Research - 31.05.2024 - 10:00 

Russia's strategies for building soft power

In addition to military and economic power, many states also try to influence world politics by more subtle means, often referred to as soft power. In his dissertation, HSG researcher Dr Alexander Meienberger, who is of Russian origin, looked at Russian soft power and a foundation that plays a central role in this.

Mr Meienberger, how easy is it to get good information in Russia as a researcher based in Europe?

I was lucky enough to start my dissertation before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The foundation I was researching, Russkij mir, had still made all its annual reports publicly accessible to everyone on the Internet at that time and also passed on information to me. After the war began, the foundation blocked its website for IP addresses from the West. However, you could still access it with a VPN. But in general, the foundation shared less information after 2022. I think in general, access to information in Russia for researchers from the West is also heavily dependent on the research topic: If you want to collect information on topics such as environmental protection or the rights of people in the LGBTQ movement, it could be more difficult at the moment.

You describe the foundation you are investigating, ‘Ruskij mir’, which means “Russian world”, as an important instrument of Russian soft power. What is soft power anyway?

Basically, states have two types of instruments of power:  Hard power describes how states can exert pressure on other countries using military means or economic sanctions. With soft power, states want to persuade other countries to support their own interests without coercion.

How could we visualise this?

The idea is to promote one's own culture and political and economic system to the world through various channels. The aim is to present your own culture and therefore your own goals to other countries as attractive and desirable, so that you can have an influence on their policies.

Can you give us an example?

The classic example is the American dream, which was spread around the world via Hollywood films, for example. And many people in other countries then adopted this dream and aligned themselves with the goals of the USA. Another example is the German Goethe Institute, which makes the German language and culture accessible to people all over the world. The aim is to convey a positive image of Germany to young people globally. If these young people go on to exercise political power, this positive image could also pay political dividends for Germany.

Can you say which countries are the most powerful in terms of soft power?

There are various indices that measure this. In the Portland Communications Agency's index, which lists the 30 most powerful countries in terms of their soft power, countries such as France, the UK, Germany and Sweden are right at the top. Switzerland is in 6th place, with Russia at the bottom in 30th place. It is surprising that countries such as France and the UK are still ahead of the USA (5th place). In addition to the aspects of soft power mentioned above, this index also surveys other criteria such as digitalisation, culture, sport and tourism, economic attractiveness, education and international exchange, diplomacy and international engagement as well as governance. These are all factors that can have an attractive effect on other countries.

Let's stay with the aspect of governance and democracy. If you look at global political developments, not all countries seem to be attracted by the example of democratic values and the rule of law.

Exactly, just because one characteristic is perceived as attractive to certain countries does not mean that all countries regard it as a desirable characteristic.

What is Russia's strategy for building soft power?

This has changed over time. When Putin came to power in 2000, he was very keen to improve Russia's image in the West. At that time, the prevailing image of Russia was that there was nothing but crime, vodka, bears and balalaikas. Then Russia founded the Russia Today television channel, but back then it was not yet the propaganda channel that it is today. Back then, they wanted to show foreign countries that Russia can be diverse. Various PR agencies were then commissioned to run campaigns abroad. In 2007, Putin was even named Person of the Year by Time magazine. With the support of these agencies, Russia was also able to attract a number of major sporting events to the country, such as the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi or the Russian Formula 1 Grand Prix. Tourism therefore was also increasingly boosted.

What message did Russia want to convey to the outside world back then?

I think the main message was that Russia is not a barbarian country, but an attractive, diverse, democratically developed country that has opened up to the world.

And then came the Ukraine crisis in 2013/2014?

Exactly, but even before that, from 2011 onwards, Russia's image was gradually changing. This was also evident in the fact that Russia Today became a strong propaganda channel. On the one hand, there was the Ukraine crisis, which brought Russia into conflict with the West, but the wave of protests in Russia after the 2011 parliamentary elections must have also frightened Putin. From this point onwards, Russia's message increasingly shifted towards representing traditionalist, conservative values as opposed to the spoiled, liberal West.

Let's talk about the ‘Ruskij mir’ foundation, which is the main focus of your dissertation. What activities does it pursue?

This foundation finances various private associations and educational institutions abroad that promote Russian culture. There it sets up Russian centres and cabinets of the ‘Russian world’. These centres offer Russian language courses, for example, or they organise celebrations such as the 9th of May, the day of the victory over Nazi Germany, which today is often presented as a victory over Europe. However, the foundation only provides financial support to those who are loyal to the Kremlin.

Which countries are still active in these events?

In European countries, the foundation was banned after the war of aggression against Ukraine as a propaganda tool of the Kremlin. Since then, ‘Ruskij mir’ has focused its activities on Latin America, Africa, Asia and the states of the former Soviet Union.

Does this foundation also exist in Switzerland?

No, it has never been active here.

We often hear that China keeps a close eye on its compatriots abroad and occasionally puts them under pressure. You are Russian abroad, has the Russian state also tried to intimidate you?

(Laughs) No, I think I'm too small a number for the Russian state. There may be people abroad where the Kremlin takes a closer look at what they are up to. But the state probably doesn't have the resources to permanently monitor people like me.


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