Mimetic power: how Russia pretends to be a normal member of the international community


When it comes to promoting its influence abroad, the Russian state relies on mimicry and imitation.


Anton Shekhovtsov
31 October 2018

Olympic and Russian flags at the opening ceremony of the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. Photo: Alexander Wilf / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Addressing Russian ambassadors and permanent representatives in July 2012, President Vladimir Putin complained that while Russian diplomats were “well versed in the traditional and familiar methods of international relations”, there was “still much to reflect on” using “‘soft power’ methods”. “Soft power,” as Putin interpreted it, was “about promoting one’s interests and policies through persuasion and creating a positive perception of one’s country, based not just on its material achievements, but also its spiritual and intellectual heritage.”

For Putin, the problem with using soft power methods was that it was not the Russian authorities who were forming the country’s image abroad, but foreign actors who failed to assess “the real situation” in Russia or appreciate the country’s “contribution to global civilisation, science and culture”. The fault of the Russian authorities (and particularly, as it seemed, the country’s diplomats) was that they failed “to adequately explain” Russia’s position to other nations, implying, as it is often the case, the West.

Oddly enough, it is this very interpretation of soft power by Putin that, among other things, makes its use so problematic for Russia.

While explaining the concept to Russian diplomats, Putin viewed Russia’s soft power as either diplomacy, or most likely, propaganda that can be made available, or even enhanced or intensified, at will. Soft power, however, according to Joseph Nye’s discussion of the concept, is the pre-existing ability to influence other countries through attraction, with resources of soft power being a nation’s political values, culture and foreign policy. Being a pre-existing ability, soft power differs from an immediate action that, for example, can be a diplomatic action, propaganda effort or humanitarian gesture.

Various kinds of public events hosted by Russia used to reiterate ostensible triumph of Russian high culture were marred by some action by the state that turned attraction into repulsion

Many things have changed since summer 2012. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and started a war on Ukraine; in 2015, it became involved in the Syrian civil war to save Bashar al-Assad’s regime; in 2016, Russia interfered in the US presidential elections. Various kinds of mass public events hosted by Russia (such as international sport competitions) were used to create and reiterate a narrative about continuous domestic and global triumph of Russian high culture (a concoction of references to literature, classical music, ballet, art, etc). And yet, each of those events was marred by some action by the Russian state, or its consequences, that turned attraction into repulsion. The tremendous success of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi was quickly overshadowed by the shocking land grab in Crimea, while the positive emotions derived from the celebration of the “beautiful game” at the 2018 FIFA World Cup turned sour when the British authorities and investigative journalists from Bellingcat and The Insider identified the men who almost killed former Russian spy Sergey Skripal earlier this year as Russian intelligence officers.


A worker at the construction site of the FIFA Fans Festival in St. Petersburg for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Photo: Alex Danichev / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.What happened when Moscow realised that it was dramatically failing to use “soft power” to influence Western nations through attraction? Not only after 2014 but even before, they must have realised that the Kremlin’s political values did not match prevailing Western values and that its peculiar international behaviour – no matter how assured they were of its legitimacy and credibility – was one of the reasons for the deterioration of the relations with the West. Russian official diplomacy and public diplomacy can still draw upon what they believe to be Russian high culture as an important resource of soft power, but it has limited value considering the failures that overshadow Russia’s cultural achievements.

Rather than changing its political values or domestic and foreign policies, Russia – more specifically the authorities and Russian pro-Kremlin actors – morphed Russian soft power into what I call “mimetic power”.

Russia’s mimetic power is the ability to influence Western nations by creating the impression that Russia is a normal member of the international community and emulating what pro-Kremlin actors perceive as Western soft power techniques. By presenting Russia as a credible and responsible international partner, Moscow is trying to convince the West – especially following the Ukraine-related escalation of the conflict between the West and Russia – to lift the sanctions, go back to “business as usual”, and ultimately stop any attempts to democratise Russia (Moscow sees the latter as Western attempts to bring about a regime change in Russia). The emulation of perceived Western soft power techniques serves two objectives: first, to contribute to the creation of the image of Russia adapted to the Western normalcy, and, second, to undermine Western resolve to stand up to Moscow’s subversive activities.

