In recent months, Vladimir Putin has been playing hardball with the world. Yet Russia’s bullying and bravado can be seen as signs of a longstanding weakness.
The Kremlin is flexing its muscle throughout its Western “near abroad,” most aggressively in Ukraine. Russian troops intimidated the population of the Crimean Peninsula before the Russian Parliament officially annexed it. The Russian government has been actively backing separatist insurgents in Ukraine’s eastern provinces. The Russian military has been crossing air space and territorial waters of its neighbors, including Estonia, Sweden, Finland and Poland—thereby creating new and dangerous patterns of international interactions. Such behavior strikes some as a symptom of Russia’s growing self-confidence, a perception that feeds into the popular view that Russia and the West are on the verge of a “new Cold War.”
Yet the historical analogy also underscores Russia’s present weaknesses. Fighting the Cold War in its East European backyard, the Kremlin lost a series of key cultural battles. While keeping a seemingly tight grip on its East European vassal states, Moscow failed to win over the majority of East Europeans to their cause through culture and ideas. They failed to generate what Joseph Nye Jr. has termed “soft power,” or power of attraction—a power which reduces tensions, minimizes the cost of imperial rule, and which helps to achieve long-term imperial stability.
Soviet soft power in Eastern Europe in the decade after World War II failed for many reasons. Some had to do with the intrinsic inefficiency and impotence of Soviet institutions, which hampered effective Soviet propaganda abroad. But more broadly, it failed because there was relatively little attractive about the Soviet system in the first place. The Bolsheviks aimed to create a rational, egalitarian and bountiful state; some successes in this regard notwithstanding, they ended up ruling largely through terror and deceit, spilling oceans of blood and depriving millions of material and spiritual fulfillment.
The Red Army liberated much of Eastern Europe from German occupation, but countless crimes committed by Soviet soldiers undermined Soviet soft power beginning with the last months of World War II. By 1948, East European communists, under close watch of Soviet authorities, transformed their countries into Soviet-style totalitarian party-states. With the consolidation of the Soviet sphere of influence, East Europeans had to sever all contacts with the West; although connections across the “Iron Curtain” were rekindled in 1956, the partial opening of the valve only stimulated more hunger for freedoms, foods, and fashions that East Europeans now could smell and see, or even experience briefly—but which their own governments denied them. The notoriously empty shop shelves in Eastern Europe spoke louder than any artistic statement about the alleged superiority of socialism. And, unable to compete with the West through culture—especially through promoting a distinctively Soviet, appealing way of life—the Kremlin repeatedly had to quell East European rebellions with Soviet Army tanks.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine today are part of the same story of Russia using force where it failed to persuade.
Vladimir Putin’s assault on the post-Cold War order has been accompanied by an aggressive upsurge of Russian propaganda abroad meant to justify the aggression. Kremlin-controlled media outlets such as “Russia Today” promote a distorted version of reality in numerous languages in order to sway international public opinion in favor of the Russian government and against the West. Russian government-paid “trolls” churn out pro-Kremlin comments in foreign internet forums. Certainly, Russia freed itself from many structural, financial, and ideological constraints of the Soviet system in managing its soft power resources. But its propaganda continues to be ineffective: Russia’s anti-liberal sloganeering appeals largely to populist left- and right-wing anti-EU parties, whose leaders share the goal of breaking Europe’s liberal consensus.
In that respect, Russian propaganda suffered a downgrade. The Soviets often resorted to anti-Western slurs but also promoted a positive (if increasingly incredible) narrative about the future victory of socialism. Now, a vague scenario about Russia’s key role in a multipolar world and the Eurasian Union hovers in the background. But the Kremlin is far more apt at dividing the West than building a world—or a vision—of its own. For all the new possibilities offered by Russia’s market economy and technology, the Russian government’s battle for the hearts and minds of the Western publics has been largely a losing one.
It may be simply that even in the age of sophisticated political spin, something cannot come out of nothing. It is difficult for an authoritarian regime such as that of Mr. Putin’s to produce power of attraction on a mass scale. That is because political repression and kleptocratic policies it engenders blatantly contradict the regime’s claim to offer a viable alternative to Western freedoms and the rule of law. High oil prices drove up the wages of ordinary Russians and boosted Mr. Putin’s popularity for years. But their recent fall demonstrated the extreme vulnerability of the Russian economy as well—even as compared to the struggling economies in several West European countries.
The soft power of the Kremlin in the West is weak. But Western governments and organizations could do more to help Russians understand the high price they pay for irresponsible leadership. For many Russians, unhampered access to foreign travel and to Western consumer goods has been a great gain of the post-Soviet era. Now, officials and businessmen who have been supporting Russian aggression in Ukraine, as well as their families, should be unconditionally banned from entering the European Union and the United States. Ordinary Russians, on the contrary, should enjoy an extended welcome abroad. Restricting Russians’ westward travels would turn the Kremlin propaganda claims about Western anti-Russian conspiracies into a self-fulfilling prophecy. It would also prevent them from experiencing and appreciating the contrasts between the world of homegrown despotism and that of democracy, however imperfect it might be.