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Reminiscence of Soviet soft power and the way it influenced the “Global South”

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The exact meaning carved by Joseph Nye in coining his notable concept “Soft Power” referred to a strong influence over states whereas governments cannot totally get rid of its influence. Because, unlike the hard power which pushes states to the edge, the influence of soft power brings more sentimental effects to targeted states as their national consciousness is solidly smitten by its approach. In a changing world where many state actors arise from military and economic dimensions, the gravity arises from soft power plays a bigger role in shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. In fact, such a smart use of power inevitably brings more constructive results than triggering the fire arms. Today emerging super powers like India and China have been much driven by the idea of using soft power as an indispensable strategy in the realm of their regional and international geo political space. However, the soft power strategy used by Soviet Union during Cold War as a decisive factor in its ideological and political expansion towards the Global South has left an interesting legacy as it could successfully accomplish its mission in Third World countries. In particular, the countries gained their independence from Western powers began to woo the ideological whims propagated by Moscow in early 50’s and 60’s. The anti-colonial sentiments spread across newly independent states boosted their rapport with Soviet Union and this was much strengthen when Moscow provided ample funds to Third World countries in order to galvanize their national economies which was perceived by Soviet Union as an action of necessity. Stalin’s successor Nikitha Khrushchev showed a great zeal in influencing Third World states against the struggle against imperialism.

Nevertheless, the growth of Soviet soft power towards the Global South was mainly an offshoot from its grand cultural and intellectual heritage and the apt way it was used by Soviet Union to twist the arms of those Third World states. As an example the indomitable expansion of Russian literature among the young university students and intellectuals in post-colonial countries became prevalent as a counter narrative against much dominated Anglo American literature. For instance, the growth appeared to bloom in South Asia towards Russian literature was much notable as its attracted and aspired the young generation in Indian sub-continent in a time when the nation emerged after long colonial movement. The characters portrayed by prerevolutionary Russia authors like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Gogol invoked Asian sentiments to think about their own conditions under social inequality. It was such an incredible phenomenon how and why citizens from far distant countries like India and Sri Lanka in South Asia were fascinated with Russian literary ideals. From 60’s till the dissolution of USSR in 1991 Soviet Union spent a heavy amount of money on translating their great literary classics into local languages in South Asia, Africa and Latin America as a great cultural tool, which resulted in producing a class of citizens obsessed with Russian ethos in those regions.

The higher education assistance was another feature of Soviet soft power over third world countries. In African and Asian contexts, most of the ruling elites were products of either British or French higher educational institutes. Yet, most of the masses in rural areas with many economic deprivations had no access to privileged western universities, that went on to hinder their aspirations of pursuing higher studies beyond their states.  Since the dawn of Cold War the factor regarding higher education as a strategic tool was considered by both Soviets and Americans with greater importance. When the necessity of higher education was emphasized by African leaders at Addis Ababa Conference of African States on the Development of Education in Africa in 1961, Soviet leader Khrushchev declared the foundation of the People’s Friendship University in Moscow, especially for students from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Addressing 3,000 students at Jogjakarta University, Khrushchev affirmed that the Soviet government ‘wished to help the [developing] countries to train their national workforce, engineers, agronomists, doctors, teachers, economists’ and at the same time give a chance to ‘many talented young people coming from poor families’, who otherwise were ‘deprived of the possibility of realizing their wish to study in the Soviet Union.

As a matter of fact, the establishment of People’s Friendship University in Moscow was a greater achievement in Soviet soft power over the Third World States as it’s much promised ideals of the awakening of the East attracted many young students coming from decolonized states. Nourishing the socio cultural ties with non-Communist countries on the basis of idealizing the anti-imperial values intended to intensify the waves of communism in those countries with the eventual expectations of seizing the state power by workers. Another assumption held by Soviets of establishing a higher academic institute for the students from developing world was focused on two goals. Firstly, Soviet Union believed that the knowledge transfer to backward Asian African societies would accelerate their progress and secondly Moscow considered the graduates hailing from Soviet education would have a paternal gratitude towards their authority. The Soviet soft power alliance with the Third World reached its symbolic culmination, when People’s Friendship University was named after nationalist leader in Congo Patrice Lumumba, which was an indication of Moscow for their solidarity with non-Communist states in their struggle against imperialism.

