Branding Russia

In your own language

Eduardo del Buey
Foto: Sputnik
La Jornada Maya

Martes 10 de septiembre, 2019

A while back I asked students in one of my classes when was the last time that they bought a Russian product that wasn’t vodka.

They shook their heads in disbelief because, unlike ubiquitous Chinese products, few if any Russian products are either in demand or available in the marketplace.

Unlike Korean pop stars or European films, few contemporary Russian cultural products appear on the horizon.

Unlike countries that support democratic rule, respect for the rule of law and human rights Russia is not a model that most people would want their governments to emulate.

From a branding perspective, Russia has few commercial products, few contemporary cultural creations, and no value system to export or use in a public diplomacy sense.

Thus branding Russia in a positive manner would be a difficult task for any public diplomacy officer.

Yet, public diplomacy knows no morality. It is only good or bad in how practitioners practice it.

And the current Russian government has practiced it in new and, often, nefarious ways.

As the successor state to the former Soviet Union, Russia has inherited a foreign policy mantle that is antagonistic to peace, freedom, and liberal democracy.

The only tangible products that Russia seems able to offer are oil, gas, natural resources, and military equipment and the aforementioned vodka. The only emotional export that Russia seems to export is fear.

In Europe, it is fear that Russia will turn off the oil and gas spigots and leave Europeans to freeze in winter and boil in summer.

In the Ukraine, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea stands out as a major breach in international law.

The Baltic States live in daily fear of Russian attempts to use the large Russian minorities in those countries to act as a fifth column and subvert these newly emerging independent democracies.

In Africa and Syria, Russia is selling its arms and military capability to arm and train local and mercenary fighters to destabilize regimes and expand its zones of influence.

Indeed, in early August 2019, CNN reported that, “There’s nothing secret about Russia’s presence in the Central African Republic. The streets are plastered with propaganda posters proclaiming “Russia: hand in hand with your army!” A local radio station churns out Russian ballads and language lessons. New recruits to the army are being trained in Russian, using Russian weapons.

But the Russian campaign in this war-torn country is anything but straightforward, drawing on a mix of guns-for-hire and clever PR to increase Moscow’s influence, outmaneuver its rivals and re-assert itself as a major player in the region”.

And in the democratic West, Russian technical proficiency is placing in doubt any and all electoral processes, as Russian technicians hack into electoral systems and social media to promote their interests.

The 2016 U.S. electoral campaign saw significant Russian meddling in a number of ways.

On the one hand, the Russians used on-line disinformation, “fake news”, to sow confusion and lies through false personal messages and Facebook postings. On the other, the Russians are suspected to have hacked into the databases of Democrats to provide key information to the Trump campaign.

Trump’s victory has had a twofold benefit to Russia: on the one hand, he has disparaged his NATO allies and, on the other, he has disparaged Europe. These are two key Russian foreign policy objectives that have been met without that country even firing a shot.

In the United Kingdom, Russia is reported to have used the same tactics to support the BREXIT movement, thus sowing division within society while creating a weaker Britain and a weaker Europe.

Russian public diplomacy has met President Vladimir Putin’s overriding political objective – to make Russia relevant again -- through the effective use of mendacity, subterfuge, military and technical prowess.

As we can see, Russia’s public diplomacy focuses on recovering the luster of the former Soviet Union, and continuing to use the techniques of fear and the effective use of modern technology to achieve its ends.

Indeed, one recalls that, in its heyday, the Soviet Union was the enemy of the United States. Today, President Trump defends President Putin at every turn, the Russians use their money to penetrate U.S. election mechanisms, and, one might argue, Trump is in the White House thanks in part to Russian meddling.

Of most concern currently is President Trump’s decision to freeze military aid to Russian adversary Ukraine. Putin must be very pleased indeed.

So, Russia has learned how to use 21st century technology to replace 20th century public diplomacy tools to influence U.S. politics and elections.
As stated above, Russia has very little to emulate in terms of democratic governance. But it has much to offer autocratic, illiberal leaders who seek to perpetuate their hold on power and stay in office. Leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Turkey’s Erdogan are drawing closer to Russia, as Putin promotes anti-immigration policies and antidemocratic movements. Russia’s recent sale of a missile system to Turkey has created a deep rift with its NATO allies – a fundamental objective of Russian foreign policy since 1949.

So, as we can see, public diplomacy and branding are not all arts and culture or the sharing of positive values.

Public diplomacy can be the effective use of modern communications technology and the sharing of military skills and alliances to make negative geopolitical gains.

And that leaves liberal democracies at a loss, since many world leaders prefer those who can maintain them in power than those who encourage them to leave office when their constitutional term end.

How do public diplomacy practitioners from other states carry out their functions on authoritarian states where the media is under the direct control of the government, and the government can turn social media on and off at a whim?

And can Russian public diplomacy officers convince foreign audiences of the benefits of their values and system?

On the other hand, does the Russian government care, given its mastery of communications technology and it’s appeal to dictators from the right and the left?

For now, it seems that there is no answer.

edelbuey@gmail.com