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Is Russian soft power dead? Almost, but not quite. Why the West should still pay attention.
The consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine have been severe, both militarily and economically. Aside from the material consequences, has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine weakened its ability to attract and persuade others to get what it wants, namely, its soft power? Overwhelmingly, the consensus amongst commentators has been a resounding yes. Although true to a large extent, this evaluation has been overstated. Russia’s ability to confer influence in the information space is still very real and should not be overlooked. This article shows how Russia’s narrative of NATO expansionism has permeated the western body politic and how high-profile individuals from differing ideological perspectives have perpetuated its validity. It looks closely into the discourse of several high-profile individuals that speak to large audiences in the West, from the conservative right to the far-left of American and British politics.
Figures such as the Pope, who have said that NATO expansionism may have provoked Russia, should not be viewed as isolated cases. Rather, they have the potential to create discord amongst the international community and undermine Western resolve. We must challenge Russia’s false narrative of NATO expansionism and its perverse logic through our discourse. We should also communicate to individuals and groups susceptible to Russian influence that their arguments are selective, inherently undemocratic, and reflect an imperialist mindset. In short, NATO must constrain Russia’s narrative by making their arguments taboo and socially unacceptable.
The decline of Russian soft power
Russia incorporated soft power into its foreign policy concept in 2013 and stated that it will bolster its efforts to develop “a comprehensive toolkit for achieving foreign policy objectives building on civil society potential, information, cultural and other methods and technologies alternative to traditional diplomacy”. Institutions such as the ‘Russian World Foundation’ and the ‘Rossotrudnichestvo agency’ greatly emphasise Russia’s “contributions to global culture” and aim to draw a wide audience “through cultural and social programs”. Some have noted how Russia seeks to confer influence through NGO’s in its ‘near abroad’ by promoting educational policies. Others have spoken about how Putin has politicised the Orthodox Church and used it as a vehicle for soft power. More broadly, Russian media outlets have championed false narratives and distorted truths around the world, seeking to sway international audiences to their line of thinking.
Russia is now blamed by the West for the war in Ukraine, with – it is claimed – catastrophic consequences for the Russia’s soft power. Some studies have suggested that its “reputation has plummeted by 19% globally as a result” – based on assessments of key indicators of influence. Joseph Nye, the conceptual father of soft power, has argued that accusations of war crimes in places like Bucha have “reduced” the soft power that Russia confers. Previously, Russia positioned itself as a law abiding actor, a defender of sovereignty and gained sympathy by exploiting gaps in western societies by highlighting US and UK foreign policy failures. Russia has deployed ‘what aboutisms’ to legitimise its aggressive foreign policies and to present itself as an alternative global leader. In light of the current war, this strategy has fallen apart. Aside from China, India and some parts of the Middle East, Russia is almost ubiquitously perceived as a uniformly belligerent, even evi, actor.
Russia’s narrative of victimhood
In a speech Putin gave during the 2022 Victory Day parade on 9th May, he said that:
“The NATO bloc launched an active military build-up on the territories adjacent to us. Thus, an absolutely unacceptable threat to us was steadily being created right on our borders. There was every indication that a clash with neo-Nazis and Banderites backed by the United States and their minions was unavoidable. Russia launched a pre-emptive strike at the aggression. It was a forced, timely and the only correct decision. A decision by a sovereign, strong and independent country”
Putin represents Russia as a “strong country” which was forced to invade Ukraine because of NATO’s “active military build-up”. He firmly puts the blame on NATO and, in doing so, perpetuates a narrative of Russian victimhood. His self-proclaimed ‘liberation’ of Ukraine was framed as a “pre-emptive” strike; a claim that fed into this narrative of “unavoidable” conflict – an outcome of NATO expansion. Putin describes Ukraine as an inauthentic and inferior state – run by “neo-Nazis”.His seems to suggest that Ukraine is merely a sphere of Russia’s influence; he denies Ukraine any sort of agency or right to sovereignty. His distorted version of Ukraine’s history plays into a fantasy of reclaiming what was lost following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The narrative that Putin perpetuates is not confined to Russia and it is pervasive throughout intellectual and spiritual spaces in the West. In light of the war in Ukraine, the Pope, John Mearsheimer (American academic), Noam Chomsky (anti-war and far-left philosopher) and MP Dianne Abbot (British Labour politician) are united in voicing their contempt for NATO expansion. They explain the war in Ukraine by using the narrative presented by Vladimir Putin.
