The rise of Russian soft power
by Jed Anderson
While US Secretary of State John Kerry was outraged at Russia’s refusal to condone military action against Syria in September, many in the United States breathed a sigh of relief. American taxpayers, stressed after 12 years of war and thousands of dead soldiers, were hesitant to jump into a civil war with no clear endgame.
In a strange reversal of the 2003 decision, the British Conservative-dominated parliament voted against a strike on Syria while France’s leftist government stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States in supporting punitive bombardment of Syria for the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons on its own citizens.
How bombing Syria would ease the suffering of its people or send a message to an already cornered dictator remains unclear, yet Obama’s decision to shelve plans for a unilateral strike on Syria came largely due to the deft maneuvering of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s increasing ability to use soft power on the global stage, presenting Russian interests as rational and limiting American influence, marks a shift in the global power dynamic. Russia is pouring money into its media in an attempt to sway a global conversation traditionally dominated by western voices.
In an article by Benjamin Bidder in the German publication Spiegel Online, he explained how the Russian government has created an English language 24/7 news network. Russia Today, also known as RT, has offices in Washington, DC. While American conservatives fight to keep Al Jazeera English off the airwaves, RT is already on the air broadcasting Moscow’s perspective of news to American audiences.
According to Spiegel Online, the Russian government has increased RT’s budget from $30 million to over $300 million since 2005. The channel employs over 2500 employees, with 100 in Washington alone. Putin has forbidden his finance minister from cutting the channel’s budget. In effect, the Russian government is building its own version of BBC World News. It is difficult to criticize the obvious pro-Moscow spin of RT when it airs alongside channels such as Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC, each with their own explicit biases.
Bidder explained that Russia decided to boost RT’s funding after Russia’s invasion of Georgia was portrayed in such a negative light by CNN and other western media sources. Its legitimacy has been strengthened in the eyes of some Americans after Larry King joined the pay roll. With a pro-Moscow 24/7 news channel on airwaves around the world, Russia is ready to fight the long war for the minds of citizens.
Instead of firing shots over the bows of American ships preparing for a strike on Syria, Putin chose to use the press. On 11 September 2013, a date which reminds Americans of the international security threats they face, the New York Times printed a column by Vladimir Putin. Under the title, “A Plea for Caution from Russia,” Putin used a conciliatory tone to pressure American citizens not to support intervention in Syria. Buried in his letter were warnings and threats that the United Nations would be rendered illegitimate by US unilateral action, that a strike would result in increased global terrorism, that Iran might find new reason to seek nuclear weapons, and that international law would become illegitimate.
“It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force,” Putin wrote.
With words, Putin managed to paint his government as peaceful and conciliatory, while casting the United States in the guise of an unchecked violent aggressor. “We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement,” Putin added.
Using a column to speak directly to the American people is an interesting tactic for Putin. Instead of threatening a nuclear strike or a proxy war, he wrote a column to speak directly to the fears, concerns, and opinions of the public. In his column, Putin presents Russia as a patient, caring nation. This is a significant shift from the typical Western media portrayal of Russia’s government as a cold calculating regime, bent on shoring up allied dictatorships around the world.
In his closing paragraph, Putin casts himself and Russia as Christian, and breaks the image of a singular American superpower. Using the media, Putin resurrects a multipolar world.
“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal,” he writes.
By telling Americans they are equals with Russia and Syria, and that they are not special, Putin is unraveling the notion that the United States has an obligation to spread democracy, even by force, and to intervene wherever it chooses in the world.
Although many expected China to be the nation that would check the United States’ international power, it appears that it is Russia – the familiar adversary of American influence.
While Putin claimed he was writing in the New York Times due to “a time of insufficient communication between our societies,” it is equally possible his actions represent a shift in Russia’s use of power. Soft power has traditionally been one of the United States’ strongest weapons abroad. But with the waning of its economic clout and the rise in global media options, a new window has opened up for actors like Russia which seek to shift opinions.
The pen, the television, the smartphone – Moscow may have discovered that these are often more powerful than the sword. Whether Russia’s growing soft power will prove to be a positive change remains to be seen. Hopefully op-ed columns and television channels will replace Bay of Pigs style standoffs and international assassinations, because for too long there has indeed been “insufficient communication between our societies.”
Meanwhile, Syria burns and bleeds.