The biggest power of Russia today is that it is trying to shape people's imaginations and makes them believe that its political, economical and military power is greater than it really is.
The geopolitical race is on in the Arctic, where Russia is modernizing its military and civic infrastructure, including a new military base established on Kotelny Island, one among three military outposts, to take advantage of global warming that is melting the ice, making underwater gas and oil reserves available to commercial mining activities.
Recently, Russian military experts have arrived in the civic and politically torn Venezuela to offer “training and strategy” for the government; at the same time, Russia is in talks with other international partners to set up a naval base in Sudan and another logistics centre in Eritrea. Taking into consideration the Kremlin’s further alleged/proven interventions in foreign elections, such as the 2016 US presidential election, 2017 elections in France and Germany, it seems like President Putin’s effort to put Russia back on the world stage as a formidable “superpower” akin to the former Soviet Union and in the same league with the United States or China wasn’t a long shot after all.
One could argue, as Gurganus and Rumer from Carnegie Endowment do, that this means to a certain extent the successful “return of Russia as an important global actor” as a result of a consistent and expansive Russian foreign policy effort that disrupts the West-led post-Cold War international order, projects power to far geographical corners of the world and targets adversaries’ political or societal weaknesses in an opportunistic manner.
The authors of this article tend to agree with parts of the diagnosis on the working of Russian foreign policy, moreover, we were even among the first to alert the international public to the Kremlin’s growing and alarmingly close political ties to far-right parties and paramilitary movements all across Europe.
Still, our domestic research in Hungary revealed the real problem is not what Russia can really do in the international arena, but how the Kremlin’s powers are perceived.
Allegations of Russian interference in every election are blown out of proportion. Because of this mystification, Russia looks bigger, better and more successful in the eyes of the public. This problem needs a new approach to tackle Russian disinformation and hybrid warfare.
The underlying “problem” with Russia’s image and related global power projection (or the perception of it) was already demonstrated by a 2018 Pew poll conducted on the international standing and influence of Putin and Russia.
According to Pew, opinions on Russia have significantly soured across 25 countries since Crimea, only 35% of the respondents expressing a favourable view of Russia. At the same time, the ratio of those who think Russia is “playing a more important role in world affairs” has significantly risen to 42% – with the US lagging behind with 31%.
These results on Russia’s image are clearly confusing and hint at a deep contradiction regarding the “success” of Russian foreign policy. Despite the Kremlin’s best efforts to buoy or buy Western political actors, finance a huge media empire (RT, Sputnik) and its local official or unofficial affiliates, the Russian “soft power” is just not working as intended.
Russia is not viewed as a land of the free, a strong nation with an exotic, yet enticing culture, beautiful natural reserves, but rather as a brutal and backward police state engaged in constant military or disinformation activities against its neighbours and anybody else on the other end of the globe.
Thus, the Kremlin’s power projection techniques are not as much about “soft power” than about “sharp power,” an ability to manipulatively influence our bad or good perceptions of Russia to her advantage.
Our research on the Mystification and Demystification of Putin’s Russia has proved just that. The vast majority of the Hungarian population tend to overestimate Russia’s military potential and its economic power compared either to facts or to the performance of the other countries, namely the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Hungary and China.
Two-thirds of Hungarians put Russian military spending ahead of the United States and China, while half of the respondents ranked the Eastern neighbour among the top six export partners of Hungary. The real figure was the 17th position based on 2017 data. What real political or economic significance does this spell, one rightfully asks.
From a more theoretical perspective, countries’ international clout, especially in the 21st Century, is purely and in a legitimate way constructed and exerted through the power of perception, the ability to shape others expectations about something or someone to influence their behaviour in one or the other way. On a more practical level, the mystification of, for example, the Kremlin’s economic power can lead to the end of the economic sanctions keeping Russia’s military aggression at bay against Ukraine and the rest of Europe.
The Kremlin’s European political allies take this perception and make it into actual policy platforms to act upon in the European political system. Take, for example Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who declared that Europe “shot itself in foot” with Russia sanctions and Hungary is prohibited from “conquering” the huge Eastern market represented by Russia.
This anti-sanction rhetoric is similarly echoed by Czech President Miloš Zeman on Russkiy Mir. The Kremlin’s perceived international power could have also contributed to the recent downfall of Heinz-Christian Strache, the former president of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party, who could have been made to believe one of the Kremlin’s oligarchs would just hand him tens of millions of euros to buy one of the most influential Austrian newspapers, Kronen Zeitung. Strache either fell for the well-known “back scratching” nature of the Kremlin’s big European investments and/or he thought he could get away with it given the Kremlin’s shielding.
Another amplifier of Russia’ mystification includes the belief in conspiracy theories. Political Capital revealed that 62% of Hungarians think that “many things related to world affairs are hidden from people,” or that 48% believe “secret organizations” influence public decision-making processes. Geopolitical conspiracies are just as virulent in the CEE.
According to the Globsec Trends 2018, around the third of Czechs, Hungarians, Poles and Slovaks think Russia has nothing to do with the war in Ukraine, while around 40% of Slovaks believe NATO supports terrorists in Syria and 9/11 was an inside job of the American government.
Consequently, a major part of the Kremlin’s success can be attributed to basic mystification or (mis)perceptions. How successful the Kremlin can be in persuading the Hungarian and by extension the Western public, politicians that Russia is an economic or energy force to reckon with, a master manipulator deciding foreign elections etc., so the targeted populations and actors start accommodating Russian interests, fearing hidden cards in the hand of the Kremlin – even before any negotiation has started, any weapons fired.
The news on the fact that more than half of the European voters have viewed “Russian-backed “fake news” works on multiple levels. It makes certain pro-Russian narratives more successful, while the Kremlin is viewed as a far-reaching master manipulator.
The big challenge, this way, is how to demystify Russia to avoid the perception that it is omnipotent. De-mystification must be at the heart of counter-actions on the part of individuals or civic organizations, or state institutions. It is not enough to pay attention to enable everyday citizens with the ability of spotting and debunking fake news or conspiracy theories, we need to control or know the context of disinformation, which ultimately shapes how Russia is perceived in a bad or a good way.
Russia does not want to be loved. It wants to be feared. But if it is successful, that is already a huge asset. If Russia is this powerful and dangerous, why not to cozy up? In the context of information warfare, this false perception is definitely an asset that Russia can exploit, creating an admiration based on its perceived strength compared to the weaknesses of the Western world.
To counter this tendency, politicians, policy-makers, pundits and journalists should talk more about the weaknesses of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, especially when it comes to its economic potential, policy outputs such as education, and healthcare indicators. And we should stap saying that Russia has the ability to change the course of political events in all over the Western World.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight.