Soft Power the Russian Way: Proxy Groups in the Contested Neighbourhood



Anxious about losing ground to Western influence in the post-Soviet space and the ousting of many pro-Russia elites by popular electoral uprisings, the Kremlin has developed a wide range of proxy groups in support of its foreign policy objectives, notes analyst Orysia Lutsevych.

This network of pro-Kremlin groups promotes the Russian World (Russkiy Mir), a flexible tool that justifies increasing Russian actions in the post-Soviet space and beyond. Russian groups are particularly active in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – countries that have declared their intention to integrate with the West, she writes for the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, the London-based foreign policy think tank:

Russia employs a vocabulary of ‘soft power’ to disguise its ‘soft coercion’ efforts aimed at retaining regional supremacy. Russian pseudo-NGOs undermine the social cohesion of neighbouring states through the consolidation of pro-Russian forces and ethno-geopolitics; the denigration of national identities; and the promotion of anti-US, conservative Orthodox and Eurasianist values. They can also establish alternative discourses to confuse decision-making where it is required, and act as destabilizing forces by uniting paramilitary groups and spreading aggressive propaganda.

The activities of these proxy groups – combined with the extensive Russian state administrative resources and security apparatus, as well as the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, pro-Russian elites, mass culture and the media – could seriously damage political transitions and civil societies in the region. Events in Crimea and Donbas have exposed the supportive role of Russian non-state actors in fomenting conflict.

The Kremlin developed its strategy in response to the activities of American non-state actors which it views “as tools of US foreign policy aimed at weakening Russia and undermining its sphere of influence,” Lutsevych adds:

Senior Russian officials believe that Western NGOs such as the National Endowment for Democracy, the Open Society Foundations, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House have worked together with local partners to catalyse uprisings against Russia-friendly regimes. This perception of the ‘Colour Revolutions’ is exemplified in a 2014 report by the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which states that these represent ‘a special model of regime change that applies political, communication, moral and psychological methods of influence with grave violation of international law. It is only possible if there is an infrastructure of non-profit groups funded from abroad.’ 

“In the medium term, the contest for the ‘hearts and minds’ of citizens will persist, with the scale and outreach of anti-Western groups continuing to testify to the presence of active networks of genuine believers within this new Russian World,” she concludes. “However, greater transparency and deeper engagement with citizens as part of independent civil society organizations could bridge opposing views and help counter the challenge of artificial divisions nurtured by the Kremlin-funded non-state actors.”


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