One important trait of Russia’s mimetic power is its insistence on Russia’s moral high ground in its relations with the West, and this insistence borders on self-victimisation. Writing on “a mimetic cold war” shortly before the Ukraine-related escalation of the conflict between Russia and the West, Richard Sakwa argued that the basis of Russia’s new assertiveness was “not an attempt to change the normative basis of the existing world order, but the claim that its equal participation in that system [had] not been fully acknowledged”. One may dispute today his assumption that Russia is not trying to change the world order, but Sakwa’s argument about Russia’s claim about equal participation in the Western system aptly correlates with Putin’s complaint about the West’s alleged failure to appreciate Russia’s “contribution to global civilisation, science and culture”.

Building on the Soviet contribution to the Allied victory in the Second World War – the one which the Soviet Union initially started together with the Third Reich by co-invading Poland in September 1939 – Putin’s Russia presents itself as a major anti-fascist force that watches over the world to thwart the resurrection of fascism. This agrees with the Western liberal-democratic consensus that is anti-fascist by default, but Russia goes further than simply showing off its seemingly militant anti-fascist stance. It claims that the West is actually conniving at, if not directly encouraging, the revival of fascism in Europe.

This is a blueprint for exercising Russia’s mimetic power: to draw on a legitimate source of soft power (historical victory over fascism), couple a self-declared status (Russian anti-fascism) with the inherent status of Western liberal democracy (anti-fascism) to showcase Russia’s compatibility with the Western normalcy (defensive mimicry), and then attack the West – from the apparent positions of Western normalcy – for betraying its own principles (offensive mimicry).

The same logic of mimetic power is applied to concepts such as “human rights” or “anti-terrorism”. The Kremlin and pro-Kremlin actors know that these concepts are important for Western liberal democracies; therefore, they employ these concepts to show adaptation to the Western normalcy, but only to turn them against Western states by accusing them of violation of human rights or equipping terrorists.

For example, Russian officials would regularly slam Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for allegedly infringing on the rights of Russian-speaking minorities, while Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs would publish a series of “white books” discussing “violations of human rights and the rule of law in Ukraine” at the same time as other Russian agencies send military forces to invade Ukraine. Yet when human rights “go too far”, implying that Moscow fails to wriggle out of particular criticisms, Russian officials have a readymade excuse: Western human rights contradict “the fundamentals of our culture based on Orthodox Christianity”.

Western human rights ostensibly contradict “the fundamentals of Russian culture based on Orthodox Christianity”

On the other hand, only Russia “has legal grounds for fighting terrorists in Syria” according to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. And the fight that the US-led coalition wages against terrorists in Syria is not simply illegitimate. The Russian Defence Ministry goes as far as to claim that the US provided direct support for ISIS in Syria. And this was Russian state media that ran a massive disinformation campaignpossibly coordinated with Assad’s regime in Syria — that aimed at smearing as terrorists Syria’s first responders known as “White Helmets”.

Yet the use of mimetic power can go well beyond rhetorical exercises, as its logic can underpin actual subversive activities.

To understand this aspect of Russian mimetic power better, it is important to look again at how the Russian authorities interpret soft power. According to the now void yet still insightful Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation (adopted in 2013), soft power is “a comprehensive toolkit for achieving foreign policy objectives building on civil society potential, information, cultural and other methods and technologies alternative to traditional diplomacy”. At the same time, in times of crisis, the use of soft power (and “human rights concepts”, as they put it) can be “destructive and unlawful” as it aims “to exert political pressure on sovereign states, interfere in their internal affairs, destabilise their political situation, manipulate public opinion, including under the pretext of financing cultural and human rights projects abroad.”

Arguing about the “destructive and unlawful” use of soft power, the Russian authorities obviously implied that it was the West that misused soft power to exert pressure on Russia. However, we have witnessed that Russia itself has been engaged in the “destructive and unlawful” use of what it calls “soft power” and performed all the activities that were linked to the misuse of “soft power”. Russia has exerted economic and political pressure on sovereign states, interfered in their internal affairs, destabilised their political situation, and manipulated public opinion.

This is what Moscow imagines as “normal misuse” of “soft power” in times of crisis. But this is not soft power: these are actions informed by mimetic power, a capacity to exert influence by imitating what it considers normal political behaviour and emulating soft power techniques of the West.


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