An Unexpected Way to Improve European Union-Russia Relations
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and Vladimir Putin, Russian President. Illustration Credit: Rachael Banks

Tempers rise in the classroom of the legal faculty of the Higher School of Economics Moscow. It is the autumn of 2018, the assigned reading was on why the annexation of Crimea was unconstitutional under Russian law. The Russian students argue against the article, the exchange students in favour of it. Later, huddled together in a dormitory against the snow and cold of the outside the discussion continues in a friendlier tone. When asked why they would get so defensive over water-tight legal arguments, one of the Russian students replies,

“It is our culture. We do not like to be attacked.”  

When it comes to international conflict, Russia stirs its diplomacy in the direction of displaying military strength. This was once again visible in the Kerch Strait Incident, in 2018. When Ukrainian naval vessels tried to cross the Kerch Strait – a small waterway separating the Crimean peninsula and Russia – Russia responded with military force.

In international relations, using, or threatening to use military strength is referred to as a hard power tool. In general, hard power is an aggressive and coercive way to achieve one’s goals in the international sphere, and it usually includes employing military and economic tactics. For centuries, it was even seen as the only way a state could protect itself in the international state system. However, this changed in the second half of the twentieth century with the emergence of soft power.

Soft power was coined by the American political scientist Joseph Nye who introduced neoliberalism as a theory of international relations. According to him, soft power relies on the appeal of a country’s ideals, political values, and policies. Nye used the old analogy of a carrot and a stick to explain the difference between soft power and hard power. Hard power is the stick that beats the donkey and coerces it into going forward. Soft power is the carrot that is dangling in front of the donkey, attracting it into walking. Soft-power tools can be used to solve a conflict, but they work more pre-emptive than hard-power tools do. Soft-power tools contribute to a better bilateral or multilateral relationship, and therefore minimising the occurrence of conflict.

If hard-power tools are showcasing military strength and economic sanctions, then what are soft power tools? If you live in the European Union (EU) and are a student, chances are that you get to go on an Erasmus exchange during your undergraduate studies. The Erasmus exchange programme is funded by the EU and is a soft-power tool which is used to strengthen the European identity of young people. In the Erasmus programme, the carrot that is dangling in front of students is the opportunity to get a scholarship for a semester abroad. This will make the students move towards the goal, which is them getting to know more about the EU in order to secure the scholarship.

Illustration Credit: Zara Malik

Outside of Erasmus, the EU is known to have an array of soft-power tools. Most prominently, investment in agriculture, infrastructure and cultural activities in different EU regions and third-party countries. This can cause friction with Russia, especially when the EU exerts its soft-power tools in countries that historically belonged to Russia’s sphere of influence, such as former Soviet states.

The relationship between the EU and Russia in 2020 can be described as nothing less than complicated. In the past, the West and Russia have been able to continue their dialogue, evidenced by numerous successful treaties on arms control. However, nowadays the option of talking seems to be silently slipping away. Following the annexation of Crimea, the war in Eastern-Ukraine and the shooting down of MH17 – and smaller bilateral incidents between EU member states and Russia – EU-Russia relations are reaching an unprecedented low.

The EU has implemented economic sanctions against the Russian economy. On top of this there are diplomatic restrictions: Russia is excluded from the G8, bilateral meetings are ceased, and Russian diplomats have been expelled. Russia has in turn implemented countersanctions against the EU, mirroring these punishments. As you can imagine, diplomatic dialogue under these circumstances is difficult. They are made even more difficult by the fact that the EU’s common foreign security policy (CFSP) is not as strong as it could be. This is because it is impossible for the EU to get too involved in the foreign policy of its member states – it is hard to shape the desires of 27 member states into a singular policy.

So, the CFSP cannot be relied upon to improve the relation between the parties, and hard-power tools could only lead to a deterioration of the situation. What then is the solution for the EU, which is restricted in its course of action; and Russia, which leans heavily on its hard-power legacy?

For the EU, the way out already exists, but may have been forgotten and buried under the economic success of the Union. The open, integrated market system – helped forth by the Schengen deal – has brought much prestige and accomplishment to the Union. So much so that it has become the most important thing that Brussels can offer its member states.

But the EU’s foundation is built on something much stronger than the common market. It is no coincidence that the EU motto has been ‘united in diversity’ since 2000. In the centre of it all, common values and shared ideals are what drive the EU forwards.

