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Russian Soft Power in India

Russia is well represented in India. There are 4 centres of Russian science and culture (Rossotrudnichetsvo) – in Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai, and New Delhi. They organize a variety of events catering to Indians interested in Russia and Russian culture

Russian soft power has become well known internationally. Russian international media combined with assertive diplomacy started to play an important role in world politics. According to the ranking carried out by international agency “Portland communications” Russia is amongst top 30 countries – leaders in soft power. How did Russia achieve these results? Let’s trace back how the concept of Russian soft power emerged, what is the peculiarity of the Russian approach to soft power, and, finally, how Russian soft power works in India today.

Since the 2000s Russia has made significant efforts to be heard and understood in international affairs. For this purpose, the Kremlin borrowed the concept of soft power from American diplomacy. But the Russian version of soft power appeared to be quite different from the initial concept elaborated by Harvard scholar J. Nye.  According to Nye, soft power is mostly a positive foreign policy instrument as it is “the ability to affect others through the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuading, and eliciting positive attraction to obtain preferred outcomes” (Nye 2011)[1]. Its main sources are the country’s culture, diplomacy and political values which are attractive for foreign publics (Nye 2004)[2]. Russian political leaders and experts for starters perceived soft power not just as an instrument for dialogue but as a tool to tackle information war.

The emergence of Russian soft power could be traced back to 2008-2009.  By that time it became a part of political discourse in the Kremlin: Russian president (2008-2012) Dmitry Medvedev and Russian Minister of foreign affairs Sergey Lavrov were referring to soft power as an effective power tool which can increase Russian visibility in international media and improve its image globally.

In 2013, soft power was included in Russian official concept of foreign policy (and remained in its latest version of 2016).  In this document soft power was described as “a comprehensive toolkit for achieving foreign policy objectives building on civil society potential, information, cultural and other methods and technologies alternative to traditional diplomacy” which “is becoming an indispensable component of modern international relations”. This neutral definition was accompanied by an assumption that “in global competition, international actors often use illegal instruments of soft power and human rights rhetoric to meddle in the internal political life of other states, to destabilize the situation and manipulate public opinion there, sometimes under cover of humanitarian and human rights projects

Since 2008 Russia has deployed a variety of soft power instruments and has made international actors reckon with its growing influence in world affairs. There are 2 foundations of Russian soft power so far: soft power institutions and Russian international media. In the 2000s, the Russian government established a wide range of state and quasi-state institutions designed to implement Russian soft power strategy: foundation “Russian World” (2007), The Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichetsvo) (2008), Foundation for Support of Public Diplomacy of Alexander Gorchakov (2010). Rossotrudnichestvo and Russian world foundation developed a large network of Russian centres abroad: together with other Russian organizations abroad, they account for 393 centres. One of the main objectives of Russian soft power organizations is to reach foreign audiences, discover Russia for them – especially for young people. International students were perceived by the Kremlin as a target audience for soft power. This idea was rooted in Soviet experience: USSR has successfully recruited youngsters from around the world (mostly from socialist countries or Soviet satellites). Today the volume of international students studying in Russian universities is incomparable with Soviet achievements: 250658 and 10500 of them are financed by the Russian government.

Russia Today international TV channel (now RT) has become a symbol of Russian media’s growing influence in world politics. It was established back in 2005 but received current shape and status only after the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict. Today it is one of the most influential international TV channels: it has 36 million viewers monthly; its Twitter following is over 3 million users (second largest audience after BBC with 11 million followers).

In 2014 the Russian government launched the Sputnik news website. Its feature compared to RT is not to counterbalance to Western mainstream media but the outreach societies which are often excluded from the target audience of main international media. For this purpose, Sputnik is released in 31 languages including Vietnamese, Serbian, and Tadjik.

India has been a crucial partner for Russia for the past 20 years. They are part of many multilateral organisations. For example, together with China, Brazil, and South Africa, they formed BRICS and in 2017, India joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Soft power has been an important dimension of Russian-Indian relations too. Russians and Indians in the 20th century have influenced each other many times starting from the friendship of Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy, Soviet-Indian cooperation and leading to the popularity of Indian movies in Russia today.

How modern soft power instruments of Russia work in India? Institutionally, Russia is well represented in India. There are 4 centres of Russian science and culture (Rossotrudnichetsvo) – in Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai, and New Delhi. They organize a variety of events catering to Indians interested in Russia and Russian culture. For instance, Russian Language days are being held annually in Delhi.

Russian world foundation doesn’t have a centre in India, but it has been actively involved in Russian Indian collaboration. In its open database, 6 Russian organizations acting today in India are listed (excluding Embassy, consulates, and centres of Russian science and culture). In April 2017, Russian world foundation together with Indian Observer Research Foundation organized a high-profile conference “Strategic dialogue Russia – India” which united Russian and Indian influential politicians and experts.

Education has been an important part of Russian-Indian cooperation since Soviet times. Today 6544 Indian students are studying in Russia (according to UNESCO)[3]. India is in the top 10 countries where international students in Russia are coming from. Since 2008, Russia has elaborated and deployed a variety of soft power instruments. The significance of India has recently increased for Russia.

[1] Nye, J.S. (2011) The Future of Power, New York: Public Affairs. P. 105-106.

[2] Nye, J.S. (2004) Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, New York: Public Affairs. p.11

[3]Global Flow of Tertiary-Level Students  http://uis.unesco.org/en/uis-student-flow