- The military aggression by Russia against Ukraine has had far-reaching consequences, triggering and exacerbating various regional and global crises. It has significantly increased the costs for Russia’s soft power in regions that have traditionally been within its sphere of influence, as well as having a worldwide effect.
- Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space, which was considered a traditional geopolitical habitat for Moscow before 2022, is now undergoing a serious revision. This includes aspects such as the position of the Russian Orthodox Church, status of the Russian language and the other societal constructions that Russia has used to project its soft power in the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Eastern Partnership (EaP).
- Russia’s attempt to occupy and destroy Ukraine has backfired, leading to a degradation of its geopolitical capacity. As a result, countries that were once willingly or unwillingly included in Russia’s orbit are now dismantling, or at least seriously questioning the post-Soviet legacy of tolerance towards Russia’s free-handed approach. The countries that maintained the status quo of Russian soft power are now reassessing their approach, placing a greater emphasis on their own national interests.
Crisis of Russia’s soft power in the CIS and Eastern Partnership countries
Russia’s soft power in a negative external environment
Against the backdrop of the objective decline of Russia’s external legitimacy, Russia has adopted a new Foreign Policy Concept, which was published in March 2023. This document emphasises Russia’s humanitarian cooperation with the world as a whole and its regions, particularly those where it has traditionally exerted an influence. The new Foreign Policy Concept underscores the significance of the Russian language, culture and history as the foundational characteristics of Russia as a state-civilisation with a thousand-year history. These features are attributed not only to the Russian people, but also to other communities that collectively form a cultural-civilisational community known as the “Russian world” (“Русский мир”).
In the current international environment, where the Russian foreign policy is facing multiple constraints, Moscow is increasingly relying on soft power strategies. One of the key objectives of Russia’s new foreign policy agenda is to consolidate its position in the global humanitarian space, with a specific focus on strengthening the status of the Russian language, upholding the “historical truth” and highlighting Russia’s role in history of humanity. This also includes safeguarding the rights of Russian citizens and the related civil and religious organisations abroad, including those who are identified as “compatriots” (former citizens of the Soviet Union who live in the CIS countries or beyond), in order to preserve the shared Russian cultural identity.
The tasks outlined in Russia’s foreign policy concept indicate that Moscow has perceived significant shifts that may be unfavourable for its soft power, which are closely tied to its language, history and intercultural communication. In response to these challenges, Russia has signalled its intention to invest resources and attention into fortifying its soft power toolkit, as it seeks to overcome the ongoing crisis of external legitimacy.
Implications of the war-driven Russian exodus
The imposition of Western sanctions, as well as the regime’s crackdown on anti-war criticism and the controversial mobilisation of the male population for the Russian army in Ukraine have led to an unprecedented exodus, on a scale not seen since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Estimates suggest that up to 1 million people have sought refuge abroad, albeit temporarily, until Russia’s aggression against Ukraine ceases. The Russians who have chosen to flee have sought shelter in countries such as Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and others perceived as friendly or tolerant towards Russian citizens. This has severely tested Russia’s soft power in terms of maintaining a positive narrative on Russian culture, including its language, media coverage and the public perception in these host nations.
Kazakhstan: Even in countries traditionally seen as having a strategic partnership with Russia, such as Armenia and Kazakhstan, the increasing presence of Russian citizens is now viewed with caution, if not outright negativity, in the light of the international condemnation of Russia and in solidarity with Ukraine. The frictions arising from the war have been exacerbated by Russians fleeing abroad to avoid being conscripted as “cannon fodder”. In Kazakhstan, for instance, the visa conditions have been tightened to regulate the flow of Russians escaping mobilisation (about 100,000 people), leading to stricter rules for the 90-day visa-free regime during a 180-day period. This has resulted in disinformation campaigns targeting the coexistence of the Kazakh majority with the 3.5 million Kazakh Russians, who make up 18% of the population. The negative attitudes towards Russia may stem from a sense of solidarity with Ukraine, as is evidenced by the installation of at least three “Yurts of Invincibility” funded by a wealthy Kazakh businessman Daulet Nurzhanov to support the Ukrainian population during wartime.
Armenia: While the Armenian authorities have denied the existence of any anti-Russian campaign, there is a noticeable rise in anti-Russian sentiments in the country due to the perceived failure of Russian security guarantees. Russia’s geopolitical relevance in the Southern Caucasus is diminishing, as Ukraine’s efficient defence has revealed the shortcomings of the Russian military. Additionally, Azerbaijan’s assertively militarised and hybrid approaches to resolving the long-standing territorial disputes, including the blockade of the Lachin Corridor, are becoming more assertive.
