Russian soft and hard power: how strong are they?
Russia May Not Be As Strong As You Think
Experts say Russia is actively trying to promote its influence in the world, but these attempts largely end in failure.
Russian mercenaries in Africa and the Middle East, Russian propagandists in Belarus, Russian air defense systems for Turkey and Russian vaccine against COVID-19 – only part of the signs indicating that Russia is trying to increase its popularity in the world, and the number of these signs has been growing in recent years. All of them are designed to promote the image of Russia as a strong and stable country that, unlike democracies torn by contradictions, offers the world confidence and cooperation..
This was precisely the leitmotif of the speech of Russian President Vladimir Putin, recorded for the concluding UN General Assembly: he spoke with pride about the Russian remedy for combating the coronavirus pandemic and put forward several «integration proposals» – from the formation «Greater Eurasian Partnership» to some «green corridors», free from «trade wars and sanctions».
Part «soft power» Russia is and the force is quite tough – for example, a military presence in different countries, mainly in the form of various formations like «the Wagner group», whose connection with Moscow’s foreign policy after the events in Syria and Libya looks obvious.
Can such appeals resonate in the world? How does Russia’s reputation affect its efforts to strengthen its global influence? What services does Moscow offer to shape its image, and to whom does it offer them??
Aspects of Russian «soft» and «tough» The forces were discussed on September 25 by experts gathered for a teleconference by the PONARS Eurasia project (The Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia) of the George Washington University.
Johns Hopkins University expert Maria Snegovaya stated in this discussion that trends in the Russian economy are not acting to help the Kremlin’s desire to continue its international expansion: «Opportunity “sell” population assertive foreign policy in a deteriorating economic situation decreases».
The expert spoke about a sociological study that she conducted in Russia last year. Groups of respondents were given various information about the economic state of the country and asked questions about the need to increase spending on weapons and the priority of security over the standard of living (and vice versa).
«Those who received information about the poor state of the economy were less likely to support increases in defense spending. The same applied to the answer to the question whether Russia is «great power» – the term is often used in narratives about Russia’s growing military power and is closely related to the militaristic rhetoric of the Russian leadership. Those who saw information with negative economic indicators were not too inclined to seek recognition of Russia «great power» militarily», – tells Maria Snegovaya.
According to the expert, the developing COVID-19 pandemic and the steadily decreasing real incomes over the past 6 years make Russians less inclined to support the Kremlin’s military adventures abroad, including a possible military operation in Belarus..
Aleksandra Yatsuk, an expert at the Polish Institute for Advanced Study, talks about the role of Russia’s development of a coronavirus vaccine in the Kremlin’s overall efforts to use «soft power»: «Russia’s development of a coronavirus vaccine at an increased rate, according to the Kremlin’s calculations, should have brought Russia to the forefront of the fight against the pandemic, thus raising its status to «great power».
However, recalls Aleksandra Yatsuk, scientists from four countries – Italy, Germany, USA and Japan – wrote in September a letter to the developers of this vaccine, expressing doubts about the viability of the drug. Despite this and the ongoing trials of the vaccine, the researcher says, the Russian authorities are trying to promote its procurement and use in the world..
This move could be explained by the worldwide rush to get a cure for a disease that takes lives of people every day, but Alexandra Yatsuk believes that «in the light of the consequences of the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the Russian authorities felt the possibility of the onset of severe consequences of this step, and the promotion of the vaccine may be viewed by the Kremlin elite as a risky, but still a valuable opportunity to improve their image in the world».
Pavel Baev, an expert at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, points to Russia’s intervention in Syria as one of the manifestations of «hard power»:
«Actions in Syria allow Russia to demonstrate to the world that it can do with the help of its military power what China cannot: in particular, use it where Beijing does not dare to do it, despite the fact that its economic interests in this region are much greater than Moscow. Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict, in fact, has become the central point of all Russian policy in the Middle East.».
«However, this interference, – continues the expert, – is already facing difficulties. The most insignificant of them – these are intermittent clashes with US forces patrolling overlapping areas. Differences with Turkey are much more problematic».
Russia, according to Pavel Baev, is trying to negotiate with Turkey on the situation in Idlib, which is under Turkish protection and is the last stronghold of forces opposing dictator Assad: it is proposed to exchange the withdrawal of Turkish protection of Idlib for Turkey’s gaining control over one of the areas on the border of Syria and Turkey which is now incomplete.
In addition, Russia has to worry about how Iran is involved in the Syrian war. – Tehran once invested considerable resources in Syria, and its presence in the belligerent country is, in principle, much more serious than Russia’s.
At the same time, the problem is that Iran is now weakening its presence in Syria: Pavel Baev believes that Russia has problems with filling the resulting vacuum and Iran’s unwillingness to participate in the post-war reconstruction of Syria.
«Now Russia needs to accumulate more resources to solve problems in the countries closest to it and within itself, and intervention in Syria is becoming a luxury that Moscow can no longer afford. So its exodus from there is no longer a stretch in reasoning about Russia’s strategy, because such an outcome would simply be a rational choice.» – suggests an expert at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo.
Kimberly Marten, professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, has focused on the activities of a group of Russian mercenaries known as «Wagner group»:
«Wagner’s private military company» in fact, not at all private, since it is very closely connected with Russian military intelligence, and it is not even necessarily, in fact, a company or firm – she can simply perform both actions in the interests of the Russian state and in the interests of individuals associated with it».
Kimberly Martin recalls that businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, connected with the Kremlin and contracting «the Wagner group» to perform various tasks, has interests in the mining and energy business – despite the fact that this group is also involved by the Russian authorities in the so-called «experimental military activities» and tries to promote Putin’s interests where Russia’s interests are not the most important, but at the same time the Kremlin wants to have a platform for influence there.
Some facts of such activities look extremely risky: for example, according to College Professor Barnard, interest «the Wagner group» to one of the provinces in Mozambique, which is known for its vast reserves of gas, rubies, ivory, as well as the supply of heroin across the Indian Ocean.
«”Wagner Group” did not last there as participants in the counter-terrorist operation and six months – They were ambushed by Islamist militants with gruesome details, but they also did not get along well with the Mozambican regular army, which suspected Russian mercenaries of trying to bring smuggling under their own control. So they were quickly squeezed out of there, and mercenaries from South Africa took their place.», – the expert says.
In Libya, continues Kimberly Martin, «Wagner group» also caused criticism from all sides of the conflict – even from the forces of Marshal Haftar, in whose interests they acted there. The researcher of the activities of Russian PMCs also recalled that in Syria «Wagner group» has already suffered serious losses, but can be sent again to areas of active hostilities – with possibly the same result.
Experts come to the conclusion that Russia may continue its risky attempts to strengthen its image in the world, but this can be quite expensive for Moscow, and the image that will develop as a result of these attempts will be somewhat different from the one that the Kremlin is trying to create.