A new “Russian Soft Power” report from the Russian ITAR-TASS news agency has concluded that President Vladimir Putin is both the main asset and the main intellectual force in the Russian bid for global public opinion. Though Putin’s personal charisma may not be as overwhelming as ITAR-TASS reports to those of us here in the West, there is no doubt that his strategic instincts and experience as a former KGB colonel are at the core of Russia’s escalating propaganda push.
To the Kremlin, “soft power” means a form of political power that is “capable of achieving the needed results by attracting and arousing sympathy compared with ‘hard power’ that implies coercion.” Drawing on the ideas of Joseph Nye, the U.S. foreign policy thinker who first coined the term, a calculatedly strategic use of soft power distinguishes the Russian push.
The ITAR-TASS report explains the Russian government’s position on strategic influence in starkly logical terms, dating the renewed push to Putin’s election in 2000. According to ITAR-TASS, when the conflict over the future of Ukraine erupted in November of last year, resulting in Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea, Moscow already had in place “its own system of information influence.”
The most recent asset in this system is the new venture of RT (Russia Today) television, a channel aimed at the British audience. RT International already broadcasts globally in English, Arabic, and Spanish with 24-hour news. Putin last year alone devoted a $400 million budget to RT. The launch of the U.K. channel follows news last month that RT has plans to expand its operation in Berlin from a staff of two to at least 30 in the near future.
RT’s heavy-handed approach to news coverage will not go unchallenged, though. Its bias as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin is often quite obvious. And in Britain, the international version of RT is under six separate investigations for its journalistic practices by the British media regulator Ofcom. One is for its coverage of the downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight over Eastern Ukraine by Russian-backed rebels, which killed everyone on board.
But in some ways, the Russian soft-power offensive is having an impact. Russian speakers in its neighboring states are bombarded with its propaganda. And even in the West, the view that Russia was pushed too far by those who sought NATO expansion to include Ukraine has been gaining ground among Western intellectuals. All this harkens back to the myth of “victimization” peddled by the Kremlin in the days of the Cold War. On so many fronts with Russia, it’s déjà vu all over again.