Room for debate: Who is to blame for the failure of Russian  soft power? Here, the view is that Russia itself is to blame (part 1 of 3, read part 2 and part 3)

“The Russian government should spend less on propaganda, and more on direct contacts.” Photo: AP

 For a very different take read: "The strange rise and fall of Russian soft power (Part 2)"

The fact that Russia is not included in the Soft Power 30 Global Ranking is just the latest evidence that the Kremlin’s policies are sapping the nation’s efforts at projecting soft power. Here are six reasons why Russian soft power has gone limp.

Following the adoption of the controversial “patriotic stop list” for foreign NGOs and the passage of a law on foreign “undesirables,” this week the Kremlin officially banned the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the Washington-based non-governmental organization (NGO) mostly funded by the U.S. Congress. 

Against this backdrop, the entire chant and buzz about the rise of Russian soft power and the nation’s efforts to boost its international attractiveness over the past decade seems to be very dubious. Ironically, the person who proposed the well-publicized patriotic stop list is the former head of Russia’s soft power agency Rossotrudnichestvo, Konstantin Kosachev, who before Russia’s confrontation with the West over Ukraine seemingly welcomed educational exchanges and grassroots people-to-people communications.

After switching to a new position as the head of the Committee on International Affairs at Russia’s Federation Council, Kosachev’s political initiatives are among the reasons why foreign NGOs are leaving Russia. With his approval of the departure of the MacArthur Foundation from Russia, his rhetoric has changed. As some Russian media reported, he looked very satisfied with the news about the American NGO’s withdrawal, because he “hit the nail on the head.”

Such a change is not a good sign, especially amidst the growth of anti-Western sentiments in both Russian society and political circles. So, no wonder that the recent Soft Power 30 Global Ranking, prepared by the influential Portland agency, doesn’t include Russia.

Despite the inherent subjectivity and bias that goes into making any ranking, this soft power ranking seems to be comprehensive and takes into account six objective sub-indexes—Enterprise, Culture, Digital, Government, Engagement, and Education. If one applies them to Russia, its low soft power profile becomes easy to explain.

Russia’s business model is flawed and unattractive

Enterprise as defined by the authors of the ranking means “the attractiveness of a country’s business model, capacity for innovation, and regulatory framework.” Given the uncertain investment climate in Russia and huge capital outflows, it becomes clear why Russia lags behind other nations.

Here are some figures to prove Russia’s relative unattractiveness. In 2014, capital outflow totalled $151 billion, while in 2013 it was $61 billion, which is even bigger than during the 2008 economic crisis when it reached $133.6 billion. Together with Russia’s miniscule share of global GDP (only 3 percent), the capital outflow doesn’t make Russia’s economic model attractive.

Regarding “capacity for innovation,” Russia is also not the best place. It struggles to improve its innovation track record, but all attempts are futile no matter how much money it wastes on innovation projects. To innovate, Russia needs to unchain itself from state control, to quote Dominique Fache, the administrator of France’s leading technological park Sophia Antipolis Foundation.

“The Russian economy is based on big companies, which are really not ready for innovation, because innovation is appearing in the world where the rules of the game are different,” he told Russia Direct.

Cultural hubris

Culture is another criterion of a country’s soft power, which is supposed to have an extensive global reach. “When a country’s culture promotes universal values that other nations readily identify with, it makes the nation naturally attractive to others,” the authors of the ranking wrote, pointing out that a country’s cultural production should “capture both the quality and international penetration.”

At first glance, Russia seems to meet this criterion. After all, Russian culture, especially literature, music and architecture, is globally recognized. But, basically, this refers to Russia’s historic and cultural heritage, to classic writers. Today there are few artists in Russia who are globally recognized.

Even those who have attained global recognition, such as filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev, the director of the Oscar-nominated “Leviathan” movie, usually portray an unattractive, real Russia, with all its problems and inconvenient controversy. No wonder such works are met with harsh criticism and even seen as “unpatriotic” by official and ordinary people.    

