The current research presents a novel approach to the understanding of Russian soft and sharp power. Our analysis explores the vulnerability and resilience to everyday Russian hostile influence in Central Eastern Europe (CEE), focusing on the horizontal, online “grassroots” communication between citizens. An explicit aim of the research was to leave behind the “elitist,” top-down approach of analyses on hybrid warfare and investigate ordinary conversations taking place day-by-day between citizens, especially on social media. Important research on the perception of Russia has already been carried out using traditional public opinion polling methodologies.[i] Bakamo.Social’s social listening methodology mapped millions of “natural,” spontaneous online conversations of average citizens related to Russia. The research covered a two-year period (20 November 2016 – 19 November 2018) to understand the hidden societal and psychological drivers of anti-Russian or pro-Russian conversations and perceptions in the general population.[ii]
The advantage of the “no questions asked” methodology that focuses on spontaneous discussions was that it revealed the underexamined relationship between elite and everyday communications and how it affects the West’s effectiveness to respond to the Kremlin’s hostile influence operations in the CEE. Thus, the Kremlin’s influence operations are best understood in the framework of Lazarsfeld’s classical two-step communication model explaining that the top-down messages of the elite (mainly through mass media) are being interpreted and spread by grassroots opinion-leaders in communication networks, often having an indirect impact on the attitudes and behaviour of voters.[iii]
The basic questions of our research were the following:
As we found in our previous studies, the classical soft power[iv] efforts of the Kremlin - to make itself more attractive in the world - have not really been successful, as the image of Russia has deteriorated considerably since the annexation of Crimea.[v] In the region though, Russia has a bit more leverage on societies because of its proximity, the socialist past and ,in some countries, Slavic connections.[vi] Efforts to spread the dominant values and narratives of the Putin regime in CEE countries have not been a complete failure.[vii]
However, authoritarian states such as Russia and China have more important goals than being popular. They "are not necessarily seeking to 'win hearts and minds,' the common frame of reference for soft power efforts, but they are surely seeking to manipulate their target audiences by distorting the information that reaches them,” as the inventors of the term “sharp power” suggest.[viii] Sharp power tools indirectly help Russian soft power attempts as well, albeit in a bizarre manner. As both an earlier and this study indicate, Russia has been successful in creating the illusion of near omnipotence in influencing Western policy processes, changing electoral outcomes and replacing leaders. This mystification of Russia in the whole Western world might be the greatest result that the Kremlin’s spin doctors have achieved so far, and the indirect impact can be that Russia becomes attractive in the eyes of many because it seems to be strong.
In line with this thought, we assessed in the study how the influencing efforts of Russia impacted the public discourse on Russia and challenged Euro-Atlantic strategic communication objectives in this region.
We are grateful for the generous support of the National Endowment for Democracy that made this research possible. We are particularly thankful for Joanna Rohozinska and Rodger Potocki for their help throughout the project, and for Chris Walker and Shanthi Kalathil for the enlightening discussions on sharp power at Ned Forum that gave inspiration for this research. In addition, we are thankful for all of our partners for cooperating with us in this research, namely Daniel Fazekas (Bakamo.Social) in Hungary, Daniel Milo, Katarína Klingová, Dominika Hajdu in Slovakia and Jonáš Syrovátka in the Czech Republic. We are thankful for our colleague Patrik Szicherle, András Rácz and Anna Orosz as well, who helped improve the text. All errors remain our own.
But the resilience we found is fragile, as a small group of opinion-leaders in the communication networks play a crucially important role in driving the discussions. Russia’s image is shaped by a relatively small minority of active users in the three countries we examined. Given the increasing importance of social media in shaping political opinions in Central and Eastern Europe, “diverting” a few thousand individual accounts’ interactions could fundamentally change current anti-Russian perceptions in the CEE.
The complete research summary including a comparative analysis, policy recommendations and an overview of the methodology is available as a pdf document from here (pdf, 872 KB).
[i] Clark Letterman, ‘Global Views of Putin, Russia Largely Negative | Pew Research Center’, Pewglobal.Org (blog), 6 2018, http://www.pewglobal.org/2018/12/06/image-of-putin-russia-suffers-internationally/.
[ii] ‘Bakamo.Social | Strategic Social Listening | Insights without Asking.’, Bakamo.Social | Strategic Social Listening | Insights without asking., accessed 26 February 2019, https://www.bakamosocial.com/.
[iii] ‘Mass Media | Two Step Flow Theory’, Universiteit Twente, accessed 6 March 2019, https://www.utwente.nl/en/bms/communication-theories/sorted-by-cluster/Mass-Media/Two_Step_Flow_Theory-1/.
[iv] The term „soft power” is originally defined by Nye as a country’s ability to impact others’ behaviour through appeal and attraction instead of any coercion or „hard power.” You can find more on the definition on soft power here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1148580?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
[v] Péter Krekó et al (2019). Mystification and Demystification of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. http://www.politicalcapital.hu/pc-admin/source/documents/pc_mystification_and_demystification_of_russia_eng_web_20190312.pdf
[vi] See for Example: Globsec Trends, https://www.globsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/GLOBSEC-Trends-2018.pdf Krekó, P. (2018). Russia in the Hungarian public opinion https://www.tarki.hu/sites/default/files/2019-02/358_371_Kreko.pdf
[vii] Péter Krekó et al. (2016.) ‘The Weaponization of Culture: Kremlin’s Traditional Agenda and the Export of Values to Central Europe’.
[viii] Walker, C., & Ludwig, J. (2017). The meaning of sharp power: How authoritarian states project influence. Foreign Affairs, 16.
[xi] ‘Orbán: “Kitartunk a keresztény Európa mellett”’, 888.hu, accessed 7 March 2019, https://888.hu/article-orban-kitartunk-a-kereszteny-europa-mellett.
[xii] Email chains and other Russia’s propaganda tools in central and eastern Europe. Euromaidanpress, 2017