The Art of Alliance:
When Soft Power Works

Natalia Burlinova
  • Natalia Burlinova
    President and founder of PICREADI
  • The events in Ukraine stir up a discussion of soft power in the Russian Telegram community. Many people like how "soft power" sounds, but few people know how it works.

    Let's face it: Ukraine is an example of Russia's soft power failure abroad – like Georgia, Moldova, well, practically all former Soviet republics, except Belarus that remains Russia's ally for its own domestic and foreign reasons. But Ukraine is Russia's most painful failure in terms of humanitarian influence, although at first Ukraine had all humanitarian factors that allowed to hope for successful use of soft power there.
Why was it unsuccessful? I could make a long and dull enumeration of such things as approaches to the understanding of soft power, the concept of American political scientist Joseph Nye, financial and other components of success, deficient attention that Ukraine had received from the Russian humanitarian structures in the post-Soviet period... But those are particularities. The general cause of the failure is the absence of political orientation on the development of soft power in Russia's governmental vertical.

Critics might say, why use the American terminology? But it is not about the terminology. We can call it soft power or humanitarian policy (as in newly adopted Concept of the Humanitarian Policy of the Russian Federation Abroad) but the name will not change the essence. And the essence is a long-term construction of such humanitarian connections that your partner will not so much as consider another ally but you. The connections must be in culture, economics and other spheres. A good example is the construction of ties with European countries by the USA after World War II – the ties that we still see in effect today. The countries of the European Union are acting in Washington's interests without military coercion, and even against their own economic interests. This is how soft power can work.

In Russia there has been no political will to develop soft power. The humanitarian policy in the neighboring countries, too, has not received due attention since the collapse of Soviet Union. In the 1990s and early 2000s Russia had other problems to attend to, and later Russia chose to develop hard power. The humanitarian block was simply not on the political agenda. Of course, there have been events, forums, round tables, but with minimal results, because there has been no systematic work. Like in other spheres, in soft power the actors were asked for immediate results and were therefore not motivated for substantial long-term efficiency of their projects.
Legitimate soft power or malign influence?
Celine la Cour shares some thoughts on vital issues of Russian soft power
The system problems still awaiting solution are: increasing academic mobility, creating a system of short-term grants for foreign students and other target audiences, grant support for foreign organizations, constant interaction with foreign political elites, etc. Had the problems been solved a decade earlier, such measures could have slowed down the humanitarian degradation and estrangement from Russia of Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries. But laws were enacted to make the activity of organizations involved in international contacts even more complicated instead of simplifying it. And the field of the Russian public diplomacy was shrinking.

An important element of the construction of humanitarian cooperation within allies' relations is focusing on the ally and its specialness. Soft power envisages not only the self-marketing, or promoting one's own culture or demonstrating own significance as an ally, but also respect and attention to the ally, implementation of projects important and interesting for it, connected with its cultural peculiarities, regardless of its size and geography.

Political orientation on soft power means that elites focus on developing their own country, creating a modern intellectual society with high demand for education, science, high-tech solutions, with competitive advantages on the international arena. Countries become allies if they know they will not bargain or step back and will protect each other's interests in any case because their long-term interests do not contradict each other.

Soft power and alliance are interconnected, the former providing a solid foundation for the latter. Of course, hard power can win allies, too, but such alliances will not be based on mutual approval and genuine partnership. The Soviet Union used to gain allies with hard power. Russia needs true allies to build a future together, driven together by common interests, aims and tasks, not desperation. For this, our political elites must be made up of new people – those with strategic thinking, far-sightedness and patience, and new concepts of domestic and international development of Russia. They will make Russia attractive for potential allies and offering hope to build the future together. Russia has such people.

Originally published by RIAC
Cover: Valery Melnikov / RIA Novosti