Russia’s Newly Found “Soft Power”

Reproduced by permission of The Globalist.

In recent years, Russia has transformed itself from a defunct military—although still nuclear—superpower into a new energy superpower.

New uses for oil revenues

Although Russia has retained many of the vestiges of Soviet “hard power”—including nuclear weapons and a massive conventional army—it is not the superpower of old.

New energy revenues have not been used to boost military spending or to revive Russia’s defense industry at the expense of every other sector as in the Soviet period. Oil wealth has been transformed more into butter than guns.

And there is more to Russia’s attractiveness than oil riches. Consider the persistence of the Russian language as a regional lingua franca—the language of commerce, employment and education—for many of the states of the former Soviet Union.

Russian pop culture

Then there is a range of new Russian consumer products, a burgeoning popular culture spread through satellite TV, a growing film industry, rock music, Russian popular novels and the revival of the crowning achievements of the Russian artistic tradition.

They have all made Russia a more attractive state for populations in the region than it was in the 1990s. Over the last several years, Russia has become a migration magnet for Eurasia.

New prospects

Millions of people have flooded into Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities—from the South Caucasus and Central Asia in particular—in search of work and a better life.

Instead of the Red Army, the penetrating forces of Russian power in Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia are now Russian natural gas and the giant gas monopoly, Gazprom, as well as Russian electricity and the huge energy company, UES—and Russian culture and consumer goods.

Gazprom is the primary provider of gas to the Eurasian states and has regained its position in markets like Georgia, where other companies had entered in the late 1990s. UES has similarly expanded its markets, especially in the Caucasus and Central Asia, where early energy sector privatizations brought in foreign investors.

Defining the term

In addition, private firms—such as Russia’s Wimm-Bill-Dann Foods—have begun to dominate regional markets for dairy products and fruit juices.

Russia may not be able to rival the United States in the nature and global extent of its “soft power” —which Harvard Professor Joseph Nye defines as emanating from three resources: “[a state’s] culture (in places where it is attractive to others),” its political values (where it lives up to them at home and abroad) and “its foreign policies (where they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority).”

Regaining influence

But Russia is well on its way to recovering the degree of soft power the USSR once enjoyed in its immediate sphere of influence.

Since 2000, Russia’s greatest contribution to the security and stability of its vulnerable southern tier has not been through its military presence on bases, its troop deployments, or security pacts and arms sales.

Rather, it has been through absorbing the surplus labor of these states, providing markets for their goods, and transferring funds in the form of remittances (rather than foreign aid).

Central Asian states in particular are fearful of the social consequences of large numbers of labor migrants returning to the region from Russia if there were to be a political backlash against migrants or a Russian economic downturn. This migration to Russia has become a safety valve for the whole region.

More powerful than the United States?

As a matter of fact, Russia has the potential to achieve the economic and cultural predominance in Eurasia that the United States has in the Americas.

It will succeed in this mission if the influx of migrants to Russia continues, if Russian business investment grows in neighboring states, if regional youth continue to watch Russian TV and films, purchase Russian software, CDs and DVDs and other consumer products.

Trade—not military muscle

Most of all, it would succeed if the heavy-hand of Moscow is pulled back—and the hand of commerce is extended instead in Russian foreign policy.

Given this list of “ifs”, clearly some skill is required to draw upon Russia’s soft power resources in crafting a successful regional policy.

The current U.S. failure to capitalize on its own undisputed soft power and growing global anti-Americanism demonstrate the risks involved, and the limits of soft power if a state is not seen to live up to its own values abroad or its foreign policy motivations are questioned overseas.

It is by no means assured that Russia’s increasing soft power will be used to positive effect. But the prospect is clearly there—and should be encouraging Russia’s current leadership to chart a new regional policy for itself in Eurasia.

This article is adapted from Fiona Hill’s study on “Russia’s Energy Empire,” which will be published by the London-based Foreign Policy Centre in September 2004.