The aftermath of the establishment of People’s Friendship University crated a much conspicuous platform for Soviet Union to execute their soft power and its outcomes became much effective as most of the students studied in People’s Friendship University excelled themselves fields like academia and diplomacy in their own countries. Nevertheless, it is true to admit that Soviet soft power strategy was not always successful, particularly the degrees awarded by People’s Friendship University were discriminated when pro-Western governments came into power in non –Communist states in Asian and African countries. For instance, the pro-Western government in Sri Lanka from 1965 to 1970 marginalized Soviet graduates from employment opportunities, labeling them as leftists. On the other hand, there were situations Moscow expelled Asian and African students, when they professed their dissenting opinions about Soviet system.

The soft power strategy adopted by Soviet Union to approach Third World countries was predominantly confined to higher education, yet the outcomes emerged from such investments brought long term results to Soviet Union. Especially, increase of alacrity to learn Russian among students in the Global South saw a great Slavic cultural infiltration into those Russian speaking countries and its influences continued to grow in many ways. The in 60’s Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, New Delhi established a center for Soviet and Central Asian studies which attracted many Indian scholars and with its growing political influence Russian language became quite a popular. However, the chaotic economic stagnation of Soviet Union in late 80 and its immediate effect resulted in the disintegration of Soviet Union brought the very end to Third World’s romanticism with Soviet culture. The idealistic slogans on world communist society and dictatorship of proletarians were faded into oblivion at the ebb of Soviet decline and the emergence of Russian federation had no time and space to persist their soft power in the Third World as a result of the wave of economic and social instabilities they faced in the 90’s.

Today, more than 25 years after the collapse of Soviet Union, Russia again stands as a strong nation and its recent geo political expeditions have given a palpable sign the Russia yearns to restore its lost glory in the global arena. In fact, Moscow is well aware of the great importance of using soft power in 21st century power politics. Yet, the pivotal question appearing from post-Soviet era is how would modern Russia locates her soft power before growing expansion of Indo-Sino soft power contest in Global South. The steeping increase of Confucius centers and Indian cultural hegemony through its most colorful culture would always mar the idea of restoring Russian soft power beyond Ruski Mir. But, we should not easily forget still there is a nostalgia been pervaded in the memories of the old generation bureaucrats, diplomats, statesmen and academics in the third world countries, which always would pave the path to restore its soft power in diplomacy at least to a certain extend.

*Prof. Sanjay Rajhans is the deputy chair at Department of Public Policy at Faculty of Social Sciences in Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia.

Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD candidate at Institute of Law and Politics at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa Italy. He held a research fellowship at Faculty of Law, Higher School of Economics in Moscow and obtained his Masters from International Law at South Asian University, New Delhi. He served as a visiting lecturer at Faculty of Arts, University of Colombo Sri Lanka and author can be reached at punsaraprint10[at]gmail.com

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Time for Diplomacy

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When I was hired by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union as an interpreter in the mid-1970s, the hardest thing about the job was translating for politicians who somehow “spoke” the language of their partners. They would often want to show off their skills, often interrupting the interpreter to say, “I got it. Go on.” This meant that important nuances, points of emphasis and details were lost in the process, which made it extremely difficult to ascertain the other side’s position with any degree of accuracy, let alone seal any specific agreements.

These days, pretty much everyone fancies themselves as a diplomat or a foreign policy expert at the very least. Without the slightest hint of hesitation, they are willing to voice their opinions on the most sensitive of international issues, brazenly tell us how we should be doing our jobs and share with us their sure-fire ways of quickly resolving long-standing problems, all the while ensuring and securing Russia’s interests. An inevitable consequence of this is that the global community is never quite sure what Russia’s official position actually is, which in turn leads to lopsided interpretations of Moscow’s foreign policy aspirations.

Given the unprecedented numbers of “armchair diplomats” we have today, it is hardly surprising then that politicians have absolutely no qualms about using real diplomats, and sometimes even entire diplomatic missions, as bargaining chips in the current global geopolitical confrontation. Depending on who you talk to, the “ambassadorial war” that is going on between Russia and the West has seen as many as 600 diplomats expelled from host countries. We have never seen anything like this in the history of diplomacy, and the sad truth is that the number of “casualties” will likely continue to grow.

The consequences of such a cavalier attitude towards the diplomatic service could be severe.

By all accounts, the world is already at war. Call it what you want: psychological warfare, information warfare, ideological warfare, hybrid warfare, or any other name you care to come up with. The label itself is not important, while the increasingly real risk of military confrontation is. Even if it does not come to that, the damage caused by the years of conflict is growing in all areas, whether politics, economy or social interactions for that matter.

Typically, there are only two ways a war can end—in a sweeping victory for one of the sides or in a compromise agreement that suits the interests of both sides. Today, there is no single country in the world that is capable of winning a regional confrontation, let alone a global war. This means that we need to look for agreements that would take us off our current path towards global destruction and open up opportunities for countries to work together in a productive manner.

