20 years under Putin: a timeline

According to reports in the Russian press, Vladimir Putin has decreed that a separate budget be set aside for the improvement of “Russia’s image” abroad. Author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek contends that no amount of investments will be able to improve the international reputation of the current Kremlin regime.



Popular legend has it that on a Soviet poster bearing the phrase “We need peace” some wit added in handwriting “and preferably all of it.” (In Russian, the word “peace” is the same as “world.”) Whether this really happened or not, the joke reflects rather well the priorities of Soviet, and now Russian, foreign policy. The catastrophic inability of a mediocre and irremovable regime to solve domestic issues has resulted in the government attempting to appease its people by presenting to them world conquest as a valuable national ideal.

This scenario has been underway for centuries, and in Soviet times, this policy of expansion became the communist regime’s basis of subsistence. The current Russian policy is not yet a replica of the Soviet one, but sculptor Putin is working hard to give modern Russia all the features of a communist state.

Method marks the key difference between the current and Soviet forms of expansion. Communist leaders of the totalitarian USSR put military force at the heart of its foreign policy, although they did not neglect secondary tasks, such as projecting a positive image of socialism, fostering Western public opinion favorable to the USSR, organizing pro-Soviet parties and movements, and financing destructive forces and terrorist activity. There are many documents on this subject in the “Bukovsky Archive.”

The current Russian regime imitates the Soviet one in many ways, but it lacks its military potential. It reminds one of an old predator with ground-down teeth that scowls by force of habit but can no longer bite. Which gives it even more reason to turn to alternate methods of conquering the world.

The Kremlin is—groundlessly—equating itself with Russia, and is above all concerned with its own image.

In early June, Kommersant newspaper reported that President Putin signed a decree allocating ten billion Rubles to improving Russia’s image abroad. This task was reportedly entrusted to the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo). The organization is headed by Konstantin Kosachev, a former Soviet diplomat and Russia’s representative at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), who is known for his sharp criticism of the PACE resolution denouncing Nazi and Communist regimes.

News of the decree appeared in many media outlets, accompanied by a remark that Putin was promoting the concept of “soft power” in Russian foreign policy. Nobody seemed to notice, however, that there was no mention of this decree on either the president’s official website or the website of Rossotrudnichestvo. In addition, officials gave no comment, neither confirming nor denying the existence of the decree. The Rossotrudnichestvo website referred to the Kommersant article, and Kosachev unofficially mentioned the concept of “soft power” and his organization’s role in it. One might be tempted to conclude that this information was leaked intentionally to test public reaction; however, the reason for the leak remains unclear, as the subject is not a particularly important one to Russian society, and the sum in question is not that large. Ten billion Rubles amounts to only about $330 million. In comparison, the Kremlin’s foreign mouthpiece, Russia Today television, alone has a yearly budget of around $400 million.

Talks about the need to improve Russia’s image have been underway for some time. The Kremlin is—groundlessly—equating itself with Russia, and is above all concerned with its own image. This concern is understandable: the Russian regime has long been disreputable, and since the beginning of the 2011 protest rallies, its criminal nature has become all the more apparent to the world. It is no surprise, then, that the Kremlin deems it worthwhile to invest money in improving its reputation abroad.

The extent to which this action is grounded in the concept of “soft power” is open to speculation. Developed by American political analyst Joseph Nye, the term “soft power” describes Nye’s assertion that seduction is more effective than coercion, and is rooted firmly in the idea that a state’s propaganda machine does not play a key role in international relations. Whether this latter point is true or not is also open for debate, but the only part of Nye’s message the Kremlin assimilated was that it could supplement its lack of military force with mass propaganda. Hence the funding.

A Kommersant source in diplomatic circles explained that Rossotrudnichestvo is supposed to become the Russian equivalent of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). During his presidential campaign, Putin wrote in his article “Russia and a Changing World” that Russia’s “soft power” approach would be seeking loyalty in the international arena by participating in various charitable actions. Vain wishes! One should not forget that no matter what a Russian factory’s specialization is, it always ends up manufacturing Kalashnikov rifles.


The head of Rossotrudnichestvo, Konstatin Kosachev (pictured), is one of those tasked with improving the Kremlin's international image.


Rossotrudnichestvo’s Kosachev wrote in his blog, “The key component of a state’s soft influence on foreign minds and hearts is a country and its people’s image. It cannot be created by either the most expensive campaign or company. An image brings not only attractiveness, investments, tourism, joint projects. First of all, it creates reputation and trust. Trust with regard to actions within and without. This means a large number of allies and a small number of opponents.”

The Kremlin knows how to decrease its number of opponents. The police and security services exist for just this purpose. But what reputation and trust can Kosachev be talking about?

What “trust with regard to actions within” can one speak of in the shadow of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s case, Sergei Magnitsky’s death, and the Pussy Riot trial, all well known abroad? What reputation does the Kremlin hope to create for itself by shamelessly rigging parliamentary and presidential elections, by breaking up peaceful protest demonstrations, and by having courts that are completely under the government’s control convict opposition members on the grounds of fabricated accusations and forged evidence?

What “trust with regard to actions without” can one speak of when the Kremlin openly supports Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad and impedes international peace efforts by vetoing the UN Security Council’s resolutions? What trust can Russia expect to receive after virtually invading a considerable part of Georgia? What trust does Mr. Kosachev expect to receive personally after declaring at the September 30, 2009 PACE session that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is Stalin’s successor?

No citizen of a healthy state would fall for the corruption, nor condone a government that exercises such tough control over businesses, courts, Parliament, the media, and civil society.

The Kremlin has one big problem and two small problems. The first small problem is that the Kremlin leaders live in an artificially created information environment and possess only a vague idea of what people really think of them, both in their own country and abroad. The other small problem is that the Kremlin’s “professionals” turn any good cause into its antithesis.

The big problem is much more serious: Today, Russia has nothing in its national experience to offer the global community that would make others grateful and eager to follow Russia’s example. No citizen of a healthy state would fall for the corruption that makes up the backbone of the Russian political system, nor condone a government that exercises such tough control over businesses, courts, Parliament, the media, and civil society. In its efforts to make the world turn toward it, Russia can emerge onto the international arena either armed or empty-handed.

On the other hand, other like-minded regimes and countries aspiring to achieve Russia’s same level of authoritarianism would naturally be grateful for the example Russia sets. Thus, Russia’s only immediate path to inspiring emulation and loyalty lies in a repetition of the Soviet approach to interacting with the world, which consisted in offering political, military, financial, and other means of support to tyrannical regimes and aggressive opponents of democracy. It is likely that Putin’s plans for improving Russia’s image abroad will be realized in this direction. That is, if the funds appropriated for this purpose do not get stolen along the way, which is also very probable.