Hard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion. Russia’s Influence Abroad. By James Sherr


About: Issued in mid-2013 by the UK Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House. James Sherr studies how Vladimir Putin’s Russia influences the global political situation. Having dealt with this issue for years, the author watched how Moscow tried to regain its influence in post-Soviet republics and Europe. As a member of the Valdai International Discussion Club, he has repeatedly met with Putin during the club’s meetings.

Sherr describes the key stages of Russia’s efforts to restore its influence in the world and quotes a number of reasons why Russia’s “supremacy” should be viewed as a complicated and multifaceted phenomenon rooted in history. Sherr offers some recommendations to the West on how to pursue a balanced policy toward Russia.

Sherr analyzes factors that have formed views of Russia, its citizens and its authorities on the rest of the world, as well as major historical events playing a key role in restoring Russia’s influence.

He considers “soft power” to be part of Russia’s current identity, and Moscow’s efforts to preserve close ties with the Near Abroad – sometimes through tough methods –to be the only possible vector of development in Eurasia, in the opinion of the Russian authorities. For the most part, he refers to the 2000s, but also discusses the 1990s to explain various processes and changes in the views of Russia’s leadership.

Addressing his readers, Sherr urges them to renounce the widespread myth that Russia does not use “soft power” and does not have any influence in the world. He confirms this by recounting historical facts: “The establishment of the Soviet Union was a sanguinary business. The greatest onslaught against it, Operation Barbarossa, was at least as sanguinary, and the apotheosis of that struggle, the Great Patriotic War, produced lessons that are easy to relearn and difficult to forget. For those who govern Russia today, the experience of the 1990s has produced difficult lessons as well.”

Sherr points out that Russia is using “soft coercion” rather than “soft power.” Its methods are not always soft, but they are not coercion by force. They are frequently based on covert actions, such as bribery, blackmail and new forms of exerting pressure based on hydrocarbon supplies. Sherr recalls that Russia also uses tough methods of pressure. He concludes that the Russian leaders prefer to combine both styles and alternate them depending on the circumstances and the tensions around Russia’s borders.

Sherr considers the growth of hydrocarbon prices in 2003 to be a point of departure for Russia’s present style of conduct in the world arena. It was also influenced by subsequent events in Ukraine when pro-Western politicians came to power as a result of the Orange Revolution supported by masses of protesters. Russia expanded cooperation in industry and energy with Germany against the backdrop of soaring hydrocarbon prices. In this way, Moscow gained the support of its ally in Western Europe and managed to speed up its economic development. Sherr concludes that 2003 witnessed the launch of the era of geo-economy and energy diplomacy, while the events in Ukraine enhanced Moscow’s attention in regards to its relations with the West.

The thaw in Russia’s relations with the West disappeared without a trace in early 2004, when Moscow’s policy was threatened by the Orange Revolution and conservative attitudes became stronger on the domestic scene. Sherr writes that “Ukraine’s Orange Revolution was a shock to the mindset and metabolism of the entire Russian elite. In Putin’s orthodoxy, Russia ‘cannot live according to the schema of Western values.” That Poland and Estonia can do so means little to most Russians. But if Ukraine can do so, that is a different matter. In the dominant Russian perception, Ukrainians are a branch of the Russian people. They are also ‘little Russians,’ and Russia is ‘the older brother’. Putin has never concealed these convictions. They persuaded him that the Orange Revolution was not the work of Ukrainians, but rather a Western ‘special operation’ and a triumph of Western soft power, which to Putin is a form of state power.” This approach remained unchanged even after the de facto failure of the Orange Revolution.

Sherr believes that Putin’s Munich speech in February 2007 was the second turning point. Casting an open challenge to NATO and the West, he declared openly that “Russia is confident of its possibilities and potential.” The final confrontation was brought about by the events in Georgia in August 2008 when Russia called its military operation “peace enforcement.”

Writing about the present day, Sherr points out that “Russia’s policy towards its principal interlocutors has been notably consistent during Putin’s period in office” and its attitude toward global processes is prompted by its historical experience.

Stating that Russia continues to consider Eurasia its zone of interests and main vector of development, Sherr criticizes the Russian authorities for striving for closedness and using old models. He associates Russia’s efforts to include Ukraine in the Customs Union, to create a new Eurasian union and to change the principles of the European security treaty with the times of Nicholas I and Leonid Brezhnev and calls such actions unproductive.

However, Sherr points out that despite the criticism of Russian foreign policy by a number of countries, the West does not have a coordinated and balanced policy toward Moscow. He writes: “The West will need to abandon the conceit than Russia faces a choice between pro- and anti-Western alternatives… A less authoritarian Russia will not necessarily be more liberal toward Russia’s neighbors; a less corrupt Russia will not necessarily be more democratic. There are thoughtful and potent forces in the country that loathe the corruption, demand good governance, support the rule of law…”

Sherr urges Western politicians and analysts to devote more attention to Russia as a country rather than its leaders, and to remember and study its history to understand it better: “The principles of individual liberty, property rights and judicial autonomy never struck deep roots in Russia, let alone triumphed, and their brief periods of ascendancy have been tarnished by compromises with illiberal political forces and by failure. The challenge for the West today is to devise policies that rebalance the rules of the game and the choices open to Russia. To these ends, it should practice democracy rather than preach it, watch how Russia’s business affects the West’s business, let Russia reap the consequences of its choices and insist that both Russia and the West deserve better. The West needs to remind itself that the purpose of its policy is not to punish Russia, but to uphold the interests and standards upon which Russia might look more positively tomorrow than it does today. For the same reason, the West should not only reconsider its visa policy but change it.”

Prepared by the Valdai Club staff.

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