"Leviathan" - Official HD Trailer (with English subs). Source: YouTube / PalaceFilms

Instead of effectively promoting its culture by appealing to universal values, Russia seems to use it in propaganda-influenced goals to stress its uniqueness and spread anti-Western sentiments. Politicians, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, use the works of famous philosophers and thinkers like Nikolay Berdyaev for political means to spread the idea of Russia’s conservatism and exceptionalism.

In fact, Russia’s Ministry of Culture is now spreading these ideological clichés as a matter of policy. Recently it asked the director of Russia's Foreign Literature Library to close an American Corner in Moscow. In addition, the Ministry of Culture is behind the idea of another ideological project: building a 24-meter statue of Vladimir the Great, the warlord who Christianized the state of Kievan Rus in the late 10th century. This is especially symbolic after the incorporation of Crimea into Russia. Another Vladimir, Russia’s president Putin, described Crimea as sacred for Russia because “Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized before bringing Christianity to Rus.”

Digital propaganda

The soft power ranking pays a great deal of attention to digital resources, which it defines as “an incredibly useful means to reach a much larger international audience” for those involved in public diplomacy as well as ordinary individuals, companies, media outlets and NGOs.

In fact, Russia has huge potential in digital resources in this regard. After all, it has good access to the Internet and social media, but, again, it seems to go in the wrong direction, which doesn’t make it attractive for foreigners.

Take, for example, the controversial law on personal data storage. It obliges foreign Internet companies to store information about Russian citizens on Russia-based servers. Even though foreign Internet companies didn’t wind up leaving the country, it produced a chilling effect and, definitely, didn’t make Russia’s image appealing abroad. 

 For a very different take read: "Russian soft power is just like Western soft power, but with a twist" 

Likewise, the misuse of social media and online outlets in propaganda-influenced goals and, particularly, the creation of so-called “troll armies” don’t score points for Russia’s soft power. Initially created as a soft power tool, the TV network RT (former Russia Today) doesn’t fulfill its original goals, even though some believe it does. On the country, RT is perceived in the West as aggressive propaganda, not as an instrument of soft power.

With such an approach, any attempts to improve the situation is hardly likely to be a game-changer, according to the Western experts. As Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor who coined the term soft power, told Russia Direct, “The Russian government should spend less on propaganda, and more on direct contacts.” 

“When governments are perceived as manipulative and information is seen as propaganda, credibility is destroyed,” Nye wrote in the forward to the Soft Power Ranking. “The best propaganda is not propaganda.”

But some Russian officials and experts dont's agree with the authors of the ranking, who believe that “Propaganda as we know it is dead.”

No freedom, no soft power 

One of the ranking’s most crucial criteria is Government, which captures political values, including freedom, human rights, democracy and equality. And amidst increasing fear of espionage, search of foreign agents and anti-Western sentiments fueled by propaganda, it becomes obvious that Russia is not attractive at all.

The warning sign came in 2012 with the departure of the United Sates Agency for International Development (USAID) from Russia. Then the Kremlin banned American families from adopting Russian orphans. The same year the authorities adopted two restrictive laws: the Internet blacklist law and the law on foreign agents.

In 2015, a series of events exacerbated the situation. The ban of the NED, the departure of the MacArthur Foundation, the dismissal of an American Vice-Rector from Nizhny Novgorod State University, the law on undesirable organizations—all this has not been the sign of great political freedoms. It is the sign of the country’s Soviet-style yearning for isolation. If the country doesn’t have good governance and can’t deliver good outcomes to its citizens, it doesn’t have its own house and backyard in order, and it won’t be an attractive partner.  

Russia’s failure to engage globally

The Engagement sub-index measures “the reach of states’ diplomatic networks and their commitment to major challenges like development and the environment” as well as a country's participation in multi-lateral organizations. Even though Russia has more than 200 diplomatic representations in the world, it doesn’t mean that they play an active role in resolving global challenges in comparison with those of Western countries.

