July 13, 2012

Russia’s Failure as a Soft Power

Moscow continues to lose influence in the post-Soviet space

Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space is shrinking. After the fall of communism, Moscow was unable to appeal to neighbor states. Its social and political development was not attractive to others. It also challenged its neighbors with imperial gestures. The Kremlin obviously misunderstands “soft power” as an instrument for manipulating public opinion in target countries.



The influence of soft power is very difficult to measure. It is associated with intangible resources such as culture or ideology, as well as the ability to use them skillfully in order to gain allies through attraction rather than coercion or payments. After the collapse of communism, Russia retained a huge military potential from the Soviet Union but largely lost its cultural and ideological appeal. Therefore, in order to rebuild its external attractiveness (at least in the post-Soviet space), Russia began to develop its foreign policy according to soft power principles. But Russian policy-makers misinterpreted the concept of soft power. They failed to appreciate the idea of partnerships with clear advantages for both sides in the near and long term. Instead, Moscow perceives soft power as the capacity to influence, or even manipulate, public opinion in target countries.

Although Russia possesses influential soft power channels to post-Soviet states like access to its labor market, language proximity, a common culture, and enormous energy resources, Moscow has been unable to enhance its attractiveness among its closest neighbors. Russian authorities focus most of all on loyal constituencies (such as compatriots living abroad) and seek to mobilize people who already follow Russia’s goals and principles. Russia’s insufficient soft power activism in the post-Soviet area is also due to its neo-imperial attitude toward neighboring states. Moscow is not able to offer them an attractive vision of integration without building patterns of strong dependence. Therefore, its proposal of close political and economic cooperation seems quite dangerous for the sovereignty and long-term development of its neighbors.

The notion of soft power holds strong normative potential based on domestic standards and norms of social and political life that are practiced in the state seeking to enhance its influence abroad. It is impossible to create an appealing external image without dealing effectively with domestic problems. Russia has many problems with corruption, the abuse of human rights, the lack of democracy, and the rule of law. Thus its model of political and socio-economic transformation cannot be seen as a positive example for other post-Soviet countries.

As soft powers usually use the most transparent and democratic measures to build their external attractiveness, the only way for Russia to become a real soft power in the post-Soviet area is to introduce serious internal reforms that focus on the liberalization of its economy and the democratization of its political system. It is only through real democratic change that Russia will reach its soft power potential.

Jarosław Ćwiek-Karpowicz was guest fellow in the research project “Leaving Polarization behind”. photo of the author: PISM

Bibliographic data

DGAPanalyse 8, July 10, 2012, 11 pp.

Topics & Regions