Georgia: Russia is facing further challenges, as the neighbouring governments implement policies that are perceived as resembling Russian-style autocracy, leading to diminished opportunities for the Russian influence. For instance, recent anti-government protests in Georgia against a draft law on foreign agents, which was likened to a “Russian law”, have fuelled anti-Russian sentiments. In 2022, it is estimated that up to 1.5 million Russians entered Georgia, contributing to the growth of the Russian-speaking community there, including those who arrived from Belarus and Ukraine during previous waves of conflict or due to the ongoing war in Ukraine. This influx has resulted in an increased visibility of the Russian language in Georgia. According to an NDI survey published in February 2023, 69% of Georgians believe that the influx of Russians will have a negative impact, with the same proportion stating that a visa regime should be reintroduced for Russia. In 2012, then-president Mikhail Saakashvili, who is currently in jail, signed a decree to remove the visa requirement for Russian citizens in order “to promote peace” following the 2008 war with Russia. Furthermore, 80% of the Georgian public declared a negative attitude towards Russia, while 56% has a positive view of Russian citizens.
De-Sovietisation of identities and the linguistic environment
It is only natural that after more than three decades of independence, the countries in the post-Soviet space have reached a crucial juncture in the development of their national identity, which demands a revision of their language policies. The urgency for this revision has been further exacerbated by Russia’s war against Ukraine. Moscow’s justification for its massive invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was to protect Russian speakers, which revealed Russia’s intolerance towards Ukraine’s efforts to strengthen the role of the Ukrainian language and identity. This move could potentially and significantly diminish Russia’s influence in the medium- to long-term, and there are concerns that this pattern of behaviour may repeat itself in other regions of the CIS in the future. These severe geopolitical circumstances have accelerated or reinforced the existing internal grievances for empowering each country’s national identity and language, countering the legacy of Soviet rule and the domination of the Russian language, which has historically influenced the national public spaces.
Moldova: A de-Sovietisation of the national identity in Moldova is currently underway, as the parliament has replaced the term “Moldovan” language with Romanian in all its national legislation, including the constitution (Article 13). This decision is motivated by the ruling elites’ efforts to regain public approval in the face of Russian pressure and the aftermath of the war in Ukraine. In political terms, the removal of the term “Moldovan” in favour of the Romanian language can be viewed as an indirect correction of the distortion caused by the artificial creation of a “Moldovan” identity and language as part of the Soviet regime. On the legal level, the renaming of the language corresponds to the 1991 Declaration of Independence and a 2013 ruling of the Constitutional Court. Before and after the dissolution of the USSR, disputes around the “Moldovan language and identity” were exploited by pro-Russian forces in order to exacerbate the identity divide between Moldova and Romania. This artificial identity cleavage, which was built upon during the Soviet era, was used to prevent the reunification of Moldova with Romania, despite there being over 30% public approval for reunification in Moldova in 2022. The interplay between the status of the Russian language and the right to self-determination by the Gagauz autonomy, where Russian is widely spoken, provides political obstacles that both pro-sovereignty and the pro-Russian forces in Moldova may rely on to counter the scenario of reunification with Romania.
The changes in the legal interpretation of the language name within the Moldovan legal framework have far-reaching cross-border implications. Following the cancellation policy of the use of the term “Moldovan” to refer to the language by the Moldovan authorities, Romania reiterated its request to Ukraine in April to recognise the non-existence of the Moldovan language. This Romanian demand intensified during 2022, against the background of the multidimensional support offered to the Ukrainian side after the launch of the full-scale war by Russia. Ukraine remains the last country where the term “Moldovan” is commonly used in the official national documents. The new laws “On Ensuring the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as a State Language”, adopted in April 2019, and “On National Minorities (Communities) of Ukraine”, which was passed in December 2022, do not specify any languages other than Ukrainian. However, the bilateral agreement between Moldova and Ukraine, dating back to 2010, stipulates that both countries will mutually protect the needs of their minority groups, which are Moldovan and Ukrainian, respectively. According to this agreement, Kyiv has undertaken to guarantee the rights of the population that permanently resides in Ukraine and identifies itself as “Moldovan” based on their ethnic, cultural, and linguistic characteristics (Article 1). At the same time, Article 14 of the agreement states that the document has been drawn up in the “Moldovan language.” A potential solution could be the inclusion of an additional protocol introducing the Romanian language, or the negotiation and signing of a new agreement between Ukraine and Moldova. Until that occurs, Kyiv may encounter legal hurdles in addressing the demands made by Romania.