When so many in the west and across the world blame Russia for the war in Ukraine, why do these individuals continue to blame NATO? They may or may not be directly influenced by Russian soft power or Putin himself – but regardless, their statements reveal similar thought patterns guiding their contempt of NATO. A close analysis of their words will demonstrate that their arguments draw on and feed into pernicious narratives of NATO belligerence. This is partly because they fundamentally distrust NATO; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have negatively tainted their perception of US and UK foreign policy. They perceive world politics through the lens of balance of power and spheres of influence – arguing that these concepts aren’t just analytical tools to explain international politics, but are norms that NATO should have respected to avoid this conflict in Ukraine. Lastly, they do not believe that Ukraine should have any agency over its political and security future, instead viewing Ukraine as a vassal-state that ought to follow the Kremlin’s will.
These individuals are worth paying attention to because they confer influence over millions of their supporters. The Pope speaks to and represents over a billion Catholics; John Mearsheimer is a figurehead for the study of international relations across the academic world; Noam Chomsky is a revered figure in global far-left and anti-war movements; and Dianne Abbot is a prominent Labour MP who has held various leadership roles. Their comments and the views of the people they represent could undermine the west’s resolve. They are important because they all make similar arguments about NATO despite coming from different ideological and philosophical perspectives. It takes the issue of Russian influence beyond the typical left-right dichotomy suggesting that an alternative framework should be used to understand Russian soft power, information warfare and the discursive streams it seeks to exploit.
In a recent interview, the Pope gave his opinion on the Ukraine war and stated that:
“Nato [was] barking at Russia’s gate” … “I have no way of telling whether his rage has been provoked, but I suspect it was maybe facilitated by the West’s attitude”.
Chicago professor of international politics, John Mearsheimer, previously argued that Crimea was the “west’s fault” and has now again echoed the Pope’s belief that NATO expansion prompted this war. In a recent interview, he expressed:
“I think all the trouble in this case really started in April 2008, at the NATO Summit in Bucharest, where afterward NATO issued a statement that said Ukraine and Georgia would become part of NATO” … “When you’re a country like Ukraine and you live next door to a great power like Russia, you have to pay careful attention to what the Russians think, because if you take a stick and you poke them in the eye, they’re going to retaliate”.
Noam Chomsky, gave a very similar argument – stating that:
“In the case of the Ukraine – again whatever you think about Putin or think he’s the worst monster since Hitler – they [Russia] still have a case and it’s a case that no Russian leaders want to back down from that they cannot accept the Ukrainian move of the current government to join NATO even probably the European community”.
Diane Abbot stated:
“We see the United States has decided that it needs to send US and other NATO troops to Russia’s borders. This alone should tell us that the claims that Russia is the aggressor should be treated sceptically. The destabilisation in the entire region comes from the continued eastward expansion of NATO. We need to find a peaceful solution to a complicated conflict of identities and human rights” … “But the approach of the British government and others is in the opposite direction. The United States has only just ended one disastrous prolonged war in Afghanistan and many here seem to be gung-ho about starting another one [with Russia]”.
These social leaders explain the war in Ukraine in terms of NATO belligerence. They rationalise the Kremlin’s abominable actions on the basis that NATO expansion represented an existential threat to Russia and therefore its response was logical. Their arguments are framed as an objective assessment; their statements are structured through a narrative of Western irresponsibility; they are embedded within a narrative that places Russia as a victim of Western great-power politics. The Pope’s comments directly reinforced Putin’s own argument. He stated that NATO was “barking at Russia’s gate” – a metaphor signifying western culpability. His choice of wording and metaphorical articulation (“barking”) represent NATO as a wild and aggressive dog that is harassing Russia at its border (signified by the word “gate”). His claim that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was “facilitated by the West’s attitude” further served to represent NATO as some how being accountable for Putin’s decisions to invade.
In Mearsheimer’s case, he temporally frames this narrative of NATO aggression by stating that it all began in “2008” at a “NATO summit” – where NATO planted the seed of this current conflict by suggesting further expansion. How he represents the relationship between Russia and Ukraine is also revealing. His enunciations inscribe Russia as a “great power” – one that Ukraine has a duty to “pay careful attention to”. In doing so, he depicts Ukraine as weaker and unequal neighbouring state. His assertion that Ukraine had been poking Russia in the “eye” with a “stick” is another metaphor that serves to inscribe Ukraine as particularly deviant and provocative. Although Chomsky alludes to the immorality of Putin as a leader, he goes onto argue that Russia still has a “case” for invading Ukraine; he equates the prospect of a Ukraine-NATO-EU relationship as a challenge that “no Russian leaders want to back down from” – indicating a sense inevitability for conflict to arise.
