There is limited appeal of Russia’s soft power for others but Moscow’s objectives are modest, hence its policy is satisfactory to the ruling elite.
In February 2017, an article by the Moscow-based journalist Roman Dobrokhotov was published in Al Jazeera, the Qatari-owned and funded television channel. It was about Russia’s soft power.
Dobrokhotov pointed out that “Hackers and trolls might help you discredit the opponent, but they cannot create a positive image of your country, when it is a poor, unfree state with rampant corruption, backward education and a weak healthcare system. Yes, Russia is a serious threat to the West in the sense that it can encourage the growth of the ultra-conservative and populist forces, pushing for disintegration and nationalism - all this might affect negatively economic growth and security. But the problem is that Moscow does not really get anything out of it. The children of US officials don’t go to study in Moscow University; Swiss businessmen are not depositing their money in Russian banks; Germans are not buying Russian cars. Paradoxically, Russia will be the first to suffer from the weakening of the West. In a time of crisis, investors will first withdraw their money from unstable developing markets, including Russia.”
Nevertheless, the picture is not as bleak as Dobrokhotov’s evaluation appears to present at first glance. Russia does not aspire to be a global superpower mimicking the US, but a regional one and thus its soft power is aimed at deterring NATO’s encroachment into the regions of the former Soviet Union. As long as Russia appears to be a benchmark of success of some sorts to the peoples of the former Soviet Union, Moscow’s soft-power goals would be met. Russia aims to appeal primarily to the residents of Dushanbe and Kiev, not Toronto or Kuala Lumpur.
Moscow is open about the fact that it views the countries of the former Soviet Union as its strategic and privileged sphere of influence. The former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev (and current prime minister) proclaimed this position openly on August 31, 2008.
It is enough for Moscow that millions of people from the Caucasus and Central Asia migrate to Russia for employment. Without remittances from Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia would be in open revolt against the autocratic systems in place there. According to the Economist’s report from 2016, “in Tajikistan four in ten working-age adults have sought jobs abroad; in 2014 they sent home remittances equivalent to 42% of GDP, proportionally more than any other country in the world received. Armenia, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan also received remittances worth at least 10% of GDP—more than the Philippines, a country famous for its migrant workers.”
Most migrant workers head to Russia because they speak the language and are familiar with Russian mentality and culture. Further, they shared the same country until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Apart from the Baltic States, Russia looks pretty good in most respects when it is compared to the autocratic regimes dominating the former Soviet republics. It may be a low benchmark, but it is adequate for Moscow’s soft-power ambitions.
Does Russia’s soft power ambition have a future? Due to the ongoing implosion of the US, crisis in the EU and Russia’s positive contribution to aborting the imperialist project against Islamic Iran in Syria, it appears that it does. Nevertheless, this optimism is only for the medium term; in the long term, Russian soft power will not have much appeal or impact.
The lack of appeal of Russian soft power is fully exposed in Ukraine where it has to constantly appeal to the legacy of the Soviet Union, outdated Marxist narrative of history and old school slogans. It has also failed to provide tangible socio-economic benefits to the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. The conflict in Ukraine shows that hard power is the primary policy choice for Moscow, as it is aware of the limitations of its soft power.
The relatively successful Russian implementation of soft power can be observed in Chechnya, but only due to local factors. Moscow had to concede considerable autonomy to the pro-Moscow Chechen clans in order to keep the volatile region stable. It is those clans that with Moscow’s assistance managed to formulate a semi Sufi-Islamic political identity due to Islam’s progressive and dynamic ethos. This approach has managed to implement quite a unique socio-political identity and modus operandi within the Russian Federation that appeals to some Muslims within Russia.
Also, the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) launched in 2014 that comprises Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Belarus did not produce any serious economic results. Overall, Eurasianism, a semi-spiritual and traditional Russian rooted “third-way” worldview is the only serious alternative narrative through which Russia could create a real substantive soft-power model, but Russia’s ruling elites are not cut out for it. Their civilizational reference points are luxurious properties in London and the “pleasures” of Las Vegas.
In 2012, Dr. Jarosław Ćwiek-Karpowicz, head of the Program for Eastern and Southeastern Europe at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, pointed out that “the country has not been able to enhance its attractiveness as a soft power among its closest neighbors. Although Russian policy-makers recognize the importance of soft power, they have misinterpreted the concept. They reduce it to a platform for spreading propaganda and focus most of all on loyal constituencies like compatriots living in post-Soviet states. Russian policy in this regard seems to contradict the concept of soft power: instead of winning people over who do not share Russia’s foreign policy principles and goals, the country seeks to mobilize those who already agree with them.”
While Russia is a relatively traditional society with some spiritual inclinations, its ruling elites are staunch secular-liberals completely committed to capitalism as their counterparts in London and Washington. It would be a grave mistake to view Moscow’s tactical confrontation with NATO on some aspects, as a strategic opposition. Peter the Great, the Russian Czar credited with Westernizing Russia, is revered by Russian elites to this day. The best alternative the current ruling elite could come up with to the dominating Peter the Great outlook on Russia is Ivan the Terrible. In October 2016 the Russian city of Oryol installed the country’s first ever monument to Ivan the Terrible, the 16th-century despot for whom soft power would be heresy.
Given the above factors, the Islamic power centers ought to take the brutal history of Russia towards Muslims into account when expressing over enthusiastic support for Moscow’s position against NATO’s imperialism in some parts of the globe. Muslims will pay a terrible price if they assist replacing Washington’s imperialism with that of Moscow’s. All that glitters is not gold, according to the old adage. Therefore, a quid pro quo attitude must be taken when dealing with a resurgent Russia.