In 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin told his diplomats that “the priority has been shifting to the literate use of soft power, strengthening positions of the Russian language.” But as Sergei Karaganov noted in the aftermath of the 2008 dispute with Georgia, Russia had to use “hard power, including military force, because it lives in a much more dangerous world . . . and because it has little soft power — that is, social, cultural, political and economic attractiveness.”
Now, in the aftermath of the semi-covert Russian military intervention in Ukraine, Putin is making the same mistake. He claims to want to establish a Russian-led Eurasian Union to compete with the European Union, but his policies create anxiety in the minds of those he wishes to attract. Despite the attractiveness of traditional Russian culture and Putin’s calls for an increase in Russian soft power, his bullying acts towards his neighbors and emphasis on Russian nationalism had the opposite effect of sowing mistrust. Russia enjoyed a temporary soft power boost from the successful Sochi Olympics, but Putin’s actions in Ukraine quickly undercut that effect. Moreover, few foreigners watch Russian films, and only one Russian university ranks in the top global 100.
Instead, Russia is trying to accomplish its soft power goals by investing in propaganda. In 2013, Putin reorganized the RIA Novosti news agency, firing 40 percent of its staff, including the relatively liberal leadership. In 2014, the new leader, Dmitry Kiselyov, proclaimed that “in today’s information war, no one is objective” as he announced “Sputnik,” a major expansion of a network of news hubs in 34 countries with 1,000 staff members producing radio, social media and news wire content in local languages, paid for by Russia. But one of the paradoxes of soft power is that brittle propaganda is often counterproductive. Because it is not credible, it is not trusted and thus fails to attract.
As one Czech student noted about open cultural exchanges during the Cold War, “the best propaganda is not propaganda.” He was referring to the Salzburg Seminar in which young people spent time socializing and discussing issues together. In that sense, contacts among civil societies are more effective than propaganda, but Putin’s strategy involves curtailing the role of non-governmental organizations and the role of civil society. Much of America’s soft power is produced by civil society — everything from universities and foundations to Hollywood and pop culture — not by the government. Sometimes the United States is able to preserve a degree of soft power because of its critical and uncensored civil society even when government actions — like the invasion of Iraq — are otherwise undermining soft power. Similarly, in Britain the BBC retains credibility because it can bite the government hand that feeds it. In a smart power strategy, hard and soft reinforce each other. Though Putin speaks about soft power, the means of successful implementation have escaped him.
Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard University and author of “Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era.”