opinion
Some reflections on Russian 'soft power' in contemporary times
by Dr. Michael Eric Lambert
Dr. Michael Eric Lambert
Director of the French Black Sea Institute, "Meeting Russia 2018" Alumnus
Meeting Russia Alumnus Dr. Michael Lambert, director of the Black Sea Institute, offers a new look at the Russian 'soft power' and considers it as a gathering of influence of Western Russia, the Far-East, Siberia, and the North Caucasus to their respective neighbourhoods.
In a romantic vision, Russia's soft power brings back to imperial nostalgia and authors with 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, 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 civilization and Christianity to indigenous peoples. This picturesque image of Imperial Russia combines, and this must be taken into consideration when talking about soft power and international stereotypes, with the beauty of women described by Napoléon's soldiers themselves once back from the terrible campaigns where they left so many comrades on the battlefield.
If romantic people are fewer and fewer, the new generation is more attracted by the picture of modern Russia - that of the post-Soviet world - the inextricable heiress of the USSR. Space conquest, Sputnik traveling unhindered over the capitalist world, the idea of equality in a post-feudal world, titanic architectural projects - like the Moscow metro - are elements that still make contemporaries dream and succumb to soft power of the country, not to say of this singular civilization.

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", 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, are 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.
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For the pragmatists, de facto and/or partially recognized states - Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, People's Republics in Eastern Ukraine - have no possible similarities with either Quebec, Scotland, Catalonia or Kosovo, and are just ambitions 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 "fake news" with the aim of destabilizing the US elections, inciting nationalism in Europe to implode the European Union from within. For the pragmatists, every tweet, every political reform, the World Cup, and of course soft power itself would aim to weaken or divide for a substantial benefit.
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The pragmatists forget that any country is sovereign and the relevance of Russia in a complex geopolitical space stretch from Europe to Asia.
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 suffering of the conquered peoples, the current economic misery of a large part of the population, the bullying done to journalists who do not support the Kremlin's policy, and so many other elements which may lead the Russian government to an impasse.

On the other hand, the pragmatists forget that any country is sovereign and the relevance of Russia in a complex geopolitical space stretch 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 shared borders with North Korea. Moreover, let's not forget that when Europe (the EU) and the United States decide to welcome Russian political dissidents, Russia does the same. Snowden against political activists from Russia: 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 to misjudgments 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 political structure probably remote from the dream of the founding fathers?
Let's not forget that when Europe (the EU) and the United States decide to welcome Russian political dissidents, Russia does the same. Snowden against political activists from Russia: a tacit exchange between great powers?
Let's start from this postulate, that is, soft power of Russia is neither that of a grandiose country, nor 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, 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 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 in the West. In contrast, Russia objectively offers more freedoms compared to many countries in Asia. Although decried by Westerners, the Russian internet is much freer than in mainland China, blogs and social networks allow to easily communicate with the United States and the European Union (examples: Facebook, Twitter), and the Russian authorities do not practice torture in prisons or mandatory organ donation for those sentenced to death.

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

Can we speak of "Eurasian" soft power? After all, Russia borrows from two approaches that are those of soft power in the West and in the East. The situation of dividing the Russian people themselves, some of whom want more grip and some looking for more freedoms, attests the debates on the crisis in Ukraine.

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 not we then advance the idea of a specific soft power for Saint Petersburg, like that of such world cities as Paris and New York City? Is it possible to appreciate Moscow itself without loving the rest of Russia? Let us not forget that peoples of Northern Scandinavia are close to the indigenous peoples of the Russian North with whom they share common history, while the Middle East countries have a singular affection for the Russian Caucasus but not 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 let's start to consider soft power of Russia to be the gathering of influence of Western Russia, the Far-East, Siberia, and the North Caucasus to their respective neighbourhoods. From the historian perspective, over-simplification is rarely a solution and for such a concept as soft power corresponds several subtleties depending on the people looking at it.

In conclusion, what is soft power of Russia in the 21st century? A hybrid of the West and the East, which does not detract from its singularity and uniqueness, but also the combination of several regional soft powers that are 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.
The text of this article is also published on the website of New Eastern Europe