Russia participates in numerous international organizations. But at the same time, it was expelled from the G8 club after it incorporated Crimea. Moreover, the Kremlin spoiled its relations with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which labeled Russia a country-aggressor, and deprived the Russian delegation of the right to vote and participate at the PACE session. In response, Moscow threatened to ban PACE officials from monitoring its 2016 parliamentary elections.

On top of that, Russia’s Finance Minister Anton Siluanov proposed that Russia should leave numerous international organizations and stay in those key ones, which help to promote only Russian foreign policy and national interests. Again, it is not the best way of how to deal with international engagement and development.              

With Russia’s veto on the UN Security Council resolution that would set up an international tribunal over those involved in downing the MH17 Boeing, the problem of Moscow’s engagement in international community is even more aggravated: Its reputation becomes more vulnerable, while positions in the UN are very shaky.

Education as the last hope

Unfortunately, one of Russia’s big advantages — higher education — cannot reverse the trend of isolationism: The country’s soft power is fading despite an improved record demonstrated by Russia’s top universities in some global educational rankings in 2015. In the QS University Rating, Lomonosov Moscow State University (MGU) ranked among the top five universities in the BRICS countries. In the Times Higher Education rating, two Russian universities were included amongst the world’s 100 best universities, with MGU ranking 25th overall. Jonathan McGlory, the author of the Soft Power 30 Global ranking also points out that Russia’s strong point is education. Indeed, it has a high level of literacy and attracted more than 185,000 foreign students in 2014-2015.          

But again, basically Russian universities are still struggling to improve their ranking. Most importantly, Russia doesn’t attract many students from Western countries. Usually, it brings together students from developing and poor countries or its Near Abroad. Moreover, the problem is aggravated by the brain drain. Between January and August 2014, more than 200,000 people left Russia, according to Russia’s Federal Statistics Agency (Rosstat). This number is much higher than for the first eight months in 2013, which saw about 121,000 people emigrating from Russia.

Russia usually has those who live much worse in their countries coming to Russia, according to Vladimir Mau, Rector of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA).  “Unskilled immigrants are coming to our country, but skilled professionals are leaving it,” he told Russia Direct.

Russia and the future of nation branding

Today there is a great deal of talk about nation branding. Some foreigners admit that Russia has great potential, but it does need experience and knowledge in marketing itself. But there is nobody who would eagerly market Russia because of its flawed reputation in the world. This is simply a fact that is impossible to ignore.

 Recommended: "Hard thinking about Russian soft power: What to do next"

And all calls for the urgent need of marketing Russia create a sort of cognitive dissonance. How is it possible to market a country with a very controversial reputation? How to promote the country’s branding if its authorities are intransigent and reluctant to come up with a compromise? How to improve Russia’s image, if conspiracy theories abound about the country, which feels humiliated and is becoming increasingly suspicious of the West?  

Many pin hopes on bilateral exchange programs. But, again, the Kremlin hampers it as well. In 2014, it closed the Future Leader Exchange (FLEX) cultural and educational program. In summer 2015 Putin blamed Western organizations for searching or, in his words, “ferreting about in the Russian schools under the guise of a charity foundation” to “get the students on the hook” of the grants and take them away from the country.

There is also another option: student and academic grassroots initiatives or a number of the government-sponsored public diplomacy projects like Russian International Affairs Council and the Gorchakov Fund. And this seems to be a good and very promising option. Yet it won’t be a game changer as long as the Kremlin keeps isolating the country from the West. Its controversial and even radical stances overshadow the positive ones. 

In this regard, Joseph Nye is right in his warnings. “Bottoms up exchanges are a good route for Russia to take, but expelling Western foundations seems a step in the wrong direction,” Nye told Russia Direct.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct.