Toward an Ambitious Russian Public Diplomacy

Public diplomacy is a very important tool to resolve the conflicts creating the platform to enable dialog, oppose misunderstandings and achieve consensus. Using media and communication, education, culture or economic ties, the public diplomacy is aimed at creating an environment for compromise. For reference, public diplomacy is considered broadly as “an international actor’s attempt to manage the international environment through engagement with a foreign public”.[1] It focuses on the creating civil society organizations as active political players in the international arena. But in the modern world some countries may see diplomatic processes not in the classic way.After the period of the Soviet Union collapse, Russia accumulated enormous military potential but substantially lost in its cultural and ideological attractiveness. It motivated Russian policy-makers to redesign the foreign policy according to the ideology of soft power.

Since the mid-2000s, the Russian government has invested significant resources, intellectual efforts, and finances to revive its global attractiveness. As a result of an updated “soft” policy, the creation of new mass-media, cultural, educational and other organizations was initiated. The main stakeholders of their activities are post-Soviet countries or so-called near abroad.

Today, Russkiy Mir, Valday Discussion Club, Rossotrudnichestvo, Sputnik, Russia Today, Ria Novosti etc. are the key generators of informational campaigns and public diplomacy initiatives based on the fusion of the Soviet historical experience and modern innovative technologies. Their functions are guided by the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation adopted on February 12, 2013.

Russia’s public diplomacy objectives

Let’s have a closer look at Russia’s public diplomacy objectives. They can be subdivided into four very broad groups. Depending on the concrete question, the importance and weight of each approach can differ.

1) Explanation.

The first group is tending to “explain” Russia to the world and tries to answer the following questions: What Russia does? How it does? Why it does? The main accent here is on present or historical incentives which are mostly based on threats, such as NATO expansion or global terrorism.

In addition, the Kremlin’s reaction to “color revolutions” or “Arab spring”, actions in Syria, or the war in North Ossetia, can serve as examples of problems in this category.

The target audience is very broad and encompasses both Russian sympathizers and less positively inclined publics.

Most of the messages are announced at the highest diplomatic level by the official political figures such as Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov or President Vladimir Putin. Either through narrowly specialized projects such as Russia’s Direct which is aimed at attracting the American political and academic groups or the University League of the Collective Security Treaty Organization with the main goal to attract youth from the CSTO member states.[2]

2) The foundation of a new world pole in the international politics

This goal is highly connected with designing new political, economic and socio-cultural hegemony making possible shift the balance from western political monopoly to a more “multipolar” world with another center in Moscow. To reach this ambitious goal Russia has already started taking steps. In June 2006, within the framework of the St. Petersburg Economic Forum Russia initiated establishing BRICS partnerships with Latin American countries, and most recently, the Eurasian Economic Union in the post-Soviet region. The main targets in this respect are people from the post-Soviet area, along with other non-Western social circles in the developing world.

3) Maintaining links with compatriots and diaspora

This goal is probably more critical in the post-Soviet states. Seemingly, this is Russia’s own particular thought based on the ideas of “system” and “diasphoric” diplomacy, as the nation tries to keep contacts with ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers living abroad, developing a feeling of common identity and attempting to prepare them when Russian interests need to be protected in the countries of their residency.  A vivid example of its implementation are Russkiy Mir, Rossotrudnichestvo, the Fund for Legal Aid and Protection of Compatriots’ Rights Abroad, or the All-Russia Youth Forum Seliger.

4) Promoting Russian historical and cultural heritage

Russians’ nostalgia of their past leadership in the world political map and their contribution to the global culture possibly lie at the core of their identity and shape their current goals and ideas.

The desire of restoring their achievements is coupled with their want to become a major player in the world once again. Ballet and opera performances, massive events such as the Sochi Winter Olympics, and the return to outstanding celebrations of Victory Day (May 9) are all give a powerful message to the world to verify their mandate for respect and recognition in the present day.

Russia, as we can see, is trying to use innovative approaches and communication and information instruments to escort its foreign policy and reach its ambitious goals.

In that regard, there are many interesting developments and processes going on in Russia’s public diplomacy approach right now, which require our attention and understanding.

The Kremlin uses of a number of soft-power tools in order to improve its image in the world, including:

  • public diplomacy and public relations;
  • well-equipped and Kremlin-aligned print- and broadcast-media outlets;
  • Christian Orthodoxy;
  • a raft of cultural and linguistic programmes;
  • political allies on the left and right;
  • and expert academic and policymaking communities.[3]

Russian public diplomacy in practice

Russia invests a lot of finance and efforts in the activities of Russia-friendly associations in the near abroad, but at very different levels depending on the country’s domestic situation and its authorities’ positioning toward Moscow. This policy includes the support to a pro-Russian civil society consisting of associations representing Russian minorities (from cultural clubs devoted to folklore activities to political parties such as, for instance, Russkoye Yedinstvo in Crimea).

Taking this into account Russia has managed informal policies to deliver passports to the populations of secessionist regions. Ninety percent of South Ossetians were said to have Russian passports, as well as smaller numbers of Abkhazians and Transnistrians, which allowed Russia to claim a right to protect its citizens referring to its National Security Doctrine and Foreign Policy Concept.

Hundreds of thousands of labor migrants from the former Soviet Union have also managed to get a Russian passport without surrendering the passport from their home country, giving Russia potential leverage over some of its neighbors.

Russia also replicated fast-track mechanisms to access citizenship, taken from Western models. Such programs exist for investors, businessmen, highly qualified specialists, and now for those serving at least five years in the newly created Russian Foreign Legion.

The defense of the interests of ‘compatriots’ has often served as an excuse for the Kremlin to interfere in other states’ internal affairs in much harder ways. For example, Moscow’s issuing of passports to citizens in neighbouring states represents an easy way to create or strengthen pro-Russian sectors of the population and influence local politics – despite the resolute opposition of many neighbouring governments to this practice.

According to Freedom House, in Transnistria roughly a third of the population is believed to hold Russian passports, while the Chief of the Armenian National Migration Service declared that in Armenia the number is between 200-300,000 (10 per cent of the population).[4]

Furthermore, Putin recently signed a law relaxing the requirements for obtaining Russian citizenship. Those who are fluent in Russian or have lived in the Soviet Union are all eligible, which points to an increasing political exploitation of Russian minorities by the Kremlin.

Due to the presence of a significant ethnic-Russian diaspora, Russia syndicates various tools designed to generate social goodwill and economic and political incentives among various communities and audiences.

Noticeably, Russia realizes that public opinion is the most important barometer of the political climate in any country. Moreover, its public diplomacy is doing a lot to make the methods, albeit not so soft, work to achieve its ambitious political goals.

[1] Cull, 2009, Op. cit. Melissen, Op. cit. Joseph Nye, Soft Power. “The Means to Succeed in World Politics, Public Affairs” 2004

[2] CSTO University League To Be Created In 2014. 2014. Http://Tass.Ru/En/World/715038

[3] Foxall, Andrew. 2015. The Kremlin’S Sleight Of Hand: Russia’S Soft Power Offensive In The UK. Russia Studies Centre. London: The Henry Jackson Society.


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