In addition to actions being taken to resolve the legal and constitutional confusion regarding the national language, which is paving the way for the de-Sovietisation of the identity of the Moldovan population, the Moldovan authorities have taken steps to counter Russian disinformation. On the one hand, the special services have banned the online channels controlled by the Russian propaganda machine, such as Sputnik and its subsidiaries. On the other hand, in December 2022, the government suspended the licences of 6 Moldovan TV channels: Pervyi in Moldova, Accent TV, RTR Moldova, NTV Moldova, TV6 and Orhei TV, during the period of the state of exception. These channels were found to be retranslating Russian TV or omitting the Russian aggression against Ukraine in their coverage, as well as belonging to political forces that have connections with Russia (The Bloc of Communists and Socialists), or that are considered to have close ties with Russian power exponents (the Șor Party). Despite not officially being aligned with the EU sanctions regime against Russia, Moldova took action by suspending the licences of these six TV channels following the EU’s 9th sanctions package. This package prohibited the airing of four Russian TV channels in the EU, namely: NTV/NTV Mir, Rossiya 1, REN TV and Pervyi Kanal.
Kyrgyzstan: Efforts to elevate the status of the Kyrgyz language have gained significant political momentum in the past decade, with some attributing this to political populism, although the underlying reason lies in a delayed national reawakening. In a country where the Kyrgyz majority population amounts to 4.6 million (70.5% of the total 6.8 million population), the Russian language, which is spoken by a minority of 341,000 (5%), has been the dominant means of communication in politics and public life since the Soviet era. According to the 2009 census, only 1.4% of this Russian minority speaks Kyrgyz, which is equivalent to a mere 5,000 of the total 341,000 Russians.
The Ukrainian factor has played into the political drive for Kyrgyzstan to establish the Kyrgyz language as a mandatory requirement within its national borders. Consequently, in 2022, the drafting of a constitutional law titled “On the State Language of the Kyrgyz Republic” was initiated. This draft law was approved after its first reading on 19 January, with the final vote anticipated to take place by the end of Spring 2023. In the 90-seat Parliament (Jogorku Kenesh), 75 of 88 registered members voted in favour of the draft law, with only one abstention. Once it is enacted, the proposed changes to the Kyrgyz constitution will make the Kyrgyz language mandatory in 11 areas of public life, including legislation, local administration, jurisprudence, military, law enforcement, education and more. The law also includes provisions for renaming cities, rivers and other entities, by changing them from Russian and Soviet names to Kyrgyz names. Additionally, the new law mandates that up to 65% of the content on both public and private radio and TV should be available in the Kyrgyz language.
The Kyrgyz authorities are also taking steps to compensate for the limitations in the use of the Russian language by improving the conditions for studying Russian in Kyrgyzstan. To prevent potential negative repercussions, Kyrgyzstan has initiated a dialogue with Russia to build nine new schools that will offer education in Russian. These schools are set to open in 2025, and will provide nearly 11,000 additional opportunities for citizens to study the Russian language. In this way, Kyrgyzstan is engaged in a delicate balancing act, aiming to establish a stronger status for the Kyrgyz language without taking actions that could potentially irritate Russia, such as removing the Russian language entirely. If the proposed constitutional law is effectively enacted into the organic and secondary legislation, it could lead to a gradual decline of the Russian language in Kyrgyzstan, while the Russian minority may need to learn Kyrgyz or consider emigrating to Russia.
In various regions of the post-Soviet space, there are notable political efforts being made towards promoting and protecting national identities and languages. These actions are likely to diminish Russia’s ability to exert its soft power in the region. The ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine and its prolonged nature is further eroding Russia’s external legitimacy and reducing the attraction towards the Russian language, as well as other elements of the cultural identity. As a result, Russian soft power is being severely damaged and it may take decades to restore its post-Soviet potential.
The ongoing crisis affecting Russia’s soft power presents an opportunity for countries previously under the Russian influence to embrace alternative development models and values. Several countries in the Eastern Partnership region are actively considering European integration and membership as a viable option. This could offer them an alternative path for development, by moving away from Russian dominance and towards closer ties with Europe through projects to promote cross-regional connectivity. This could also provide a new avenue for these countries to diversify their partnerships and enhance their regional connections, beyond the traditional integration processes dominated by Russia.