Isolation and propaganda: roots and instruments of Russia’s soft power


Russia’s fairly successful propaganda in the West shows that political pluralism and open societies have some significant vulnerabilities compared to authoritarian states, with regard to speed of decision-making and action, analyst Stefan Meister notes in a new report for the Transatlantic Academy.

While authoritarian regimes have learned from each other in recent years about how to repel Western influences such as NGOs and undermine domestic pro-democracy actors, the West has lost clarity and belief in its own norms and principles, he writes in Isolation and Propaganda. The Roots and Instruments of Russia’s Disinformation Campaign.

“It is not the sophisticated instruments of the Russian regime that are the secret of its success in the West, but the lack of resilience of our own societies and institutions as well as our governments’ lack of will to respond to the reality of Russian policies,” Meister adds. 

The Russian government claims that it is merely copying the instruments and techniques that the West itself employs, and deems legitimate, to promote democracy in Russia and the post-Soviet states, he contends:

While we regard the support of NGOs and civil society as an appropriate means for promoting democracy, the Russian leadership considers such enterprises as illegitimate methods of meddling in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. In particular, Russia’s powerful intelligence and security elites have no trust for Western cooperative and integrative approaches to Russia because they see deeper U.S. scheming to weaken and undermine the Kremlin behind every such step. Furthermore, Putin’s inner circle of people from the security apparatus, most of whom were trained in the Soviet secret service, put their own perception of security and their own hold on power above the economic interest of the country. Stereotypes of the Cold War and Soviet propaganda still shape their way of thinking, leading to different interpretations of developments in the post-Soviet region and the policy goals of the United States and the EU….

For Russian leaders, soft power is not about attraction; it instead refers to non-military instruments for manipulating, undermining, and weakening opponents, a supplement to Moscow’s military power, the author contends:

Thus Putin, in his programmatic 2012 article “Russia in a Changing World,” defined soft power as “a complex of tools and methods for achieving foreign policy goals without deploying weapons, using information tools and other forms of intervention.” According to Putin, so-called “pseudo NGOs” could provoke extremism, separatism, and nationalism, and manipulate social perception, thus undermining the sovereignty of other states. For this purpose, the Russian leadership has, since the 2000s, established new institutions, such as the Rossotrudnichestvo (Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation) and the Russkiy Mir (Russian World) Foundation. …..

Russian political and military leadership thus perceive non-military, “soft” means of influencing the domestic affairs of foreign states as threats against which Russia must defend itself if it is not to be weakened by the West and in particular the United States. It is hard to gauge how much of this is ideology and how much of it is opportunism, designed to distract from the shortcomings of Russia’s own policy. 

The possibilities of directly influencing developments in Russia from outside are limited, Meister contends:

Russia’s civil society and opposition groups are under immense state pressure, and their scope for action is set to be further restricted by repressive legislation like the foreign agent law and massive curtailments on demonstrations;34 many oppositionists and advocates of critical media have already left the country. Widespread patriotism also seems undiminished, as is clearly demonstrated by Putin’s high approval ratings, which stand at more than 80 percent since the annexation of Crimea. Russian society is not liberal, pro-Western, or longing for democracy; Putin reflects a consensus in large parts of society that feeds off the experiences of the economic, social, and political recession of the 1990s and the authoritarian heritage of the Soviet Union.

The European Endowment for Democracy has published a comprehensive study on improving pluralism in the Russian-language media space, with several important suggestions for how to react to Russian propaganda and counter the trend of decreasing numbers of independent media outlets inside Russia, he notes:

Possible responses include creating regional Russian-language media hubs; developing a Russian-language media competence center to coordinate the work of NGOs, existing Russian speaking media, and governments; and setting up a foundation to support independent media in this area. Without duplicating existing structures within EU member states, the coordination of all relevant media activities in the EU should be improved and adequately funded by EU member states and institutions. At the same time, leading European media should expand their permanent network of correspondents in Russia, Ukraine, and other post-Soviet states to enable them to report reliably on location, and to counter propaganda with facts. Quality investigative journalism is the right answer to propaganda.


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