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February 19, 2013, Tuesday

Does Russia need ‘soft power’?

Multi-track diplomacy occupies an increasingly prominent position in current political discourse. This has long been an openly stated policy of many Western countries, notably the US, but recent days have seen much discussion of Russian foreign policy, particularly the ways in which Russian policymakers are pushing the “soft power” concept versus traditional diplomacy. Nonetheless, while a Google search reveals that more than 100 million sites mentioning the term “soft power,” it remains elusive as far as a concrete and universal definition is concerned. There is no established conceptual framework yet, and the dynamic changes across countries and regions.

Even for Joseph Nye Jr., the Harvard professor who developed the concept of soft power, the definition is unstable and sometimes vulnerable to misunderstanding. In general, the conceptual structure fails to draw a distinction between power resources and power currencies.

The questions in the case of Russia are whether Moscow needs soft power, why and where it wants use it.

Russification of the definition

Since 2008, the Russian government has focused on improving public diplomacy by establishing cultural centers and establishing a centralized mechanism to promote Russian nation branding. The building of its soft power capacity began during Dmitry Medvedev's presidency but was institutionalized as a foreign policy tool in Vladimir Putin's third term.

First of all, for the Russian leadership, soft power is a tool to be used in the realization of the country's foreign policy goals, a resource to bolster hard power and coercive power [i.e., UN Security Council membership). In this case, the difference is that for Nye, soft power is the ability to get others to want what you want; for Putin, the word “want” has a different meaning here: The target of Russia's soft power mechanism is coerced into doing what Moscow wants. The Western method attracts other countries to Western values/system and then traps them in this value system. Herein lies the difference. Russia's soft power denies Western values, or at least does not make room for democracy, human rights and freedoms as values of the West. Moscow's argument is that Western countries use values to influence the domestic issues of other countries, infringing on their sovereignty. However, despite its criticisms that the West “occupies” universal values, Russia offers no alternative -- Russian soft power only provides a rejection of Western values.

Second, in Russia's version of soft power, nation branding has a vital place: Russia offers its own national brands to rival Western ones. This includes national exports, investment, talent and tourism. This could be destructive for economic relations with post-Soviet republics if Russia no longer seems like a fair and competitive market for export.

Third, Russian soft power is under government control; the Kremlin is focusing on developing cultural dominance. In an article published on Jan. 23, 2012 by a Russian local newspaper (Nezavisimaya Gazeta), Putin stressed the central importance of Russian culture for all former Soviet states, emphasizing that Russian culture plays a central role whereby even “[those who] found themselves abroad, are calling themselves Russian, regardless of their ethnicity.” Russia is looking for new tools to promote Russian culture to increase its political leverage and reach, including across the diaspora. In this way, Moscow can claim its extraterritorial right to defend Russian nationals abroad, regardless of their status and citizenship. This is what happened in the August 2008 war with Georgia, when Russia claimed it was “protecting Russian citizens.” To bolster this strategy, Moscow wants to promote Russian as a second national language or a regional language in post-Soviet republics, as has already happened in Ukraine.

Moscow has been keen to publicize the results of a 2012 report by Ernst & Young, in conjunction with the Moscow-based Skolkovo Institute for Emerging Market Studies (SIEMS), which set out 13 soft power variables, including immigration, tourism, number of citizens in TIME's 100 most influential people list, ranking on the Times Higher Education World University Rankings index, number of Olympic medals, etc. According to the report, which evaluated the top 10 emerging economies from 2005 to 2010, ranking them by soft power variables, the top five are China, India, Russia, Brazil and Turkey.

Soft power, Russian-style

The Russian version of soft power does not seek to attract other countries; it is rather an additional tool for achieving foreign policy goals, namely the formation and development of the so-called Eurasian Union, which is being promoted via public diplomacy tools in post-Soviet countries.

The difference between ersatz and real soft power can be easily identified. In the case of the European Union, the “carrot” of EU membership has itself been the primary soft power tool as it encourages governments to meet the necessary legal, economic and regulatory standards to qualify for accession; of course, the EU is not forcing countries to join the union.

The true meaning of soft power for Russia was clarified a few days ago by President Putin himself. When he met with the head of special services, he declared that “we may encounter and, in fact, face [attempts to] slow down the integration work [on the Eurasian Union]. And in that case, a variety of tools of pressure can be used, including the mechanisms of so-called ‘soft power'.” In other words, Putin publicly hinted that Moscow is ready for special services to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and impose certain approaches if it meets resistance or opposition to the integration process.

It is debatable exactly what Putin meant in this case, but one can interpret it as almost equivalent to an order to employ all possible pressure tools they have in their arsenal. And this in turn indicates that Russia is already starting to use force to encourage integration: a “light force.” Soft power in Putin's eyes is closer to a light force; all of these various iterations of persuasion and coercion are being deployed as additional tools to help strengthen Russia in the face of opposition to the so-called Eurasian Union initiative and all that would entail for Moscow in terms of radically increased regional influence.

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