Feared for all the wrong reasons? The workings of Russia’s conservative soft power

Western pundits and policymakers often see Russian influence in terms of the hybrid threat. But the lens of soft power explains more in terms of Russia’s attraction for marginal politicians.

Katarzyna Kaczmarska Vincent Keating
22 June 2017

CC BY-2.0 haylee / Flickr. Some rights reserved.In the past year there has been an increased fear over Russia’s influence across western states. A 2016 resolution by the European Parliament stressed the need to counter the anti-EU propaganda stemming from Russia. The media strongly reacted to a US intelligence report on Russia’s interference in American presidential elections. Andrew Parker, British domestic intelligence chief described the threat posed by Russia as comprising: “military means, propaganda, espionage, subversion and cyber-attacks to achieve its foreign policy aims”. The Financial Times called for developing European strategy that would provide a defence against expected Russian disinformation campaign. And in January 2017, the former US diplomat, Nicholas Burns, described Europe's 2017 electoral landscape as “the next battlefield”.

What these warnings have in common is that they concentrate solely on the threat posed by Moscow’s propaganda and disinformation tools. Clearly, the Kremlin attempts to confuse and mislead global audiences, but this debate is missing an important factor: Moscow’s growing ideological soft power. That is, Russia’s growing ability to inspire genuine ideological followership among populist parties on the right and the left, who are attracted to the values advocated by the current government and use Russia’s conservative or “alternative” example to further their own political goals.

As we demonstrate here, and argue in more detail in a recent publication (unpaywalled pre-print), Russia watchers may have misjudged Moscow’s soft power because of the liberal bias imprinted in this term. The literature on soft power presupposes that only liberal democratic ideals are seen as inherently attractive. By definition, then, the conservative values put forward by the Russian regime can never generate soft power.

This unquestioned expectation that people in Europe are naturally committed to liberal values is an assumption we believe to be misplaced. As a result, scholars and practitioners focus primarily on the state propaganda machine, ignoring how Russian ideology is received by global audiences. By focusing on the reception side of Russian soft power, we can show that Russia’s conservative values and illiberal governance model generate admiration and followership, even outside of what Russia claims to be its post-Soviet sphere of influence.

Russian ideological soft power does what soft power is supposed to do: it generates support for Russia’s otherwise controversial policy choices

These observations create an additional challenge for the liberal west. While the values currently espoused and promoted by the Kremlin are welcome and supported among sections of western elites and societies, who see Russia as a leader in these domains, Russia’s soft power influence is not just about ideological followership. Russian ideological soft power does what soft power is supposed to do: it generates support for Russia’s otherwise controversial policy choices.

Soft power makes Russia more relatable and likeable. It changes attitudes towards its foreign policy to make it seem more acceptable. Ignoring this will cause practitioners and scholars to underestimate Russia’s influence.

From Pushkin to Putin

The concept of soft power has been popular since the end of the Cold War, but it has primarily been used to describe American, or more broadly, western attractiveness based on the inherently “seductive” nature of liberal democratic values. It subsequently became normal to claim that non-liberal states, such as Russia or China, cannot generate soft power without adopting liberal norms. To increase their soft power, generate followership and gain the foreign policy benefits, Joseph Nye, American scholar who came up with the concept, argued that both China and Russia need to change.


Leo Tolstoy is just one member of Russia's cultural pantheon, which can be deployed for soft power draw. Public Domain / Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.This liberal bias foreclosed the possibility that any other set of values could be attractive and work in an exactly the same way liberal values had worked for the US. Both western and Russian pundits argued that Russia possesses almost no political soft power since it was assumed that its domestic socio-economic and political model could not be popular in other countries. This presumed lack of allure left Russia solely with hard power resources to conduct its foreign policy. While authoritarian states could band together to resist liberal values and pro-democracy initiatives, there was no expectation that the allure of illiberalism and the “Moscow consensus” could extend beyond the post-Soviet states.

At the same time, those who recognised some soft power potential in Russia have taken an overly instrumental approach to it. Russia’s soft power may only work, so the argument goes, as a centrally-orchestrated tool of the Kremlin. Attention has been therefore directed to the production side of soft power, where the state was recognised as the chief architect. In this strand of discussion, the major soft power asset has been Russia’s cultural heritage, primarily the Russian language, the pantheon of world-renowned culture producers and the Orthodox religion.

