Russian officials have become increasingly aware of their public diplomacy problem. Hence, over the past decade, Kremlin as well as the Russian academic community has started paying increasing attention – both in word and by deed – to Russia’s image and perceptions abroad. This concern has become even more salient due to Russia’s aspiration to a “Global Power” status and the need to be recognized as such, not just by its traditional “allies” but more importantly, by the West. In part, this is also due to the need to attain positive self-esteem, which is emphasized by the lack of a clear internal consensus about Russia’s identity and policy priorities.  Russia has started to actively implement numerous initiatives to ameliorate the situation and to win over the hearts and minds of the international public. In doing so, a major emphasis is put on promoting a “new” and modern Russia that is economically strong and politically stable. However, Russia’s centralized and top-down sociopolitical culture, the origins of which can be traced back to the early days of its statehood, is very much reflected in its communication style with foreign publics.

Kremlin has mostly monopolized the work of public diplomacy, and despite all the talk about engaging civil society actors and non-governmental organizations (both, domestically and abroad), it still tends to control the process, even if indirectly. Furthermore, the identity crisis referred to above is most evident in the Russian statements and literature on public diplomacy, which attempts to integrate Western concepts and terminology into its traditional Russian communication style, while demonstrating clear resistance to flexibility and openness.

The major issues with Russian public diplomacy, therefore, are two-fold. First is the actual approach and conceptualization of the issue. Russia has set out to achieve “soft power” around the world, without fully grasping the specific attributes and nature of the concept. The greatest problem in this regard is the lack of attention to the centrality of credibility in the quest for soft power, as both the conceptualization and the practice of various soft power and public diplomacy-related programs do not take that into account. Russian officials and scholars have repeatedly stated the importance of extending Russia’s soft power to the West. And yet, most of the related projects and initiatives remain focused on the former Eastern bloc (particularly the CIS member states) and/or primarily target Russians living abroad, all of whom already share a cultural or historical bond with the country. The lack of underlying credibility, therefore, undercuts all other public diplomacy initiatives undertaken by Russia, sometimes making the situation even worse due to selective perception and interpretation.

Second major issue of the Russian approach is its communication style. Recognizing this, Russia  has tried to address the problem through obvious perception management and by filling the perceived information gap. However, its top-down, centralized and information-heavy approach to public diplomacy is arguably incompatible with the more open and direct communication style preferred in the West. Creating a multitude of new information outlets – no matter how “cool” or modern – cannot be as influential as the effective utilization of the already existing information channels in the West, since those are already perceived as credible and acceptable by the intended audiences.

In order to find the key to the hearts and minds of foreign publics, Russia  needs to change its communication style and cultivate credibility through audience-centric, culturally-specific and ethical approaches. Most importantly, Russian officials should recognize the fact that effective public diplomacy cannot be seen as sugar-coating, and that mere attempts at image-management cannot make up for bad policies. Thus, the path towards successful public diplomacy around the world should start at home. Not only should the Russian government together with the Russian society come up with a generally acceptable identity and foreign policy – a grand strategy of some kind – but they should also recognize that in order to project a positive image to which it aspires, Russia first needs to embody it. That is true especially regarding its political openness and foreign policy conduct. Ultimately, in the age of globalization and increasingly horizontal communication patterns, strategies that are mostly carried out or controlled by the government have very small chances of success, particularly in highly-saturated information environments and fundamentally different cultural contexts.


What can Russia do?

Russia’s desire to be a strong global power with a successful foreign policy necessitates positive presence and an international environment that is conducive for the achievement of those objectives. Public diplomacy can help lay the groundwork for this environment.

Public Diplomacy by Deed: It is important to recognize that policies—whether foreign or domestic—are among the primary elements that shape foreign public opinion. Thus, simply whitewashing policies that are perceived as deleterious or threatening will be unlikely to address the root cause of the negative image problem. Public diplomacy by deed means in effect, practicing what one preaches and acting on the image that the country attempts to project .

