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Nighttime reflection on the soft power of Russia in contemporary times

It is difficult to describe the soft power of Russia. Is it viable to think of it in Western terms?

September 11, 2018 - Michael Eric Lambert - Articles and Commentary

Golden Gates of the Catherine Palace, Tsarskoe Selo. St. Petersburg. Photo: Florstein wikimedia.org (cc)

In a romantic vision, Russia’s soft power brings back imperial nostalgia and authors with an overflowing imagination as evidenced by the stories of “The Captain’s Daughter” by Alexander Pushkin and “First Love” by Ivan Turgenev. The notion of grandeur imposes itself instinctively – probably because Russia is, de jure, the largest country in the world in terms of area – with Siberia and its mysteries, the natural beauty of the mountainous landscape, and the adventurers of the Far East in Vladivostok. If you belong to the romantic people, the power of influence of Russia is expressed through the glorious military history of the country, the conquests in Central Asia at a time when the nomadic tribes were still the only masters of the steppe, and the struggle to impose civilisation and Christianity on indigenous peoples. This picturesque image of Imperial Russia combines, and this must be taken into consideration when talking about soft power and international stereotype, with the beauty of the women described by Napoléon’s soldiers themselves once back from the terrible campaigns where they left so many comrades on the battlefield.

If the romantic people are fewer and fewer, the new generation is attracted by the picture of a modern Russia – that of the post-Soviet world – inextricably heiress of the USSR. Space conquest, Sputnik traveling unhindered over the capitalist world, the idea of ​​equality in a post-feudal world, the titanic architectural projects – like the Moscow metro – are elements that still make contemporaries dream and succumb to the soft power of the country not to say of this singular civilisation.

Therefore, no need to explain the fragmentation of opinions between those who share this romantic view and those who perceive Russian soft power from a much different angle, less poetic. For this second category of people, let’s call them the “pragmatists of soft power,” the Russian influence includes a utilitarian vision, a means for the Kremlin to satisfy its inclinations and regain its power abroad. The return of the Orthodoxy, the parades on the Red Square, the massive investments in the Arctic, not say pretty much almost everything that Moscow aspires to, is then considered to be a wish to return to the international scene. In that context, the objective of Russia through its soft power would not be to shine but to achieve a goal often inseparable from the military ambitions.

A pragmatist view

For the pragmatists, de facto and/or partially recognised states – Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Eastern Ukraine – have no possible similarities with Quebec, Scotland, neither Catalonia or Kosovo, and are the ambition to keep Russian military outposts in Europe. Anything that wants more autonomy in the post-Soviet space would then be the fruit of the Russian strategy of divide and rule, while in the West it would be powerful areas looking for more sovereignty. Why would separatism be so different in the East compared to the West? Russia is therefore the one who divulges “fakes news,” with the aim of destabilising the US elections, inciting nationalism in Europe to bring the European Union to implode from within. For the pragmatists, every tweet, every political reform, the World Cup, and of course the soft power would aim to weaken or divide for a substantial benefit.

Idyllic versus Manichean views? As in many cases, the two approaches combine and none is more relevant than the previous one. Thus, the romantics forget the suffering of the conquered peoples, the current economic misery of a large part of the population, the bullying that we do to journalists no supporting the Kremlin’s policy, and so many other elements on which the Russian government wants to make the impasse.

On the other hand, the pragmatists forget that a country is sovereign and the relevance of Russia in a complex geopolitical space stretching from Europe to Asia. Russia is providing concerted support in the fight against terrorism in the North Caucasus and Central Asia, fighting against piracy in the Caspian Sea and in the Pacific, and stops trafficking of all kinds at the share borders with North Korea. Moreover, let us not forget that when Europe (the EU) and the United States are deciding to welcome Russian political dissidents, Russia does the same. Snowden against FEMEN, a tacit exchange between great powers?

Therefore, it is all about perspective and if a country does not share the interests of the European Union or the United States, this does not mean that it is a question of imperialism. This Manichean position of one and the other – reinforced by economic and political interests – leads a misjudgment regarding the relevance and reality of contemporary Russia in the international system. We should be more careful, to blame Moscow for the evils of the West is to deny the reality of a Western world in the throes of change. Is it impertinent to think of the United States as a country where the majority decided to vote for Trump? Would not the European Union be losing ground, refusing to accept the change of national borders inside and abroad, and the elites in Brussels be responsible for the lack of interest regarding a political structure probably far from the dream of the founding 

Let’s start from this postula, that is, the soft power of Russia is not that of a grandiose country, nor is it the instrument of the Kremlin to dominate its near abroad. In that context, what could we say about the current structure of the latter?

For starters, the soft power of Russia – because of the geographical arrangement – is a combination of soft powers that we find both in Western countries and in Asian states. That is to say that the soft power of Russia is based on the image of stability that brings a government as in Asia (examples: Singapore and the People’s Republic of China) which is otherwise less appreciated because considered to be too coercive by the West. In contrast, Russia objectively offers more freedoms compared to many countries in Asia. Although decried by Westerners, the internet is much freer than in mainland China, blogs and social networks allow to communicate with the United States and the European Union (examples: Facebook, Twitter), and we do not practice torture in prisons or mandatory organ donation for those sentenced to death.

In the Western perspective, the Russian soft power is coercive and autocratic, but let us remember that from an Asian perspective it is considered to be (too) tolerant and democratic. Taking an international perspective, every reform decried by the West is often appreciated in China and vice versa.

Eurasian soft power

Can we speak of an “Eurasian” soft power? After all, Russia borrows from the two approaches that are those of the soft power in the West and in the East. A perspective of an in-between that divides the Russian people themselves, some of whom want more grip and some looking for more freedoms, attests the debates on the crisis in 

To close this late-night reflection on Russian soft power in the 21st century, isn’t it a little bit naïve to talk about soft power in a federal state? The Russian dream of many Westerners, is above all that of Saint Petersburg and Moscow, more than that of Vladivostok. In contrast, the countries of Asia and Central Asia look to the Far East and Siberia with whom they share more similarities. Could we not then advance the idea of ​​a specific soft power for Saint Petersburg, like that of the “world cities” such as Paris and New York City? Is it possible to appreciate Moscow itself without loving the remainder of Russia? Let us not forget that the peoples of northern Scandinavia are close to the indigenous peoples of the Northern of Russia with whom they share a common history, while the Middle East countries have a singular affection for the Russian Caucasus but not especially for the rest of the country.

Let us abstain from applying a uniform concept like soft power to such a large scale country – no more than to smaller countries – and lets start to consider the soft power of Russia to be the gathering of the influence of Western Russia, the Far-East, Siberia, and the North Caucasus to their respective neighbourhoods. From the perspective of a Historian, over-simplification is only rarely the solution and for each concept – such as soft power – corresponds several subtleties depending on the people looking at it.

In conclusion, what is the soft power of Russia in the 21st century? A hybrid between the West and Asia, which does not detract from its singularity and uniqueness, but also the combination of several regional soft powers that is mentioned too rarely even though it is objectively difficult to deny them regarding the size of the country, its geography and the variety of its inhabitants.

Michael Eric Lambert has a PhD in International Relations from Sorbonne University and is the director of the Black Sea Institute.

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