The cultural focus and presumed instrumentality have limited the geographic scope of Russia’s soft power. It was presumed to have any real effects only within the post-Soviet space. We believe that these factors have led scholars and practitioners to dismiss Russian soft power influence elsewhere as merely propaganda or misinformation. While the Kremlin certainly generates and uses propaganda and disinformation, understanding that there is also a real attraction to the ideological values championed by the current Russian government is important. Russia is more powerful if it also has soft power resources that lead to ideological followership and acceptance of Russia’s more controversial foreign policy goals.

How Russia’s attraction works in Europe and beyond

Three main elements attract European audiences and can be considered the basis for Russia’s ideological soft power: traditional values; the appearance of order and control secured by powerful leadership; and the perceived boldness of Kremlin’s foreign policy.

Vladimir Putin famously asserted Russia's moral superiority over the west in his 2013 annual State of the Nation address. His speech positioned Russia as a leader in the promotion of conservative values. Policy decisions, such as legislation outlawing propaganda of “non-traditional sexual relations”, confirmed that these values can be implemented in practice.

There is evidence that this ideological position has resonance in western Europe and the US. In Italy, the far-right Fronte Nazionale expressed its support for Putin’s position against the “powerful gay lobby” with a poster campaign launched in 2013 under the title “I agree with Putin!” Frauke Petry, (at the time) spokesperson of German Eurosceptic party Alternative für Deutschland, and Jürgen Elsässer, chief editor of the far-right Compact magazine, appeared as speakers at a Leipzig conference “on the future of the family” co-organised in November 2013 by the Russian Institute of Democracy and Co-operation, a Paris-based Russian think tank headed by former Duma deputy and a leading figure of Russia’s conservatism Natalia Narochnitskaya. On the global scale, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a Russian-backed resolution in 2012 that reaffirmed the importance of “traditional values”.


"I agree with Putin!", the poster campaign launched by the Fronte Nazionale in 2013.These anti-LGBT preferences are frequently linked to a larger admiration of Russia’s Christian values, seen by many as the “true” European values threatened by encroaching liberalism.

Front National leader Marine Le Pen, for instance, declared in 2014 that she defends “common values”, which are “the values of the European civilisation”, in particular its “Christian heritage”, together with Vladimir Putin. Russia’s leadership in defending traditional values was echoed by the leader of Hungary’s ultra-nationalist Jobbik party, who argued that “Europe should get back to its own roots and rearrange its relationship with other traditional cultures that only exist in the East now”. The “International Conservative Forum” held in March 2015 in St Petersburg attracted representatives of far-right political parties and organisations from: UK (represented by Nick Griffin and Jim Dowson), Germany, Sweden, Spain, Denmark, Italy, Bulgaria, Belgium and Greece. Nick Griffin said at the event that: “Russia is about tradition and Christianity and it's very important that traditionalists from Russia, Europe, and America get together to present our ideas more effectively to the general public.”

In addition to conservative values, Russian soft power benefits from a controversial but apparently increasingly attractive illiberal governance model, featuring an unrestrained executive, a crippled civil society, and a populist political culture supported by nationalism. Until recently, experts only recognised Russian model of governance as appealing for the “strongmen” ruling several former Soviet republics.

While the conservative values and governance models of Russia have had some soft power success, Putin himself is a major source of ideological soft power for Russia due to the positive valuation of his authoritative style of rule

But the illiberal governance model has received particular praise elsewhere. For instance, Victor Orbán openly defended his reforms by pointing to successful states such as Russia that are neither western nor liberal. In Orbán’s opinion, “the era of liberal democracies is over” because western states are becoming less competitive. This narrative of the apparent competitive advantage of non-liberal rule mirrors the discourse used successfully in Russia prior to its economic slowdown of 2014. A state’s economic success, its ability to provide for its citizens and achieve state security, is correlated with strong rule.

While the conservative values and governance models of Russia have had some soft power success, Putin himself is a major source of ideological soft power for Russia due to the positive valuation of his authoritative style of rule. The attractiveness of Putin’s leadership style is praised on both the right and the left. Putin is perceived as a real leader, particularly when compared with weak democratic politicians or the feckless governance of the EU. Russia’s president has garnered praise for his decisive leadership style from a number of European politicians. Marine Le Pen finds several important qualities in Putin, including courage and frankness.

The leader of the Left Party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, systematically avoids ascribing responsibility to Vladimir Putin for Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria. Yannick Jaffre, a philosopher with close ties to the Front National, even entitled his biography of Putin, Vladimir Bonaparte Putin. The former leader of the British right-wing UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, has named Vladimir Putin as the world leader he most admired and President Donald Trump has similarly praised Putin’s strong leadership style. Even in China, a country programmatically dedicated to collective leadership, Vladimir Putin’s persona inspired books with titles such as: The Charming King Putin, Putin's Iron Fist, Putin: Perfect Man in Women's Eyes. Zheng Wenyang’s He Is Born for Russia sold over 250,000 copies since its 2012 publication.


