The US Is Trying To Deprive Russia of ‘Soft Power’*

*Editor’s Note: On March 4, Russia enacted a law that criminalizes public opposition to, or independent news reporting about, the war in Ukraine. The law makes it a crime to call the war a “war” rather than a “special military operation” on social media or in a news article or broadcast. The law is understood to penalize any language that “discredits” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calls for sanctions or protests Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It punishes anyone found to spread “false information about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison.

The U.S. continues to add individuals and legal entities to its sanctions list. Two new Russians and four organizations were recently included, among them Natalia Burlinova’s organization Creative Diplomacy as well as Burlinova herself. She and her organization have been accused of working with Russian intelligence and the Russian government.

It might not seem particularly terrible. Russians have become used to the steady increase in personal sanctions and restrictions against the organizations of compatriots who are little known to the outside world, and experts even believe these sanctions are a sort of lightning rod. Given the current thinking with respect to relations, the U.S. must introduce sanctions, so it might as well make them personal rather than sector-specific, which would hit the Russian economy in general.

Actually it’s not so simple. Creative Diplomacy is one of many Russian nongovernmental organizations working in the area of public diplomacy and “soft power” (that is, influence on other countries through cultural, educational or other nonmilitary and peaceful mechanisms). It is an active organization and not just a sinecure for retired bureaucrats and diplomats. The organization’s goal was to build bridges and communication between young leaders from Russia and Western countries – first and foremost the U.S. and EU member states. Its programs brought foreign journalists, political scientists and scientific personnel to Russia for discussions, meetings and get-togethers with Russian colleagues, which, as far as we can tell, are more effective ways to interact than trading accusations and rumors in the media. And it’s understandable that the U.S. – interested not only in deepening the Russian-Western conflict but also in building a real “iron curtain” around Russia – doesn’t need the sort of programs that devalue the Western propaganda machine’s work of dehumanizing Russians.

Of course, now someone will say that adding Burlinova and Creative Diplomacy to the sanctions list is a recognition of their work fighting against such dehumanization. They would probably be right. But at the same time, one must understand that these sanctions, even if they don’t put an end to Creative Diplomacy, sharply limit its opportunities. It’s unlikely that any young, mainstream Western leader or those wishing to join such a leader would be ready to contact a sanctioned Russian organization, let alone participate in its programs.

Even before the beginning of the special operation in Ukraine, the FBI summoned graduates of Creative Diplomacy’s programs and pressed them about whether they had been recruited by the Russian Federal Security Service. Now, it’s possible the FBI may conduct more rigorous interrogations. Or it will at least be “selling wolf tickets.”* Do young leaders need this? One can predict with a large degree of certainty that the strike against Creative Diplomacy is just one chapter of Western sanctions against Russian nongovernmental organizations that work internationally, including first and foremost organizations that work throughout the former Soviet Union.

We Must Defeat Them without Fighting

The West understands that soft power is an effective tool to use not only to isolate Russia but also to push the former Soviet countries out from under Russia. Just as they pushed Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia out from under Russia, they are now doing the same with Armenia and Kazakhstan.

The scheme and the method are very simple. The West nurtures a new elite in these countries: journalists, political scientists, experts, scientists or simply those who influence public opinion. This elite imposes its own values through special programs, training events steering lecturers in appropriate directions, hooking them with grants and other forms of cooperation, thus integrating them into the right social circles among Western colleagues. The result is a situation where post-Soviet countries are fully dependent upon the Russian Federation economically or from a security standpoint but whose elite has simultaneously been Americanized or Europeanized to a large degree. This means that in a few years or generations, these states – depending on their internal political and economic problems – are completely vulnerable to another Maidan.

Moscow can prevent such a scenario if it pursues a more comprehensive policy. The Russian Federation has already implemented elements this kind of approach, the special military operation in Ukraine for example(to show its neighbors how it will react to the appearance of anti-Russias on its borders).

However, to quote Sun Tzu, besieging the fortress of an opponent is a rather wasteful form of war. It is best to break the enemy’s resistance without fighting. That is, to answer the West’s soft power with our own.

Russian soft power potentially has colossal competitive advantages against Western soft power, for example, with respect to the location of former Soviet countries in a Russian cultural and linguistic area, these states demonstrate notorious economic dependence on the Russian market, labor immigration, etc.

Making use of these advantages requires that people be aware of both the crucial importance of soft power and the fact that correctly constructed, financed and professionally staffed nongovernmental organizations can build soft power more efficiently than an embassy with its bureaucracy by an order of magnitude.

Finally, we need to defend Russian nongovernmental organizations against Western sanctions with approximately the same amount of attention that the state provides to major businesses. But whereas representatives of major businesses don’t always work in the interest of their native countries, foreign policy and security, institutions of soft power do. If, of course, we let them work.

*Editor’s note: “Selling wolf tickets” is an expression derived from African American Vernacular English and is meant to convey taking threatening or menacing action that may or may not be backed up.

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