Russia’s Soft Power Strategy to Co-opt the West

By Ben Sohl

Far-right political parties and politicians in the West are becoming increasingly pro-Russian. This affinity confounds foreign policy thinkers who were raised on Cold War heroism and feel antipathy towards Putin’s authoritarianism should be axiomatic for staunch conservatives. If we look just below the surface, however, we can see this connection is not a coincidence—it is the result of a deliberate soft power strategy on Russia’s part to co-opt far-right political movements based on perceived shared values. Russia’s innovative strategy provides a blueprint for how soft power and modern technologies can be blended together into a twenty-first century foreign policy strategy with two distinct phases: cultivating political movements and helping them into power.

Soft power is defined by Professor Joseph Nye as attractive power based on shared values. In Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, he refers to soft power as “co-optive” because it can be used to shape preferences and get others to desire the same outcomes as you. While often considered a benign force, soft power can be harnessed for nefarious purposes. As Nye points out, “Osama bin Laden neither threatened nor paid the men who flew aircraft into the World Trade Center—he had attracted them with his ideas.”

In similarly malignant fashion, President Vladimir Putin has placed soft power at the center of a global strategy to co-opt Western democracies, creating a values-based framework to attract targeted parties to Russian leadership. The generated bond shapes the preferences of the targets by establishing a desire for cooperation or friendship with Putin’s Russia. Once a desire for cooperation is in place, the party is co-opted as it seeks out ways to work with Russia and to remove any impediments to a friendly relationship. The next stage in Russia’s broader strategy is to usher these parties into power through publicized influence operations.

Russia’s soft power strategy was first deployed in earnest during Putin’s 2012 reelection campaign, but was most clearly articulated in his 2013 presidential address. During the speech, Putin announced Russia would defend “traditional values,” defined in broadly ethnic-nationalist and heteronormative terms. The speech decried “eroding ethnic traditions” and Putin vowed to protect “the values of traditional families” against “so-called tolerance.” The goal was further emphasized by an accompanying report released days before Putin’s speech by a Kremlin-connected think tank titled, “Putin: World Conservatism’s New Leader.”

Going beyond speeches, Putin has enacted policies befitting these values, such as the 2013 Russian law banning “gay propaganda”—a move that widely appealed to religious conservatives. It is unlikely this wedge strategy is the product of feelings genuinely or deeply held by Putin, given that he has opportunistically cultivated and supported figures on the left as well.

Russia’s statements and actions attract people who share similar values, as evidenced by their reception in the West. In response to Putin’s 2013 presidential address, the conservative former politician Pat Buchanan wrote, “In the culture war for mankind’s future, is (Putin) one of us?” Likewise, after meeting with Putin in 2015, religious leader Franklin Graham said, “I very much appreciate that President Putin is protecting Russian young people against homosexual propaganda.” This cultivation also explains why alt-right marchers chanted “Russia is our friend” at their notorious 2017 rally in Charlottesville.

Closer to home, the Russian Orthodox Church provides the Russian state with religious legitimacy, which is used to reinforce Putin’s social conservative bonafides and to offer a religious justification for its meddling in its neighbors’ affairs. While the way Russia uses the national church has been updated for the present day, it has been an important source of geopolitical influence for Russia dating back to czarist times.

Russia also uses traditional soft power tools, such as people-to-people diplomacy, to reinforce its message and attract “traditional” conservatives. These tools include working with organizations to host delegations and conferences in Russia for Christian conservatives, gun rights groups—with a particular focus on the NRA—and white nationalists.

Russia’s efforts to attract traditional conservatives have been effective. As Alina Polyakova, a fellow with the Brookings Institution, observed, “Prior to 2010, one would be hard-pressed to find public statements in praise of Putin by far-right leaders. Today, they are commonplace.” A study by the European Council on Foreign Relations on insurgent parties—on both the left and the right—in Europe found that co-option also leads targeted parties to shape their policy preferences to align with Russia’s. In reviewing the study, ECFR Senior Fellow Fredrik Wesslau writes, “The parties’ pro-Russian policies are underpinned by conviction and an affinity with ideological tenets of Putin’s Russia.” Pro-Russian moves include both anti-EU and anti-NATO policies. 

By understanding the underlying values-based framework, the full picture of Russia’s strategy comes into focus. First, Russia co-opts political parties and movements with soft power, then it uses the full spectrum of its instruments of influence to push them into power. This strategy is both supplementary and complementary to Russia’s kinetic actions abroad.

If Putin successfully propels a quorum of co-opted Western leaders into power, he will create an opening to achieve many of Russia’s longstanding national security priorities, including the destabilization of NATO and the EU and the establishment of hegemony in its “near abroad.” Furthermore, if soft power is the glue that holds global alliance systems together, it is not inconceivable that Russia will then be able to construct a new nationalist order. Putin’s foreign policy innovations will not just undermine the U.S.-led Western political order, but could replace it altogether with an axis of illiberal leaders, each marching instinctively to the beat of a Russian drum.

Ben Sohl is a master’s candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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