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. Continue reading ‘Patryk Babiracki: Showcasing Hard Power, Russia Reveals Her Longstanding Soft Spot’ »