Lada Roslycky: Nothing soft about Russia’s ‘soft power’

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July 27, 2012, 12:57 p.m. | Op-ed — by Lada Roslycky

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (C) and leader of Nochniye Volki (the Night Wolves) biker group, Alexander Zaldostanov, also known as Khirurg (the Surgeon) (R) pose for a press attending a meeting of motorbikers at their camp at Gasfort lake near Sevastopol in Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula on July 24, 2010. Around 5,000 bikers from Europe and beyond are gathered in Sevastopol for the annual festival on Ukraine's Crimea peninsula. AFP PHOTO / POOL / ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO

Lada Roslycky

Lada Roslycky is director of strategic communications for Ukraine Today and is an independent consultant.

“That’s how we built up empires… we stole countries! We stole countries with the cunning use of flags!”

This militantly ironic line from the repertoire of English comedian Eddy Izzard always gets a good laugh from his audience. But, as recent Olympic events have shown, flags are no laughing matter. Neither is language, culture, collective memory, religion or feelings of belonging to the territory of one’s nationhood. These are all soft-power components of national security. It is impossible for a state to exist as a sovereign actor in the international playing field without them.

The spokeswoman for the Russian Olympic squad, Maria Kiseleva, named the identification of its athletes who were born in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine as being born in regions of Russia a “technical mistake” which shall be rectified within a few days. Some may desire to accept this explanation. Security analysts all over the world are well aware of the gravity of this “mistake” as it pertains to international security relations. In fact, members of Georgia’s and Ukraine’s intelligence services and (as it pertains to Ukraine, oppositional government) perceive this “technical mistake” very differently. Apart from security tactics, there is very little which is technical about it.

This “mistake” has targeted components of these state’s soft power security, particularly, the collective memory and feeling of belonging to the territory of one’s nationhood. Moreover, this “mistake” has also targeted the soft power security of the rest of the world by propagating a falsified account of Russia’s geographic history.

However, as insulting as this “mistake” may be, the Russian Federation has provided a rather interesting insight to the world. It has exposed its geopolitical weakness through its blatant attempt to modify history through this very serious ‘technical mistake.”

The aforementioned post-Soviet states were not regions of Russia. It must be stressed, and well understood, that Russia was not the Soviet Union. In fact, Russia would not exist were it not for the multitude of vehemently suppressed nations which it brought under the realm of its Machiavellian empire.

Recognizing its strategic value, in early July of this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly encouraged his diplomats to promote Russia’s interests abroad by employing soft power in the spiritual, cultural and intellectual spheres.

Such use of soft power greatly relies on non-governmental organizations. Paradoxically, the Russian Federation recently passed a law in which foreign NGOs are identified as foreign agents. Stringent rules are now applied to these organizations, while Russia continues to use its own to protract geopolitical power beyond its legitimate borders. The post-Soviet states in the Black Sea Region are no strangers to Russia’s hostile use of soft power. The frozen conflicts in Transdniestria (Moldova), Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia (recall the war of 2008 between Moscow and Georgia which broke out during the summer Olympics in Beijing), Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenia and Azerbaijan) and the tensions in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula would not be in their current condition were it not for Moscow’s targeted and systematic soft power operations.

As soft power pertains to Ukraine, the current visit of Moscow Patriarch Kiril (which has a special focus on the re-unification of Rus) exemplifies how Russia’s notion of spirituality plays into geopolitical games. Let us be reminded that Russia’s ancient – and Christian - roots do not lay in Moscow, they originate in the Kyivan Rus. Kyiv is the capital of Ukraine not Russia. The recent language law “passed” in Kyiv on 5 July is another example of soft power tactics and outdated imperialism.

Since the language law was “passed,” Ukraine’s opposition, student youth and venerated members of Ukraine’s Jewish community have been protesting, some even hunger striking, against it.

A member of Ukrainian Parliament, Oles Doniy, is a founder of the Committee for the Defense of the Ukrainian Language. The committee was offered by one of its members, director of TVi, Mykola Knyazhytskiy, one free hour of broadcasting time per week to any Ukrainian intellectual willing and able to teach Ukrainian language, history and culture.

Less than two weeks ago, Ukraine’s “tax police” raided his station and slapped him with charges of tax evasion. In a recent conversation with Knyazhytskiy, he stated the raid was a “politically motivated attack, not only because we offered free airtime to help save the Ukrainian culture and nationhood but because we broadcast news the authorities do not approve of.”

Ironically, earlier this week, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Mykola Azarov – the former head of Ukraine’s tax authority - called the Ukrainian language “maloruskaya” (the small Russian language).

Soft power is also known as the power of attraction.

Jospeh Nye, Harvard University professor and former chair of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council, coined the term and said “soft power uses the power of attraction to get people and states to do things they would otherwise not do.”

All formalities put aside, and simply put, soft power belongs to the realm of psychological warfare in which language, culture, history, religion and the feeling of territorial belonging matter. When harnessed by hostile state policies it causes socio-political upheaval, separatism and even war. Thus, although soft power sounds nice - if not even benign - it is not.

In a globalizing world, there is no room for states who still believe their means for survival are through the denial and oppression of weaker states.

Great Britain, The Netherlands and France are prime examples of states which have recognized the black deeds of their colonial past.

There is no room for mistaken flags or “technical mistakes” which misidentify the birthplace of athletes, particularly during the Olympics; an event which celebrates peaceful competition among states.

A proper and eloquent rectification from Russia would include an open public apology. A new globalized era has dawned; an era which demands mutual respect and cooperation amongst nations.

It should be well-understood that those who will continue to adhere to outdated games of conflict mongering and Realpolitik are doomed to witness their own sorrowful demise.

Lada Roslycky is an international security expert. As an independent consultant, she has advised numerous states and non-governmental organizations in the Black Sea region. A Harvard University Black Sea Security fellow, she continues to publish and support the proliferation of cooperation and democratic integration in the region.

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