Tuesday, April 8, 2014

"Russification" of "Soft Power" -- Part 2: The Russian Twist & Ukraine

In my post last week, I started discussing the Russian understanding of soft power, particularly its conceptualization as "hegemony" and interference (usually American/Western). Yesterday, as the pro-Russian protesters in the Eastern city of Donetsk took over government buildings, declared independence, and requested that Putin send Russian peacekeepers, I decided to revisit this conversation and finally write the Part 2 of the post.

The region of Donetsk. Map from TV Rain [Dozhd'].

Before moving on, let's remind ourselves of the definition of soft power as suggested by Nye: "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion." It is, thus, based on persuasion and appeal, rather than military force or any financial payment/sanction. The sources of soft power, according to Nye, lie in a country's culture (its attractiveness), its political values (their attractiveness, and consistent applications at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (their perception as legitimate and moral).

Based on this formula, a preliminary analysis of the Russian discourse on soft power and public diplomacy demonstrates that the overall understanding of Russian soft power resources are as follows:

- Culture and attractiveness: Russia wants to utilize the rich heritage of its past, emphasize its multicultural makeup, wield the potential of the Russian language, and represent a moral pole of conservative and religious values.

- Political values: attractiveness can be achieved through the promotion of Russia as a diverse, tolerant, and inclusive nation; and promotion of these principles internationally, through rejection of unipolarity and the active advancement of alternative powers/poles.

- Foreign policy legitimacy is to be established by Russia's promotion of respect for sovereignty, the ability to defend its own interests, and by holding the US (and its allies) accountable for their violations of international law.

[For more on this fascinating twist, I suggest looking at the 2012 piece by Konstantin Kosachev, Head of Rossotrdunichestvo.]

According to this perspective, hard and soft power are not necessarily mutually exclusive, because -- as discussed in the previous post on parallels with hegemony -- it is the powerful and the rich that have the ability to spread their ideology (a.k.a. "appeal", "attractiveness", and "moral leadership") through means beyond the crude use of force. After all, to quote Machiavelli: "Morality is the product of power." And Russia truly takes this to heart.

Back to Ukraine. To understand everything that has been going on over the past few months, it is absolutely important to note the significance of Ukraine for Russia, not just historically, culturally, or symbolically, but also politically, economically and strategically. In terms of foreign policy, Ukraine was so significant also because it was supposed to be the centerpiece of Russia's regional reintegration project -- the Eurasian Union. In short, Russia was not going to simply give it up and watch the Polish/Swedish plans for the European Eastern Partnership absorb Ukraine, especially after NATO's expansion to its very borders. This, then, sets the context for interpretation of the issue.

Just as all other "color revolutions" and the Arab Spring events, Russia saw the #Euromaidan protests as a direct threat to its - presumably - very legitimate strategic and regional interests. This threat was supposedly posed by the pro-EU demonstrators themselves, as well as by their benefactors, supporters, and managers in the West. (Hence the leaks of the Nuland and Ashton tapes.) An article by Foreign Minister Lavrov, published yesterday in The Guardian, states this and other concerns plain and clear:

Ukraine's realities notwithstanding, massive support was provided to political movements promoting western influence, and it was done in direct breach of the Ukrainian constitution. This is what happened in 2004, when President Viktor Yushchenko won an unconstitutional third round of elections introduced under EU pressure. This time round, power in Kiev was seized undemocratically, through violent street protests conducted with the direct participation of ministers and other officials from the US and EU countries.
In the meantime, western states, despite their repeated assurances to the contrary, have carried out successive waves of Nato enlargement, moved the alliance's military infrastructure eastward and begun to implement antimissile defence plans. The EU's Eastern Partnership programme is designed to bind the so-called focus states tightly to itself, shutting down the possibility of co-operation with Russia. Attempts by those who staged the secession of Kosovo from Serbia and of Mayotte from the Comoros to question the free will of Crimeans cannot be viewed as anything but a flagrant display of double standards. No less troubling is the pretence of not noticing that the main danger for the future of Ukraine is the spread of chaos by extremists and neo-Nazis.

To counter what it sees as the encroachment of American/Western hegemony -- whether military or ideological -- Russia then decided it will be scaling up its own hegemony-promotion in the region. Of course, whether we define hegemony in Realist or Gramscian terms, Russia has been the unquestionable hegemon in the Eurasian region for a long time (including in Ukraine): think language, culture, attitudes, direct and indirect dependence... [For my thoughts on the case of Armenia see here.] So now, not only is Russia institutionalizing this hegemony further - through economic agreements, as well as a more tightly-controlled information space in the region - but it is also putting into action the very foundation of its soft power: "humanitarian cooperation".

It is important to note that the Russian definition of "humanitarian" is very different from what it might usually be understood as in the West. In English, "humanitarian" relates to the promotion of human welfare, and a particular concern for human security, human rights, and assistance/promotion of those. Meanwhile, the Russian conceptualization of “humanitarian cooperation” focuses on projects that involve developing cultural ties, creating cross-civilizational dialogue, civil society support and assistance to compatriots living abroad (i.e. the diaspora).

In short, through these activities, Russia aims to reestablish and consolidate the cultural ties it had with other countries, particularly, in its immediate neighborhood, and utilize the potential provided by the pervasiveness of the Russian language (and where it has been weakened, its reintroduction, through financial and curriculum support). Perhaps even more importantly, Russian soft power discourse has increasingly focused on the need to create and maintain a network of civil society organizations -- including organizations of Russian ethnic communities living abroad, and particularly in the Former Soviet space -- which can represent the Russian perspective in other countries and, when needed, can be easily organized and mobilized to promote Russian interests abroad (sounds familiar?).

Orthodox rap, by Nikolay Leonov who is a Russian-speaker (Russian?) living in Dnepropetrovsk (South-East Ukraine) and seems to be very active in terms of Orthodox/Russian advocacy and youth organization. This jewel is titled the "Puppeteers of Maidan", and combines religious, historical and current symbolism to spew hate at the West: a wonderful example of "locally-produced" agitation material. 


Effectively, Russia has been attempting to copy what the US and the EU have been doing through their democracy-promotion programs, simply replacing "democracy" with a set of other values and interests that are more in line with the Russian worldview. And Rossotrudnichestvo is the organization put in charge of this mission.

Interestingly enough, last year, Nye himself wrote about the strength of "civil society" for the enhancement of soft power with a specific reference to Russia and China. Here are a few quotes:

Much of America's soft power is produced by civil society -- everything from universities and foundations to Hollywood and pop culture -- not from the government.
[...] China and Russia make the mistake of thinking that government is the main instrument of soft power. In today's world, information is not scarce but attention is, and attention depends on credibility. Government propaganda is rarely credible. The best propaganda is not propaganda.
[...] The development of soft power need not be a zero-sum game. All countries can gain from finding each other attractive. But for China and Russia to succeed, they will need to match words and deeds in their policies, be self-critical, and unleash the full talents of their civil societies. Unfortunately, that is not about to happen soon.

Clearly, Nye didn't know much about all the thinking on "soft power" going on in Russia by that time (already), and more importantly, he seemed to have been unaware about the context -- historical, cultural, and social -- within which these processes were taking place. Russia's desire to reconnect with its "compatriots" should be seen within the greater policy of pan-Slavism (at least, of the Eastern Slavonic peoples). This policy is stated directly and indirectly in Russia's most recent policy documents. Yet, it has been a major objective for Russia since the 19th century, and kept reoccurring after the fall of the USSR, as well. For those who can read Russian, I suggest taking a look at this chapter by Solzhenitsyn himself, written in 1998 -- so no, pan-Slavism is not something that Putin resurrected out of the blue, and not all self-critical/educated Russians (would) oppose it (this is just one example, I know... but I'm constrained within the length of a mere blog post here).

Pro-Russian demonstration in Crimea, February 2014. Image from Valley News.

Another thing to note about Nye's comments is what he left out. Yes, perhaps Russia's domestic and international "civil society" networks are all too dependent on the government; however, what about the American ones, then? And no, I won't go into the whole discussion of the "NED as the 'Trojan Horse' of Imperialism", because these arguments are full of conspiracies and exaggerations. I would, however, like to point out the most recent example of covert action, financed by the USAID, to stir unrest (and regime change?) in Cuba -- uncovered and reported on, initially, by the AP. All in name of "democracy" and "soft power".

Admittedly, "civil society" is a very broad and nebulous term and, just like "soft power", it can be easily distorted, reinterpreted, and abused. That is why it can equally be applicable to Russia's own attempts to wield soft power. And that merits attention, if we are to understand what Russia is doing: using its communities abroad to create a pro-Russian movement, which can serve as key nodes in a broad, transnational network. Other nodes can comprise sympathetic organizations, influential individuals, Russian cultural centers (not necessarily established/maintained by ethnic Russians), schools, youth groups, Orthodox groups, etc. This network is then managed -- not controlled -- by the Embassies/Rossotrudnichestvo centers or the Kremlin itself. Sounds conspiratorial? Perhaps. But isn't it what we here call "network diplomacy"?

Back to Ukraine, again.

The CIA Factbook tells us that the ethnic Russian community in Ukraine makes up about 17% of the total population, while about 24% in the country speak Russian as their first language – about 10.5 million people. Those people would then constitute the foundation of the Russian civil society network in the country. Although there were only three Rossotrudnichestvo centers in Ukraine (in Kyiv, Odessa, and Simferopol), earlier this year they were planning on opening at least three more around the country by 2016 (the plans might have changed now, of course). In terms of actual organizations:

- There are 46 officially registered "organizations of compatriots" listed on the website of the Russian Embassy in Kyiv.

- There is a large union of various organizations from around the country under the umbrella organization: "Russian-Speaking Ukraine" (Русскоязычная Украина), which supposedly protects the rights of the Russians and Russian-speakers in the country and promotes their freedoms, rights, and related causes (The "About us" page claims that there were more than 90 organizations that signed its founding charter in 2009).

- Then there are local parties and other "civic" organizations, such as the "Russian bloc" and "Donestk Republic".

- And of course, the by now notorious paramilitary organizations, such as those in Crimea and Kharkiv.

Crimea deserves some further attention here, too. Firstly, the peninsula is of historical and strategic importance for Russia (remember, Sevastopol was a "city with special status", and now regained that status as part of the Russian Federation; Yalta and Balaklava are there, too...). Secondly, Crimea has a significant Russian and Russian-speaking population, and since the demise of the Soviet Union the Russians had been working on cultivating pro-Russian "good will" not only among the ethnic Russians there, but also among other ethnic groups. This was done through education, the media, various social institutions and civil society organizations, etc. (for more details, please see Lada Roslycky's 2011 article).

As the events in Kyiv and other Western parts of the country unfolded, and as the Sochi Olympics came to their close (yes, they wouldn't dare to interrupt the fun), this entire network in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, as well as in other parts of the country, was mobilized and came into action to promote what they considered to be their own interests. And although there might have been Russian troops present in Crimea (whether the ones that were stationed there already, or new ones that mysteriously appeared overnight), there has been no indication that the people there were in any way "forced" or financially motivated to attend the pro-Russian demonstrations and protests. In fact, many truly welcomed the results of the referendum. One only has to see the following shots to recognize that all this emotion would be difficult to stage.


Celebrations in Simferopol, after the March 16 referendum as shown on Russia's State 1 TV [ORT] Channel. (And yes, there was a Soviet flag in the crowd, there.) Video from Fresh News.


Sevastopol citizens watching Putin's speech and celebrating Crimea's reunification with Russia, March 18, 2014, as shown on Rossiya 1 TV Channel. Video from Time to Move Forward.


Similarly, now, in Eastern Ukraine, it is not the Russian troops that are organizing or administering the continuous demonstrations, administrative take-overs, and declarations of independence. It is the "civil society groups" -- whether formally organized or not; and/or with formal ties with the Russian government or not -- that are effectively mobilized into action.

Are there coordinators in this effort? Certainly. Is there indirect Russian involvement? Most probably. This, however, is the product of years of work and investment, so now, Russia does not even need to get overtly involved. But again, this story and setup look all too familiar to those who have been following the news over this past decade, especially in Eastern Europe and across the Middle East. And that is what Russia keeps pointing out: "You did it. You're still doing it. Then we can do, too."

More importantly, Russia has set out to establish, loud and clear -- since the Kremlin thinks its voice has been ignored for far too long -- that it has its own interests and that, despite what the Western public and leadership might think, they are prepared to go to great lengths to protect and promote these interests. Ending the unipolar world order and the achievement of regional reintegration constitute the core of those interests. Yet they also put Russia at a direct collision course with the US and NATO.

Whether any of Russia's actions are legal, moral, or politically/rationally sound is not up to me to judge. Instead, I just want to highlight the thinking and the techniques advocated by the Russian political and academic elite to enhance their soft power abroad. Casting all this away as "propaganda" or a military take-over means disregarding an important and fundamental element in this entire ordeal -- no matter what we might think of it, these people do really want to be with Russia and if they had it their way (i.e. no military opposition from the Ukrainian government), many in these communities would have readily joined the Russian Federation without a single shot being fired. This, therefore, is seen as an ultimate success for Russia's soft power (whether based on its original definition, or the more realist hegemonic reconceptualization).

Understanding this complexity, historical context, and cultural significance are key to adequately responding to the situation. If one can only get over their ideological perspective, that is...

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I know there are major elements of soft power/public diplomacy missing from the analysis above, including, but not limited to the media, education, various exchanges, the Church, development assistance, etc. Yet, it would take a dissertation to outline and explain it all - and one is currently in the works. Stay tuned for more!

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