripe for the Russian government to pay attention to this tremendously effective tool to build a platform to attain Russia’s long-term foreign-policy and economic interests, particularly in Asia, Africa and Latin America. It might make sense to revive a program of comprehensive state support for Russian universities training foreign students with at least partial government funding (the way such programs are subsidized in the U.S. and other Western countries), as well as financing from alternative sources.

Educational programs are an effective mechanism of long-term action, but Russian public diplomacy practically lacks such arrangements. Russia welcomes far fewer foreign students and university professors, and the share of representatives of the United States and Western Europe among them is tiny. Russia offers no instruction in English, while Russian, despite all efforts to the contrary, is used only among Russian immigrants and in the former Soviet republics.

Students should have a chance to receive Russian grants and study in Russia, while students specializing in Russian or Russian Area Studies should be able to visit the country and participate in conferences. There is the need for strengthening inter-state cultural and educational exchange programs with CIS countries, above all in what concerns Russian language internships and the opening of new Russian language institutions and courses in CIS and non-CIS countries.


Special attention should be paid to developing a long-term advocacy strategy to create a positive image of Russia in the world. To enhance its soft power, Russia must create a system of public diplomacy that would combine traditional views and new marketing approaches in order to achieve both short- and long-term effects on foreign audiences. Russia should master the skill of generating images too.

Of course, there is an obvious technological disparity of media arsenals – and not in Russia’s favor. The media war over the events in South Ossetia in August 2008 was an eloquent example. Also, the foreign public relations agencies hired under state contracts were not very effective. In particular, this applies to the agency Ketchum, which the Russian presidential staff in 2006 asked to provide a positive news background during Russia’s presidency of the Group of Eight in 2006.

Using existing strengths and international contacts in the sphere of global public relations, it makes sense to resort to the financial capabilities of Russian big businesses for playing a more aggressive “game” in the information and entertainment television industry. One of the results of such steps might be the emergence of new information and news channels (along with Russia Today), as well as television channels and radio stations covering popular science, sports and entertainment, and broadcasting in foreign languages to foreign audiences.

Existing information resources are utterly insufficient. Public diplomacy is needed to ensure that large international audiences do not see the dull gray-and-black pictures of bleak working-class neighborhoods of Russian industrial towns that Western broadcasters are so keen to show, but rather bright landscapes from different regions of the country, tourist attractions, beautiful cities and happy faces of gifted, passionate, independent and successful people.

No less noteworthy is the development of the Cyrillic segment of the Internet, as well as the dissemination and popularization of the English language content of domestic network resources. Nor should we ignore the usefulness of the blogosphere as an effective discussion platform and a simulator for “road-testing” public diplomacy mechanisms at the non-governmental level.

Yet the creation of Russia’s own international media – however important – will only be the first step. To create an image the world public will find attractive enough, the state needs a structure that would coordinate all areas of public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, foreign cultural policy and advocacy, and also assume responsibility for training personnel and participate in shaping foreign policy.

Such a public authority does not exist in modern Russia. Thus there is no mechanism for interdepartmental (inter-corporate) coordination of efforts in this sphere. Russia’s public diplomacy is governed at the level of the top national leadership through the press service and foreign policy offices of the presidential staff and the Russian government staff. Alongside its tangible strengths this structure has an obvious drawback: the whole organization is strictly vertical, which greatly hinders grassroots initiative.

Creating a structure in Russia similar to the very bright example from U.S. history – USIA (which existed in 1953-1999) – might preserve the current involvement of top leadership in public diplomacy and at the same time maintain a more effective feedback with non-governmental sources of information. Furthermore, such an office might take part in training personnel for Russian public diplomacy, because the country today has no professionals in this field. This is one of the significant “blank spots” in the system of forming Russia’s own soft power potential.


Of course it is the financial and economic potential of the country that constitutes the fundamental basis which enables Russia to use soft power tools in a systematic and organized fashion for coping with foreign policy tasks. In this regard, success in the strategic development of this foreign policy segment depends on the capabilities of both the federal budget and government policy to attract big businesses to financing long-term projects where political effects may manifest themselves only at some far-off date. The economic feasibility of such endeavors may look very doubtful at first sight. Then the choice will have to be made between pragmatic considerations of current economic conditions dictated by the market, and agreeing with the risk of stranded investment at the initial stages in exchange for creating a platform to exert political and economic influence in the future.