One sure thing is that the parties will sooner or later have to sit down at the negotiating table. Those who’d held on to their best diplomats and experienced negotiators, having put together well thought-out and realistic bargaining positions, will clearly have the upper hand in such talks.

COVID-19 has shaken the global community to expose our vulnerability in the face of a deadly disease. Most experts concur that the mass vaccination programmes launched across the world will eventually lead to global herd immunity, signalling the end of the pandemic. Thankfully, the continued attempts to politicize the issue of vaccination are starting to recede into the background as the international community is becoming increasingly aware of our interconnectedness and the need to reach out and help one another in difficult times.

That said, we have to concede that such an awareness is sadly lacking among individual countries, regions and continents when it comes to issues of security. It would seem that the world’s leading politicians and experts—as well as the international community at large—are not yet ready to admit the obvious: today, any serious international crisis, even in a most isolated corner of the planet, could any time emerge as a global catastrophe, much in the same way that a dangerous infectious disease, no matter where it originated, can end up posing a real threat to human existence.

Most people would be surprised to hear that practically all the “safety” mechanisms set up over the course of decades to prevent isolated crises from escalating into direct military conflicts have in recent years been destroyed. The number of such mechanisms is shrinking, while the number of conflict situations is growing. You don’t have to be an imaginative author of post-apocalyptic dystopian novels to see where this could lead us.

There are no “easy outs” here. Even with all the political will in the world and the accumulated potential of professional diplomacy, no one will be able to effortlessly untangle the tangled knot of international problems. We thus need to prepare ourselves for long and difficult negotiations. Launching this most difficult of mechanisms should be our key priority right now. Perhaps the best way to do this, as President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin has suggested, would be to organize a meeting of the leaders of the UN Security Council permanent members as soon as possible.

If such a meeting happens, its participants will need to acknowledge that the world is approaching the proverbial “point of no return”, conceding that a global war knows no winners. As soon as they reach this self-evident conclusion, they could then set about forming a working group under the auspices of the UN Security Council to organize and hold negotiations on the most pressing international relations issues. In doing so, the permanent members of the UN Security Council would be fulfilling its “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”, as set out in the UN Charter.

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Isolation Can Only Be Splendid

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The coronavirus pandemic, which arrived in Russia exactly a year ago, in April 2020, greatly exacerbated the issue of the modern state’s resilience to challenges that have an objectively external origin. Of course, one cannot compare the scale of the threat to that of the military interventions the country has experienced throughout its history. However, the ubiquitous nature of this challenge from the very beginning made such comparisons the most appropriate, especially in contrast to the crises and disasters of the 1990s and early 2000s; in any case, it had not been a product of the Russian state. The exogenous nature of the problem was combined with the fact that, for the first time, it did not have a specific source in the form of an adversary which could be defeated through a single exceptional effort.

The most important cultural consequence of the pandemic has been Russia’s pivot inward. First, because the national media focused on news from the regions related to the peculiarities of the pandemic in each of them. The increased attention to the activities of the regional authorities, which received rather broad powers, contributed to the formation of a single information space from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. For the first time in national history, major news stories across a vast territory were devoted to a single topic.

Second, for the first time in the past 30 years, the citizens of Russia had to spend their holidays at home — in cities, at their dachas or traveling domestically. The issue of the accelerated creation of recreation infrastructure within the country has become relevant. No one disputes the fact that most Russian destinations are seriously inferior in terms of amenities to those in Europe or the Middle East. Not to mention the climate factor, which no state policy can overcome. But even if, in the future, international borders become open again (this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future), the emergence of such infrastructure and the habit of taking holidays without going abroad will further contribute to the localisation of the interests of Russian citizens.

Thus, for Russia, the pandemic has become an important factor in national cohesion and the localisation of interests within its own borders, the real consequences of which we will be aware of in the coming years. First of all, we can talk about the understanding that internal stability and development are more important for survival than the ability to respond to external challenges or to take advantage of opportunities that arise outside the Russian state.

These changes are of a strategic nature and inevitably affect foreign policy, keeping in mind those features of strategic culture that, while maintaining the same level of openness, would hardly be in demand. It is no coincidence that the most important issues of Russian foreign policy over the past year have been the deepening split in relations with the West, a more outspoken approach to interaction with China, and attempts to create a new system of relations with Russia’s neighbours: the countries that emerged from the former USSR. The latter can be interpreted as a distancing from them, to some extent.