Finally, Diane Abbot’s statement also feeds into Putin’ s narrative. Her choice of wording associates European “destabilisation” with NATO’s “eastward expansion” and also represents the current crisis in Ukraine as a culmination of not Russian “aggression” but resulting from the “approach of the British government”. Her statement reveals another dimension that is indicative of Russian propaganda techniques, namely, by embedding their arguments within a narrative of western foreign policy failure in the Middle East. Abbot mentions how the end of one “disastrous prolonged war in Afghanistan” has meant that their aim is to start another one with Russia. She inscribes Britain and the US as malign actors that perpetually start wars with other countries; further arguing that any suggestion to the contrary should be viewed “sceptically”.
These four individuals all draw on and feed into the same discursive streams. They all use a vocabulary list that associates NATO with aggression, Russia with victim, and Ukraine with provocateur. However, what unites these individuals from differing ideological backgrounds is that their arguments are indicative of a broader discourse on imperialism. The concept of ‘spheres of influence’, which has a history in imperialist foreign policy discourses, plays a central role in their thinking. To represent Ukraine as a buffer-zone between two poles of power in world politics implies that ‘spheres of influence’ are the real and natural order of international politics. That is not to say that as a concept, ‘spheres of influence’ is irrelevant or bereft of analytical utility, but rather that their arguments suggest that it is, and should be a recognised and legitimate norm. By conceding that some countries lack agency over their ability to self-determine because they happen to arbitrarily fall into someone else’s ‘sphere of influence’, gives legitimacy to and enables the violent actions that Russia has committed.
Dislocating and disrupting Russia’s information campaign
Given that Putin’s arguments are shared by some of the most intellectual and influential figures in the West, more effort should be placed on challenging their claims. NATO and the EU should make it a priority to conduct a targeted information campaign, to undermine arguments that serve Putin’s interests. If left unchallenged, they have the potential to disrupt the resolve and unity that has been built within NATO and the EU. Millions of people are plugged into these individuals; figures such as the Catholic Pope and Noam Chomsky are worshipped by myriads around the world – and for good reason. Given their positions and the credibility that comes with it, the potential for their arguments to gain traction by their followers is a real possibility.
Any information campaign to contest Russia’s narrative, needs to do at least two things to effectively deter those who may be turned by the likes of the Pope or Noam Chomsky. First, it must challenge the causal logic of their argumentation. However intuitive their claims are to an average audience they lack validity. One must question why Russia did not invade Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia when they joined NATO in 2004 if their reasoning for invading Ukraine was to prevent a war with NATO in the future. The Baltic States all have ethnic Russian minority populations and they are all situated along Russia’s border. Moreover, Russia did nothing to stop Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Slovakia joining NATO in 2004. Going even further back Russia stood idle when Poland joined the alliance in 1996.
Since then, there has been no indication that NATO has been preparing an assault on Russia from any of those countries. Throughout that time, Putin and his regime were too busy consolidating their power over Russian politics and making a fortune in oil and gas. Over the last two decades, Russia has invaded Georgia, Ukraine and Syria – all of whom are not in NATO. It habitually violates Finnish airspace. Even when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet in 2015, Putin limited his retaliatory actions to economic sanctions because Turkey is NATO ally. What is apparent is that Russia is more likely to invade states which are not part of NATO.
Second, an information campaign must communicate that any endorsement of Russia’s narrative (however implicit) gives tacit support to empire-building. Any belief which holds that Russia has a right to prevent neighbouring countries such as Ukraine from joining other organisations or alliances serves to legitimise modern-day imperialism. It denies and devalues Ukraine’s autonomy; it suggests that they are comfortable with more powerful and belligerent states determining the future of innocent people who only wish for democracy and economic prosperity. Figures sceptical of the West such as Diane Abbot, believe that Ukraine is being tricked by the US and EU into joining their so-called ‘sphere of influence’.
However, others will remember that it was Ukrainians in their hundreds of thousands that marched in Maidan in 2014 seeking closer ties with the west – not the US, UK or NATO.
Political activists and academics of all stripes have long fought for self-determination around the world. But when Ukraine came under attack, they responded not with solidarity or support but rather baseless accusations, rumour-mongering, and conspiracy theories. This speaks eloquently to the real challenges posed by Russian soft power. If Noam Chomsky and Diane Abbot feel as strongly about the rights of, say, Palestinians as they claim, then they ought to apply the same standard to Ukraine. Highlighting the blatant hypocrisy and logical incoherence of such figures will help to limit the impact of their arguments to the benefit of alliance cohesion and coalition policy.
Ben Soodavar is a political scientist and teacher of international relations at King's College London. He was previously a visiting researcher at Columbia University where he worked on disinformation and machine learning. His research focuses on the psychology of war and behavioural science in International politics.