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"Soft Power": The Values that Shape Russian Foreign Policy

July 30, 2015

The Kremlin, Moscow. CREDIT: Shutterstock

This article is in anticipation of an upcoming Carnegie Council project on Russian "soft power" and values that shape foreign policy.

In the increasingly frigid environment of U.S.-Russia relations, much attention is given to what may be seen as Russia's strategic "interests." (Of course, much of the policymaking class in the West seems to suggest that Russia is entitled to no "interests" whatsoever.) Of at least equal significance for understanding Russian attitudes, however, is a grasp of the values, the moral framework for Russia's foreign policy.

A valuable resource for this understanding is found in a recent article, "Russia's Orthodox Soft Power," by the University of Rhode Island scholar Nicolai Petro, who explores the "symphonic relationship" between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state and the manner in which they both utilize the term Russky mir, or Russian World. For the discussion herein of what this entails, we are indebted to Professor Petro.

As Petro observes, the term Russky mir has been wrongly interpreted by some Western analysts as the "perverse intersection" between the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church; in reality, the term is employed differently by each party. Where the state uses it as a tool for expanding Russia's cultural and political influence, the Church views it as a spiritual concept linked to God's objective for the rebuilding of a Holy Rus. The relationship between the two provides a popular and definable framework for Russian foreign policy. Values play a significant role in policy formulation and, throughout modern history, three constants dictate how Russia responds to Western actions: sovereignty, capability to defend that sovereignty, and loyalty to those who share Russia's sense of honor. (The 2014 conflict Ukraine exacerbated the perceived values gap between the West and Russia, yet Russia claims it occupies the higher moral ground by defending its core values of honor in the context of the unique historical, religious, and cultural bonds with Ukraine.)

In summary: The significance of religion in Russian life allows the state to garner huge social capital from having the blessing of the Orthodox Church, and likewise the Church benefits from the relationship by disseminating its message of Christianity worldwide via Russian foreign policy. For the state, Russky Mir is a political/cultural tool for strengthening domestic stability, worldwide status, and influence in neighboring states. For the Church, it is a religious foundation essential for reversing the secularization of society (which it sees as an unwelcome evolution already well underway in the West).

Under President Vladimir V. Putin we have seen a renewed foreign policy assertiveness—castigated in the West, but welcomed in Russia as a renewal of national honor. Yet it was not until the Valdai Club meeting in 2013 that Putin presented a much more sophisticated vision of Russia, as a 21st century Orthodox power. In his speech, Putin claimed that Western leaders have caused a loss of human dignity by promoting a secular worldview and rejecting Christianity. He highlighted Russia's "unique experience" of mutual enrichment of diverse cultures within its borders and urged its citizens to feel a common identity.

The exercise of soft power is self-evidently at work in the state's imperative to build Russia's status and influence abroad, and it is this one aspect, rather than the religious, that we shall briefly elaborate here. While Russia's growing estrangement from the West and Western institutions has resulted in a number of Eastward-facing economic and political alternatives—the Eurasian Economic Union, the economic and military overtures to China, robust support for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, for example—Russia has by no means "pivoted" (to use the term of choice in Washington these days) completely from the West. In a recent edited volume, Eurasianism and the European Far Right: Reshaping the Europe-Russia Relationship, (ed. Marlene Laruelle, Lexington Books 2015), we make note of "Russia's rising soft power among European parties and countries that feel victims of the European Union 'technocracy'" (Speedie, foreword p.viii). Most recently and obviously, there has been warmth in the Russia-Greece dialogue, where President Putin has won approval both from the leftist Syriza government and from the far-right ANEL, or "Independent Greeks" party. A similar spectrum of approval appears in Hungary, from both the Orban administration and (regrettably, some would say) the far-right Jobbik party. Indeed, with the predictable exception of Poland, Russia is doing pretty well in the court of policymaking opinion in the Visegrad countries—the Czech Republic, Slovakia, as well as Hungary are opposed to further European sanctions against Russia. And it is not merely in Europe's East that Russia is enjoying positive relations. Marine Le Pen and her far-right Front Nationale movement (FN) in France are perhaps the most forceful of the Western European parties in opposition to both the national and EU establishments. It is by no means beyond the bounds of possibility that Ms. Le Pen may be elected next president of France in 2016. As part of this anti-Western establishment message, Le Pen has embraced the FN's "common values" with Putin's Russia; "These are the values of European civilization," she has said, calling for "an advanced strategic alliance" with Moscow.

There are three important conclusions to be drawn from this brief overview of Russian soft power and burgeoning influence to her east and west, namely:

  • The notion that Russia, as a result of the war in Ukraine, is "totally isolated," as the Obama administration has repeatedly claimed, is simply false.
  • The directions in which Russia now looks for economic, security, and political alliances are not the first choices of post-Soviet Russia. Both presidents Yeltsin and Putin floated the request for EU and NATO membership, and were rebuffed. (A wise Russian policy expert warned this writer some 20 years ago that Russia did not wish to "get into bed with" China, but that U.S.-led Western policy might render this the only bedfellow option.)
  • The frigidity of Russia-West relations have already fostered a spirit of comity with individuals and movements—as, for example, with the far-right movements in Europe described above—that we may see as a regrettable version of the "enemy of my enemy is my friend" syndrome.

Finally, all this was manifestly avoidable; this is surely the conclusion to be drawn from the observation by several Russia-watchers that the dialogue, or lack thereof, is at a level below that which applied even in the darker days of the Cold War. Is it reversible? Perhaps, if we pay heed to such initiatives as the recently established American Committee for East-West Accord, headed by former Senator Bill Bradley. The committee's recommendations fall into two broad categories: protecting and preserving critical arms control agreements, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; and, perhaps most immediately crucial, reopening channels of dialogue and communication, such as the NATO-Russia Council, and taking advantage of new fora such as the regional discussion group, "Normandy Four."  The committee's suggestions are sensible and selective; let us hope they find attention, and traction, in Washington.

The author wishes to thank research assistant Lindsey Macdonald.

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