Vladimir Putin and his PR team have carefully cultivated the image of a strong leader for external and internal consumption. Ivan Sekretarev / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The ideological message of the Kremlin is matched by a foreign policy that includes a bold promotion of anti-Americanism in what is seen as a successful challenge to the western status quo. Such a position appeals to radical forces on both ends of the European political spectrum and to non-aligned individuals, who wish to express their dissatisfaction and challenge narratives prevailing in their home countries. Moscow additionally criticises the EU and values underpinning European integration, helping to bolster pro-Russian attitudes among a number of right-wing parties. In Hungary, for instance, Jobbik’s leader described Russia several times as a “counterbalance against a lopsided Euro-Atlanticism”.

Other European far-right parties have aligned themselves with these traditional values and the appearance of order secured by powerful leadership to bolster their own political agenda. Maine Le Pen, on top of allegedly relying on loans associated with Russian banks, organised her electoral campaign showcase foreign trip to Moscow in order to bolster her image of a future state leader with global potential. Leading newspapers picked up the Kremlin’s interference in French elections and how support for Le Pen was geared towards shoring up Putin’s legitimacy at home. But what they failed to notice is that the French far-right leader was also playing on the sentiments held by a selected group of French voters, those longing for a strong leader, greater respect for traditional values and grander esteem for France on the international scene.

Soft but potent

Russia’s soft power attraction is not simply about Russian ideological leadership in certain conservative areas.

Soft power grants legitimacy and moral authority to otherwise controversial foreign policies. We can see this in recent decisions to annex Crimea and to intervene in the Syrian civil war. Those who are attracted to Russian ideological soft power also support these controversial Russian policies, making it easier for Russia to operate in the world and challenge western foreign policy.


Marine Le Pen's meeting with Vladimir Putin in March 2017 led to concerns about a Moscow-Paris rapprochement. Source: Channel 4. The European Union’s decision to sanction Russia met with heated opposition from political elites who positively identified with Russia. Marine Le Pen argued that the European Union had declared a Cold War on Russia, a position similarly taken by other far-right leaders in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. On her 2017 visit to Moscow, Le Pen repeated her support for the annexation of Crimea and pledged lifting the sanctions. During his campaign, Donald Trump’s entourage watered down support for Ukraine in the Republican party programme. Both Victor Orbán and Marine Le Pen praised Russia for helping to solve the crisis in Syria. China evaluated Russia’s support for Bashar Assad positively and Donald Trump, still as a presidential candidate, backed Putin’s efforts.

Thus, the attraction to the ideology advocated by the current Russian government that we have suggested exists among western populist movements is not just about leadership and followership: it provides Russia with soft power by making its controversial foreign policy more acceptable to those groups attracted to these values.

Taking into account that not all Europeans may automatically support liberalism, as well as that right-wing populists will continue to use Russia’s specific allure for their own purposes, should help develop better policy responses

There are two reasons to worry that this capability might be bolstered in the coming years. The first is the growing awareness on the part of the Russian elites that the ideological soft power at their disposal is larger than they perceive, and can be leveraged to make Russia the “leader of the nonliberal world”, as head of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy Sergei Karaganov put it. The second is the potential for increasing populist and conservative politics in the west and across the world to bolster public approval of these conservative policies.

This has the potential to create a “virtuous” cycle, whereby Russia, as a model of conservative governance, helps external elites with conservative values and illiberal aspirations to become mainstream in their home countries, who in turn increase support for Russia’s foreign policy. The spinning of this circle is undoubtedly aided by the fact that borders between lobbying, partnership, propaganda and corruption are increasingly blurred. Even if Russia does not offer a detailed model of political organisation, nor a precise definition of conservatism, particular elements of its governance, such as strong leadership, the centralisation of decision-making processes, as well as its perceived boldness during domestic and international crises appeal to a number of political actors in the democratic world. 

It does not seem practical to ignore values and governance frameworks distinct from those pertaining to the liberal repertoire. It is time to acknowledge that these political actors, whom we would prefer to disregard for the evident mismatch between their values and ours, are not simply lacking in political agency as pawns of the Kremlin, and that their attraction to Russian values is a serious phenomenon. 

Taking into account that not all Europeans may automatically support liberalism, as well as that right-wing populists will continue to use Russia’s specific allure for their own purposes, should help develop better policy responses.

Read on: What can the politics of ethnic Russians in Georgia tell us about the country’s attempt to build a truly civic national identity?

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