The acute conflict between Russia and the West is the product of a massive change in the balance of power at the global level and the evolution of Russia itself 30 years after it acquired a new quality and borders. The former requires most of the world’s states to strive to maximise their advantages and provokes mutual pressure, attempts to change the balance in their favour. The latter forces Russia itself to abandon foreign policy attachments that have been established over the centuries. These changes seem especially dramatic in comparison with the period after the end of the Cold War, when Russia felt the need to constantly search for a compromise with the most powerful nations, which received the maximum benefits from the disappearance of the bipolar international order.

Until recently, the desire to preserve the most constructive relations with the West remained the central element of the post-Soviet Russian foreign policy. Now it is present only in the form of rhetoric, the main purpose of which is to point out to other nations that their behaviour is unacceptable. The completion of the post-Soviet stage of development for Russia requires an end to attempts to integrate systemically with the European Union and a willingness to establish a formula for stable working relations with the United States.

Contemporary relations between Russia and China are the product of a changing global balance of power and historical experience. The rapid rapprochement of the positions of Moscow and Beijing, as well as the coordination of their actions on the world stage, are, of course, the result of pressure on both partners from the West. Both powers understand that for quite a long time, their success in the fight against the main enemy will depend on their ability to act as a united front. In this respect, there are fewer reasons for hesitation — Moscow and Beijing have begun to move towards the creation of a formal alliance. Moreover, it is China that has shown fairly good results in the fight against the pandemic. Historical experience suggests that it would be wrong to strive for a clear distribution of roles according to the principle of “leader and follower” that can lead to instability in the long term. Therefore, now Moscow and Beijing are trying to avoid such a scenario of relations, although it is not easy.

Most importantly, the year of the pandemic set in motion Russian politics in the other states of the former Soviet Union. Here, surprisingly, Russia’s inward focus on itself has the ability not to weaken, but to strengthen its position in relations with partners in the region and non-regional players. First of all, because Russian politics is gradually becoming more demanding and diversified. By adopting this outlook, it refutes well-established notions about itself and immerses its partners in an unfamiliar situation, which is extremely useful for Russia.

One of the most important issues connecting international politics, history and geography in Eurasia is the question of the transformation of the geopolitics of the post-Soviet space over the past 30 years. The traditional point of view is that as historical experience was gained, each of the sovereign states that emerged from the USSR obtained unique characteristics and gradually their scale became so significant that it overcame the factors that ensure the existence of a certain community.

Finally, the history of this community should be completed by the transformation of Russia into the “last empire” — a power resembling Russia of 1917 in terms of its resource potential, and in terms of foreign policy behaviour — a 21st century nation-state which participates in the global balance of power. This is what is happening now, and the practical consequences are encouraging for some countries and discouraging for others.

Russia’s ability to somewhat distance itself from the former Soviet countries has a serious material basis — the preserved and partially increased resources and power capabilities of Russia, which make it possible to speak of a certain self-sufficiency in the international arena.

The understanding of the scale of these resources and opportunities came as Russia developed independently, including through the intellectual conceptualisation of the wealth that Siberia and the Far East represent for the Russian state. In this sense, the pandemic laid the groundwork for self-reflection and a focus on domestic problems.

The “turn to the East,” which has remained significant in Russian foreign policy discussions over the past 10 years, meant, first of all, strengthening ties with Asian countries and attempts to forge regional trade, economic and political relations. In many ways, it was carried out reluctantly — there was a lot of inertia of orientation towards Europe, Asia presents Russia with no security threats, while the creation of truly serious economic relations is practically impossible, amid the current conditions.

The development of Siberia and the Far East has never been a central focus of the political “turn”. However, Moscow has become more far-sighted, and now considers the territory beyond the Urals to be the most important, albeit as a by-product of the “turn”. In a sense, the “turn” has helped Russia to realise its own geopolitical dimensions, which became important in the context of a return to real, forceful international politics.

It would probably be wrong to interpret the current state of Russian policy towards the countries of the former USSR in terms of a “farewell”. Natural security considerations will remain as binding as ever, as well as ethical notions, despite the fact that Russia’s military capabilities allow it to solve many problems without directly controlling territory. Russian policy is becoming more flexible. Despite the fact that ethically Moscow still perceives Russia and the other former republics of the USSR as part of a kind of community, the methods of diplomatic interaction and the depth of involvement in its partners’ affairs are already the result of a separate assessment of every situation. The CIS issue is disappearing from Russian politics, and this can only be welcomed.

