When soft power turns hard

The concept of soft power was developed by Jospeh Nye at Harvard University describing the ability of states to attract and co-opt rather than coerce. In explaining this concept, he argued “that the best propaganda is not propaganda”. In these days when Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine has shaken the world and Russia has showed readiness to aggressively implemented the tools of the so called “hybrid warfare” that combines military, information, economic, and other measures, is the talk of soft power still relevant?

The major soft power project that Russia was attempting to accomplish was the project of the so called Euroasian Economic Union (EEU). Initially proposed by the Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbajev in 1994, this project was subsequently taken up by Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. In his words, "we propose a model of powerful, supranational union, capable of becoming one of the poles of the modern world".  However, the aspirations of Georgia in 2008 to move closer to NATO, and subsequent signing of the EU Association Agreement, Euromaidan in Ukraine in support of Association Agreement with the EU and ousting of the president Yanukovych who refused to sign such agreement, and the signing of the EU Association Agreement by Moldova, all affirm that the grand project of integration of the post-Soviet Union space (excluding the Baltic States) is failing.

The Euroasian Union, which started operating on 1 January 2015, was initially created by Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, with Armenia joining one day later and Kyrgyzstan in May 2015. This newly created union is not grand in scale, is Russia centered (Russia has 78% of all EEU citizens), and is rather an alliance of those who due to their particular reasons or ties with Russia “could not refuse the offer”. In practice today there are de facto trade wars going on among the founding members of the EEU due to Russia’s embargo of EU food imports, and Armenia is now again happy to seek what is calls a new agreement with the European Union.

This relatively unsuccessful coming to birth of Russia’s soft power project that would entrench its “sphere of influence” has made Russia resort to methods of aggression first towards Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, with on-going pressure on Moldova, thus turning the soft power hard.

Nevertheless, and somewhat curiously, the language of aggression that Russia is using, pronouncing the “holy war” on the “rotten West” has created another opportunity for Russia’s “soft power” – namely, anti-European and anti-establishment parties in the European Union and some political leaders of the EU appear to appreciate and even admire the spiteful “strongman” image that Putin is displaying vis-à-vis the European Union and the USA. This is induced and strengthened by stepping-up the information war on behalf of Russia.

On the other hand, soft power that works without extra effort, almost unwillingly, by sheer persuasion is that of the European Union. Exactly this soft power success as symbolized by Euromaidan in Kiev in 2014, has made President Putin resort to aggression. The example of law and order, economic prosperity, and wellbeing is the main weapon of soft power on behalf of the European Union.

The Fox in Antoine de Saint-Exupérys The Little Prince said, “you become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.Europe is still to become fully aware of the huge responsibility it has in maintaining the stability of the European Continent. Having Ukrainian society of 44 million now looking up to the EU might be overwhelming, but the consequences of not responding to their EU aspirations can be very grave.

The fox’s warning calls to mind the example of a West Balkan state Macedonia. It has been an EU candidate since 2005. Before and after obtaining EU candidate status, Macedonia did have a strong internal political resolve for change and reform. However, the membership negotiations never started and the process was literally stalled because of the unresolved country’s name issue with Greece, which opposed that it be called Republic of Macedonia. Since then, increasing polarization of its internal politics, a rise and consolidation of power by its nationalistic and populist leaning governing party, which has carried out several controversial “identity building projects” have further aggravated relations with its neighbours. Unfortunately, recent internal divisions, instability, and even violence testify of a lost opportunity of EU integration for this nation of 2 millions and hopefully will not pose a dangerous spill-over effect on other states of the West Balkans.