Values and ideals have already been mentioned in this article. Soft power relies on the appeal of values, ideals, and policies to other countries. As mentioned, the EU is no stranger to soft power tools and has implemented them in many places. However, in order to better its relationship with Russia, the EU should renew its commitment to the ‘soft power status’ it has attained and try more pro-actively to get a foot on Russian ground.

One of the leading soft power tools is employed by almost every country in the world – public diplomacy. Also called people’s diplomacy, it has been around for over a century, and changed ever so slightly in meaning over time. Nowadays, it refers to the diplomatic efforts of a government that are directed not at a foreign government, but rather at a foreign people. This can be done in all sorts of ways: by providing funding for cultural centres, smaller businesses, and NGO’s; or by broadcasting parts of your own culture and music on foreign radios. The idea behind it is that the foreign public will carry goodwill for your country and your country’s goals. They will subsequently be put on the public and the political agenda. If both parties use public diplomacy, a connection is established and the strained professional diplomatic dialogue can be continued via different means. It is important that public diplomacy is reciprocated, otherwise it would just be an effort that resembles propaganda, rather than the search for ideas and common values.

The EU has proved itself quite skilful in public diplomacy. Within its borders, the EU has tried to establish a connection with its diverse range of citizens. They are asked in turn to contribute to Europe by sharing their ideas and opinions. In the outside world, the EU has also been very present in its public diplomacy. It is hindered by the fact that there is no common culture to present to other countries. Because of this, the EU has to lean heavily on its commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and the upholding of human rights; instead of its cultural values.

The EU’s public diplomacy efforts are incomplete because of their lack of common culture with Russia. If better relations with Russia is the goal – and it should be – then public diplomacy is not the only way forward for the EU. Cultural diplomacy is a part of public diplomacy, but works slightly differently. Public diplomacy is carried out by officials and follows policy guidelines. Cultural diplomacy can be practised by diplomats, but relies largely on individuals.

When you mention a national TV programme to a foreign national you are inadvertently practising cultural diplomacy. During the Cold War, US jazz singers and musicians were incredibly popular in the Soviet Union, and the US government used this to their advantage to connect with Soviet citizens. Currently, music is still very important within cultural diplomacy; think, for example, about the annual Eurovision Song Contest. Artists with travelling exhibitions and popular Netflix shows can also help to promote a nation’s culture abroad. ‘The Erasmus generation’ – as well as their parents and lecturers – will not only bring their own culture abroad, but also a European identity. Without being trained EU-officials, they will still promote the values of the European Union abroad to a foreign public.

Cultural diplomacy is a bottom-up approach, while public diplomacy is top-down. They are two edges of the same sword, and the EU should nurture both of them if it wishes to enhance relations with Russia. Today, the EU’s focus of its public and cultural diplomacy is the USA, Canada, India, and China. It aims to nurture closer relations with the academic and civil society in these countries. Russia is yet to be included as a key target for this diplomacy.  

This should not be a one-sided effort. The EU should increase its effort to reach out to the Russian public, with the EU being viewed negatively by the population. Similarly, Russia is typically viewed without sympathy within EU member states.  Both parties would benefit from more understanding. Most cultures within the EU are very different than that of Russia. To add to this, Russia – together with some EU countries – have a unique political heritage, and because of this have different ideas on how they should be governed. If Russia and the EU would invest more in public and cultural diplomacy the result would be a better understanding on both sides.

Why should the EU and Russia strive towards better relations if their politics are so diametrically opposed? Surely it is just a matter of time until the next conflict knocks at the door? The answer is in the question: establishing a dialogue with the public leads to a better understanding. A better understanding should lead to less conflict. And if conflict should still occur, then at least there is an established dialogue to fall back on. If two parties are in strife, it takes two parties to find a solution. This is impossible without dialogue. During the Cold War, the West and Russia kept talking to each other, even if they were in the greatest ideological dispute in history.

If practised reciprocally, public and cultural diplomacy will improve EU-Russia relations by establishing a link between two opposites. What’s more, the informal nature of the diplomatic process, combined with a focus on arts and culture, will help to re-humanize the ‘enemy’. Even if we disagree on many things, we can still agree that we both like that one painting. Or that one Netflix show. And if we keep talking, we might even find things that connect us more. EU, Russia. Bring back the dialogue. Let us talk about our common denominators and our differences. Diplomacy serves not only as a means to chat with your friends, but to reach out to your enemies. Practise public diplomacy and encourage cultural diplomacy, so we can understand each other better. After all, nobody likes to be attacked.