At the same time, it may be important that the consequence of internal changes is the drawing of external players into the Russian security periphery. For example, Turkey, Iran or Afghanistan. This process may not be unambiguous, but it is taking place. As a result, we can observe both an increase in requirements for the policy of Russia itself, and an expansion of its room for manoeuvre. We cannot be sure that the policy of Turkey, for example, will continue to move towards independence from the West. But now Turkish activism is bringing obvious benefits to Russia, and Erdogan’s elements of adventurous behaviour make him a “pleasant and comfortable” partner for Moscow.

Apart from modern Russia, there is hardly any other major power in the world whose resources and power capabilities would so much encourage the culture of self-isolation, and whose geographical position and associated historical experience would so much hinder it.

However, discussions on this topic are constant and sometimes take the form of the political concept of “a bear that walks in the taiga”. For national foreign policy, the challenge of the pandemic had an indirect effect — on the world stage, the country behaved, in general, like most states. The fact that Moscow’s actions were less selfish than those of Western countries reflected a desire to consolidate a new field of world politics and, at the same time, to fulfil a moral duty, without which Russia cannot exist.

However, this indirect effect was very likely more significant than any direct foreign policy challenge. The fight against the pandemic changed Russia from the inside and these changes are more important than any foreign policy manoeuvres or adaptation to international affairs.

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Steering Russia-US Relations Away from Diplomatic Expulsion Rocks

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As the recent expulsions of Russian diplomats from the US, Poland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic demonstrate, this measure is becoming a standard international practice of the West. For the Biden administration, a new manifestation of the “Russia’s threat” is an additional tool to discipline its European allies and to cement the transatlantic partnership. For many European NATO members, expulsions of diplomats are a symbolic gesture demonstrating their firm support of the US and its anti-Russian policies.

Clear enough, such a practice will not be limited to Russia only. Today hundreds, if not thousands of diplomatic officers all around the world find themselves hostage to problems they have nothing to do with. Western decision-makers seem to consider hosting foreign diplomats not as something natural and uncontroversial but rather as a sort of privilege temporarily granted to a particular country — one that can be denied at any given moment.

It would be logical to assume that in times of crisis, when the cost of any error grows exponentially, it is particularly crucial to preserve and even to expand the existing diplomatic channels. Each diplomat, irrespective of his or her rank and post, is, inter alia, a communications channel, a source of information, and a party to a dialogue that can help understand your opponent’s logic, fears, intentions, and expectations. Niccolo Machiavelli’s adage, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” remains just as pertinent five centuries later. Unfortunately, these wise words are out of circulation in most Western capitals today.

A proponent of expulsions would argue that those expelled are not actually diplomats at all. They are alleged intelligence officers and their mission is to undermine the host country’s national security. Therefore, expulsions are justified and appropriate. However, this logic appears to be extremely dubious. Indeed, if you have hard evidence, or at the very least a reasonable suspicion that a diplomatic mission serves as a front office for intelligence officers, and if operations of these officers are causing serious harm to your country’s security, why should you wait for the latest political crisis to expel them? You should not tolerate their presence in principle and expel them once you expose them.

Even the experience of the Cold War itself demonstrates that expulsions of diplomats produce no short-term or long-term positive results whatsoever. In fact, there can be no possible positive results because diplomatic service is nothing more but just one of a number of technical instruments used in foreign politics. Diplomats may bring you bad messages from their capitals and they often do, but if you are smart enough, you never shoot the messenger.

Diplomatic traditions do not allow such unfriendly actions to go unnoticed. Moscow has to respond. Usually, states respond to expulsions of their diplomats by symmetrical actions – i.e. Russia has to expel the same number of US, Polish or Czech diplomats, as the number of Russian diplomats expelled from the US, Poland or the Czech Republic. Of course, each case is special. For instance, the Czech Embassy in Moscow is much smaller than the Russian Embassy in Prague, so the impact of the symmetrical actions on the Czech diplomatic mission in Russia will be quite strong.

The question now is whether the Kremlin would go beyond a symmetrical response and start a new cycle of escalation. For example, it could set new restrictions upon Western companies operating in the country, it could cancel accreditation of select Western media in Moscow, it could close branches of US and European foundations and NGOs in Russia. I hope that the final response will be measured and not excessive.

The door for US-Russian negotiations is still open. So far, both sides tried to avoid specific actions that would make these negotiations absolutely impossible. The recent US sanctions against Russia have been mostly symbolic, and the Russian leadership so far has demonstrated no appetite for a rapid further escalation. I think that a meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin remains an option and an opportunity. Such a meeting would not lead to any “reset” in the bilateral relations, but it would bring more clarity to the relationship. To stabilize US-Russian relations even at a very low level would already be a major accomplishment.

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