It is important to remember that this should not be tantamount to the indefinite “feeding” of friendly states, fraternal republics and their corrupt elites, huge debt write-offs, etc. Having calculated the long-term political and economic effects of such steps, we should consider the expedience of such measures in practice. And it is important to remember that on the one hand, the further use of the energy weapon as one of the most compelling and effective foreign policy tools remains effective and relevant; on the other hand, the lack of flexibility in oil price policies in relations with neighboring fraternal states and in other matters is harmful to the perception of Russia – not so much by the elites as, unfortunately, by the people of those countries (as a result of retaliatory media campaigns).

A particularly important and sensitive area of work for Russia, primarily in the CIS, is resistance to activities by the U.S., which uses a variety of tools from its rich soft power arsenal very effectively. First of all, this concerns multi-level blocking of opportunities for political technological projects to build hostile regimes along Russia’s borders, the engineering of “velvet revolutions,” the financing of anti-Russian actions by countries in the territory of the former Soviet Union, etc.

In this context, one cannot but mention the need to overcome the multi-layered fragmentation (conceived and managed from outside) of the Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian people as members of a single ethnic group. Maintaining political, economic and even cultural strife among the three peoples is a strategic task of groups in the West that exercise their influence on foreign policy decisions and their content in many former Soviet countries and define the political rhetoric of these countries’ leaderships.

However, it is not only the financial might of the state that determines its ability to maintain and consistently update and replenish the arsenal of soft power, although the availability of funds, of course, is crucial. Over the eight years of windfall oil revenue and the formation of all sorts of financial institutions, such as the Stabilization Fund and the so-called National Welfare Fund, Russia can afford the “luxury” of at least suggesting the possibility (even amid the global economic crisis) of reserving a special budget article to donate to the sector that directly reflects the international image of the state, the condition of national security and the national defense capability.

It is important that the elite develop an awareness of the problem. There is a need to demonstrate political will in order to implement concrete steps to translate this awareness into reality. Also, reliance on emerging civic-minded institutions is becoming ever more relevant. Against this background the glaring lack of a mechanism stands out for coordinating the government’s public diplomacy with non-governmental organizations and other non-government actors, such as the business community. Meanwhile, the joint programs of Russian and foreign NGOs, as well as NGOs and businesses, can become an independent and effective area of public diplomacy in Russia.

Another likely effective way to fight Russia’s artificially shaped negative image abroad is the development of tourism – through public investment and creation of favorable conditions for the tourist business and at the expense of private investors, who may expand the range of programs that attract foreign tourists to Russia.

One cannot but touch upon another aspect crucial for the state. In a sense, soft power spells the power of appeal, and an appealing image of the country automatically promotes a comfortable investment climate and obviously contributes to the development of the national economy. Quite remarkable in this context is the idea of “cloning” the current Russian leadership’s declared policy of modernization and innovative development of the economy in Russia’s cooperation with other CIS member-states. At present, Rossotrudnichestvo is drafting a special program for innovative cooperation by CIS countries up until 2020. Although this initiative raises quite a few questions and is still a protocol document and a declaration of intent, the very move along these lines and the attempt to form an image of Russia as the innovative leader of the CIS deserves close attention. Support for and the development of such innovative, research-intense projects, along with the Skolkovo program, is an undeniable contribution to strengthening the basics of not only Russia’s soft power, but also its “smart power.”

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Is it possible to create an appealing image from outside without forming such power inside the state? Soft power – a well-considered foreign cultural policy and an original strategy of national cultural security – can only be created by a strong state capable of dealing effectively with domestic problems while simultaneously reproducing attractive images.

In this regard, Russia’s unresolved problems are too numerous to count. Before developing a set of advocacy tools it will be necessary to finalize a state ideology, which is still in the process of elaboration.

There is a strong need for full government financing and implementation of programs to push Russians towards physical culture and sports. It is also necessary to expand anti-alcohol, anti-smoking and anti-drug campaigns despite the expected opposition from influential lobbyist groups. It must be remembered that the problem of a healthy population pose a real threat to national security.

Another important area is the revitalization of efforts by the state and public organizations to resolve the critical demographic situation in the country and the related restoration of fundamental moral and social benchmarks.

By coping with these internal problems and gaining genuine state strength, which is not confined to the nuclear deterrence potential inherited from the Cold War years, Russia can earn respect, make its power attractive and achieve invariably tangible results in foreign policy.