August 6, 2015
On July 23, the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States hosted a discussion titled The National Idea in Russia and China.
The event was part of their new joint series China and Russia: On Their Own Terms, whose goal is to “offer U.S. policymakers, analysts, and the broader public a primary source perspective on how China and Russia see their evolving international roles in light of their histories, cultural narratives, and national myths.”
After the panel, Kennan Institute Director Matthew Rojansky sat down with CGI President Nikolai Zlobin to follow up on his key takeaways from the discussion.
Video and transcript of their interview below:
Matthew Rojansky: Following up on your comments from today’s event, tell me more about why you say Russia, and in particular Putin’s Russia, doesn’t understand soft power and doesn’t have soft power.
Nikolai Zlobin: This conclusion came from several different directions. First of all, Putin himself said many times that the only way to gain respect in the world is to be strong—to have a strong military and economic power, not soft power. Second, Russia traditionally has been losing soft-power battles and was always a subject of influence from outside—this could be Western influence, Marxism, Christianity, and so on. Russia was always on the receiving end of soft power and didn’t have any experience delivering a message to the rest of the world. So, Putin doesn’t believe in any of this. He knows that the Soviet Union, with all its great ideas, collapsed very quickly.
The third reason why Putin doesn’t respect soft power, and why Russia doesn’t respect soft power, is that, I suspect, deep inside they know they have nothing really to offer as a soft-power message. There is no great idea behind the current Russian political system. Russia is a country that, as you know, by constitution has rejected a state ideology, like they kind it had during the Soviet Union. So there is no message—and if two years ago Putin could at least say that we stand behind international law, now this message will be laughable, after Crimea. So I think one of the reasons is, they understand they have nothing to deliver.
MR: It’s often said—including by Putin himself—that Russians can suffer like no others. But it also seems to me that Russians are not crazy, they don’t want to suffer. Do you see a connection between Russians expecting to live better and have better lives as a result of Russia being strong, or are these two things unrelated?
NZ: I think there’s some relation there. The problem is that Russians understand their way of living not merely by economic characteristics. They see themselves as much more spiritual people; they want to have spiritual freedom, they want to be independent from any influence, and many of them believe that the economy is the fastest way to make Russia lose its influence. The Russian economy is weak, there are no brands or gadgets. Besides selling oil and gas, there is no source of revenue. So Russians see the prosperity of the 2000s during Putin’s first term as being accompanied by a loss of freedom to make decisions. In many ways, Russians see international organizations as American tools to limit other countries and to spread the American geopolitical agenda. I would say Russians would like to be part of any club if Russia gets to write the rules for that club [laughs].
MR: Speaking of rules, you suggested in your remarks earlier that Russia understands justice very acutely, but is less concerned with the rule of law. What do you mean by that?
NZ: Russians believe that justice is a higher concept than the legal system. The legal system serves the current political elite, the current political situation; but justice is something that came from above, if you will, and it stays there for longer—longer than any president, political party or system. So Russians see themselves as a country of eternal justice, where law is limiting to justice. Russians very often see the law as an unjust thing, because it’s written for particular situations or particular political reasons. And that’s why Russians, if they have a chance, will do something against the law if they consider it a just thing to do.
That goes for foreign policy as well. Why do Russians support Putin? Many of them understand that he broke international law, but they don’t care about this because he did a “justice” for Crimea and Russia by putting the nation back together. They’re actually surprised that Americans don’t support the reunification with Russians in Crimea and [instead] talk about law. America, which many Russians see as a country of law, does not understand this concept, I think—particularly how important historical justice is for Russia. Russians see themselves as a country that was hurt many times by the West, particularly during the 20th century, in a legal way—but [it was] not justified. And I think personally, for any Russian, the phrase “this is the just thing to do” is much more important than “this is the legal thing to do,” and their system of values is quite different.