Education: The lack of knowledge about Russian culture and history strongly contributes to its negative image. Providing and promoting free programs of public education—as well as partnering to develop school and university curricula—that include elements of Russian history and culture will provide alternative points of reference for the public when they interpret current Russia-related affairs. Examples here would include educational and professional exchanges, which would also help establish relationships and extend them through growing personal and professional networks. Many of the programs supported by Rossotrudnichestvo, Russkiy Mir, and the Gorchakov Fund fall within this scope, yet they are by no means sufficient. Their volume and frequency should increase, particularly in the Western countries.

Information and Credibility: Disseminating information about Russia-related issues via impartial sources will contribute to the effort of positive image-building. Kremlin-sponsored projects such as RT, Russia Behind the Headlines, RIA Novosti, and Voice of Russia are obvious attempts in this area. These news outlets have adapted quickly and are trying to model their programming on leading international—but mostly, American—media. RT, in particular, has gained an impressive market share in the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe and has received numerous prestigious television awards. However, these outlets face serious issues of credibility and selective processing discussed above: even if their information is unbiased and accurate, they run the risk of being perceived as untrustworthy or non-credible. Their source of funding, as well as the sensational and often confrontational nature of their coverage, has raised questions about their motives and has effectively situated them as opponents to the West in what has become known as an “information war” . Furthermore, these news outlets tend to focus too strongly on anti-American coverage at the expense of dedicating more time to explaining the Russian perspective on major international issues or ensuring more positive coverage of Russia and Russia-related matters. This problem reflects a much greater issue in the Russian approach to public diplomacy, : the overwhelming and direct involvement of the government in this effort. In trying to reach Western publics—and especially the Americans—who perceive the proper role of the government as being much more limited, Russia’s top-down, heavy-handed approach to information dissemination abroad seems intuitively antithetical. To address these issues, the Russian international media could begin to give a more balanced and equally critical coverage of Russian domestic and foreign policies, contextualizing and explaining them more impartially. To build credibility, the focus should be on audience-centric, culturally-specific, and ethical approaches. Competence, trustworthiness, and goodwill—or rather, their perception as such by the target audience—constitute the basis of a credible public diplomacy strategy . The Russian media, therefore, should always keep their audience in mind, and instead of focusing on confrontation and negativity, they should emphasize cooperation, positive aspects of Russia’s relationships with other international actors, as well as elaborate on the objectives and considerations behind various policy decisions.

Network approaches: The study of networks and recognition of the value they hold have increased exponentially in the past few decades . Basing public diplomacy efforts on this knowledge could greatly improve the Russian approach, particularly in helping to overcome the selective processing issues discussed earlier. The strategy can be separated into two dimensions: relationship-building and digital public diplomacy. The first dimension should focus on establishing relationships with new “key social nodes,” such as opinion leaders, who can successfully overcome existing stereotypes and later help others within their own social networks do the same . Educational and professional exchanges discussed above would play an important role in this area. However, it is important to remember that once these relationships are established, they need to be maintained and expanded. Furthermore, given the inherently horizontal structure of networks, the top-down, hierarchical approach usually adopted by the Russian government should be modified to accommodate and address the needs of the new structure. Incorporating a greater number of players and organizations—particularly independent and non-governmental ones—would be very helpful in this regard. Digital and online network diplomacy is the second dimension of this strategy, whereby new ICTs and communication approaches can be leveraged to overcome selective processing by audiences. The Russian government has already made several major attempts at adopting this strategy, establishing presence in many of the popular social networking websites and providing multi-media content on various online platforms . However, many of these initiatives do not involve a consistent and well-planned strategy or a constant two-way information flow. For example, the Russian Ministry of Affairs uses its Twitter account as an outlet for putting out press releases, but not for communicating with interested Tweeters at home or abroad. In many cases, there is no effort to reach out to key foreign publics in their own languages—the MFA’s Facebook page is in Russian, only. Therefore, reconceptualizing and streamlining the digital diplomacy strategy holds a lot of potential for increasing foreign interest and improving the understanding of Russia abroad.

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