December 5, 2022

Russian Overreach In The Post-Soviet Space

An excerpt from, "Understanding Russia’s Soft Power Strategy" By Alexander Sergunin and Leonid Karabeshkin, Political Studies Association, 2015, Pg. 356-7:

Post-Soviet countries are quite suspicious about Moscow’s soft power policies in this region. Both the policy-oriented and research literature is replete with critical assessments of Russian soft power efforts, especially in the post-Soviet space. According to one account, ‘unlike the traditional definition of soft power, Russia’s soft power does not display emphasis on legitimacy and moral authority.... It serves to divide rather than unite and to arouse apprehension rather than provide comfort’ (Grygas, 2012). For example, the Baltic States’ complaint list includes ‘creation, maintenance and support of Kremlin-friendly networks of influence in the cultural, economic and political sectors’, dissemination of biased information, local agendasetting through the Russian state-controlled media, and making compatriots primarily loyal to the Kremlin. Western experts believe that Russia’s main objective is to undermine the statehood of post-Soviet states and enhance the sphere of its influence. Another interpretation sees Moscow as ‘seeking to exploit the Western concept of “soft power” ... reframing it as a euphemism for coercive policy and economic arm-twisting’ (Minzarari, 2012). Some Russian experts, in fact, echo this observation by saying that the concept of ‘soft power’ has two meanings: narrow, linked primarily to attractiveness; and broad, the ability to change the policy preferences of others (Troitski, 2011). The second meaning, in practical terms, is very close to the notion of ‘hard power’.

If we look at specific areas of Russia’s soft power policies, foreign experts have been fairly critical of Moscow’s economic policies. For example, Russia’s energy potential has often been perceived as an ‘energy weapon’ – i.e. a hard rather than soft power instrument. As for the 'cultural dimension’ of Russia’s soft power policies, Russian ‘high’ culture has proved difficult to instrumentalise for practical purposes. In part, Russia’s rich cultural traditions are often overshadowed by negative perceptions of current political developments in this country (Troitski, 2011). Moreover, in contrast with ‘high’ culture, contemporary Russian popular culture, lifestyle and media products seem to be less attractive for foreigners, even for Russia’s compatriots. The (excessive) presence of Russia-made entertainment and news in the local media is often viewed as a threat to constructing a ‘true’ national or European identity. It is often claimed that ethnic minorities in post-Soviet countries live in a Russian 'information space’, which allegedly undermines their loyalty to their states of domicile. In general, one may find that attitudes of Russian compatriots towards Russia are quite ambiguous. On the one hand, they express certain affinity with Russia and even with the ruling political regime (e.g. vast majority of the Russian citizens residing in Estonia voted for Putin in 2012). On the other hand, when they are able to make a choice about where to get education and/or where to migrate, they prefer Europe or North America to Russia.

The role of compatriots in Russia’s soft power strategy has been subject to criticism as well. As identified by a Polish expert, ‘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 principles and goals, the country seeks to mobilize those who already agree with them’ (C´ wiek-Karpowicz, 2012). Besides, soft power is often perceived by local political elites as creating a Russian ‘fifth column’ that works against independent statehood. Statements made about the need to consolidate Russian compatriots abroad (which can be realistically achieved only in the Baltic States) exacerbate existential fears even more (Conley et al., 2011). With the start of the Ukrainian crisis, the hostile attitude of the Baltic States to Moscow’s efforts to develop cooperation with compatriots has significantly increased. The allegations that ‘we are the next on Russia’s list’ and that the ‘Donbass scenario’ can be repeated in the Baltic States have become widespread in the Baltic media.

An excerpt from, "The Rise and Fall of Russia’s Soft Power" By Vera D. Ageeva, Russia In Global Affairs, March 15, 2021:

The idea of the Russian world, which since the 2000s has been actively promoted by both the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church, has also transformed significantly from a purely cultural into a geopolitical phenomenon, forfeiting the potential of a neutral concept that could unite all those who, regardless of nationality, are interested in Russian culture and are “not indifferent to its affairs and fate” (Batanova, 2009, p.14). After the term was used in official rhetoric explaining Russian actions in Crimea in the spring of 2014, the Russian world narrowed considerably, with Ukraine having been forced out of it and the remaining allies having learned their lesson from the Crimean story (, 2015). The politicization and securitization of this idea has made it utterly impossible to use it as an instrument of soft power that could unite the Russophiles regardless of their political beliefs.

An excerpt from, "Robert Kaplan: Grand Strategy and the Return of Marco Polo's World" by Robert Kaplan, CNAS, March 14, 2018:

"What Russia seems to be doing is trying to re-establish a soft, traditional zone of quasi-imperial influence throughout Central Eastern Europe by subverting democratic systems, from Estonia in the north to Bulgaria in the south, and including the Caucasus.  Things like organized crime rings, buying off corrupt politicians, buying media through third parties, running intelligence operations, et cetera, all things that are relatively inexpensive, many of which are deniable, maybe not credibly so, but at least they can be denied nevertheless.  And you would always withdraw further.  You can always pull back if you get resistance."