From Meduza, Nov. 11, 2022, https://meduza.io/en/feature/2022/11/11/putin-the-anti-colonialist. Complete text:
The Russian invasion of Ukraine [see Vol. 74, No. 8, pp. 9‑13] led many countries to break off various kinds of partnerships with Russia. Still, Russian authorities, and President Vladimir Putin personally, continue to insist that Russia enjoys global support, in spite of the supposed depredations of the “collective West.” In reality, this is far from being true. For instance, only five countries opposed the UN resolution that condemned Russia’s illegal annexations of Ukrainian territories [see Vol. 74, No. 40, pp. 8‑11]. These were Belarus, Syria, Nicaragua, North Korea – and Russia itself. Against this background of waning international support, the Kremlin is now endeavoring to dust off the concept of “soft power,” whose meaning has lately changed in response to Russia’s increasing isolation. In contrast with its earlier efforts to shape opposition movements in the West, Russia’s new idea of “soft power” is about rallying the world’s “oppressed countries” in opposition to the “pernicious Anglo-Saxons.”
Two Kremlin insiders spoke with Meduza about the way in which Putin’s administration is shaping its strategy of global influence. The Kremlin appears to be placing its bets on certain Southern European countries (like Portugal and Greece), South America, Africa and Asia. In the past, one of our sources explains, “soft power” was aimed at the “old” Europe; they were trying to present Russia as a democracy, crudely and awkwardly, but at least they were trying. The current vector is different: It’s all about anti-Westernizing, the pernicious Anglo-Saxons, colonial oppression, etc. This is why the geography for promoting this agenda is also different – it includes the former colonies, the post-Soviet space, plus the less wealthy of the European countries, which may also feel resentful.
In his recent speeches, Vladimir Putin has often mentioned colonialism. Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin suggest that work on revising Russia’s “exportable” image began in the spring of 2022. Of the various possibilities he was presented with, Putin picked the anticolonial narrative, which implies a focus on the countries that supposedly have “nothing in common” with the West (as Putin himself understands it) and can be expected to try following their own “special path.” Kremlin insiders have listed some of the key ideas singled out for promotion in South America:
For centuries, the West oppressed our countries. There is no real freedom in the West. All the key posts and all the financial flows are prescribed in advance. Russia is spearheading a just world order with multiple centers of power, and it is prepared to become its moderator. There’s no need to feel like pariahs and play by someone else’s rules – there is no single set of rules for everyone.
The message for Southern Europe is going to be different. There, the Kremlin will accentuate the idea that Southern Europe is facing the most dire economic situation in all of the EU (even though this is far from the truth). Secondly, the Russian side would like to convince Europeans that they’re headed for a “crisis of traditional values,” and that things will only get worse. (Putin has already touched on this theme a few times – for instance, in his recent Valdai Discussion Club speech [see Vol. 74, No. 43, pp. 7‑11].)
Generally, the Kremlin is intent on promoting the ideas of “the decline of the West” and global power redistribution, as well as the idea that “to put it simply, America is f****d” (as a source close to the administration put it). The plan is to position Russia as a global anticolonial leader – through media relations, engaging the “elites” abroad, and other kinds of outreach. This will all be managed by Rossotrudnichestvo [Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation] and its international branches known as “Russian Houses.” In the fall of 2022, a number of them opened across several African countries [see the fourth article in the International Affairs section].
The person in charge of these efforts is the diplomat and former State Duma deputy Yevgeny Primakov, the son of Russia’s former prime minister. The advisory board of Rossotrudnichestvo is headed by Igor Chaika, the protagonist of multiple anticorruption investigations and the son of Yury Chaika, Russia’s notorious former prosecutor general.
One of our sources suggests that, in South America alone, Russian “soft power” will get tens of millions of dollars in financing. Rossotrudnichestvo will get this funding both from the government budget and from segments of Russian business loyal to the Kremlin.
According to informed sources, the ideological revival of Russian “soft power” will be entrusted to the Expert Institute for Social Research, an “in-house” Kremlin think tank founded in 2017 following the appointment of [first deputy presidential chief of staff] Sergei Kiriyenko to his present “ideological” position in the administration.
The Kremlin hopes that its “anticolonial” agenda won’t suffer from Russia’s military defeats in Ukraine. The plan is to say something like “Look at us: The whole of the West is trying to overwhelm the one country that dared to oppose it. This country perseveres and holds its ground.”
Another aim of this “soft power” revival is “to show the other pole that we have our allies, we are not alone, and we influence the global agenda.” This isn’t very different from the Soviet ideas of foreign policy.