Ph.D., Fellow of The Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies at Russian Academy of Sciences, Former editor-in-chief of Russia Direct, an analytical media outlet, RIAC Expert
"Hybrid Analytica: Pro-Kremlin Expert Propaganda in Moscow, Europe and the U.S.,” reads the title of the 58-page report of the of Modern Russia, released in the early October. The research points fingers at Russian, European, American experts and academics for promoting "pro-Kremlin propaganda narratives in the West.”
In fact, the author of the report Kateryna Smagliy, a former director of the Kennan Institute’s office in Kiev, creates a sort of a "blacklist”, which comprises not only Russia’s think tanks, universities and consultancy agencies (like the Russian International Affairs Council, Carnegie Moscow Center, Valdai Discussion Club or Moscow State Institute of International Relations), but also the Western ones. Among them are the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, Kissinger Associates, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Center for the National Interest, Oxford University, King’s College of London, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and others.
The Institute of Modern Russia’s case study yet again indicates that doing public diplomacy is not easy today taken the confrontation between Russia and the West. Ironically, people-to-people communication or "expert diplomacy” are supposed to improve bilateral relations, yet far from healing them, they become a topic of debates, viewed as hidden propaganda in the "hybrid warfare.”
Even prominent diplomats and experts, who try to foster ties between Russia and the West, are no longer immune to media attacks and suspicion. Bloomberg’s recent attempts to link the activity of diplomat Henry Kissinger and of the Center for the National Interest’s Dimitri Simes to the Trump’s Russia collusion increase distrust toward public diplomacy and dialogue among skeptics, in general.
Shortly after the Putin–Trump Helsinki summit in July (which was harshly criticized as the failure of the U.S.), Russian citizen and activist Maria Butina, 29, was arrested in the U.S. In her attempts to establish contacts with American politicians amidst the ongoing probe into Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections, Butina eventually drew the spotlight. She was accused of working as a Russia agent and lobbyist. Now she is in jail, and might face a 10-year maximum prison sentence, if convicted.
All this hampers any attempts to establish contacts among politicians, ordinary people and experts from both Russia and the West, while producing a chilling effect on those who plan to visit the U.S. as pundits or cultural diplomats. The very concept of public diplomacy becomes dubious among critics and any contacts with Russians bring about a great deal of scrutiny. In a time when politics is winning over people-to-people dialogue, such negative publicity of Russia reveals five challenges for today’s public diplomacy: the Moscow–West crisis of trust, U.S.–Russia political differences, information wars, disruptive technologies, and the power of stereotypes.
1. U.S.–Russia credibility crisis
On July 26, the head of the Russian Humanitarian Mission, a nonprofit charity that helps war and conflict victims, Evgeny Primakov, was detained in the Kiev airport. He planned to participate in the OSCE’s conference on media freedoms in the West. He had his passport taken away by the airport security, being accused of posing a threat to Ukraine’s national security. He will not be able to travel to this country for five years.
At the conference, Primakov planned to highlight a problem of the lack of dialogue between Russia and the West. He wanted to foster people-to-people contacts and stop shootings in Ukraine, as he later said. But Kiev raised eyebrows at him for his earlier inflammatory rhetoric toward Ukraine: On May 17, a month before the OSCE conference, Primakov wanted Russians to come to the Ukrainian embassy in Moscow and protest against the arrest of Kirill Vyshinskiy, the head of the Russian state-controlled RIA Novosty’s bureau in Ukraine (Kiev accused the journalist of treason).
The Primakov case is another example of increasing distrust between Russia and the West, which becomes commonplace nowadays. It is a matter of crisis of trust from both sides. On May 28, Russia banned Slawomir Debski, the director of the Polish Institute of International Relations (PISM), from entering its territory until March 2021 preventing him from participation in a Moscow expert conference. Debski is known for his harsh and consistent criticism of the Kremlin: earlier, he called for Ukraine and Poland teaming up to "withstand Russia’s aggression.”
The other blow to public diplomacy comes from the Skripal case. With the Kremlin being accused of poisoning former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, U.S. President Donald Trump expelled 60 Russian diplomats and closed Russia’s consulate in Seattle: among deportees was Oleg Zhiganov, the head of the Russian Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.
Likewise, Russia’s moves hamper public diplomacy. In September 2017, the Kremlin demanded the U.S. to cut its diplomatic mission and lay off 755 embassy officials in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Vladivostok. The majority of those dismissed (about 600 people) are from Russia, while around 100 are Americans. The large-scale cuts in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow most affected its cultural department, which was also responsible for public diplomacy. On the other hand, in the wake of the U.S.–Russia confrontation, Washington closed Russia’s consulates in San Francisco in September 2017 and, as it was mentioned earlier,in Seattle in March 2018. Such tit-for-tat policy hampers public diplomacy.
In the current situation, both Moscow and Washington are responsible for escalating the crisis and their incapability to come up with an agreement: The Kremlin asked the U.S. to cut the personnel of the American mission in Russia in response to the U.S. arrest of Russia’s diplomatic compounds in New York and Maryland states. Russian diplomats were forced to move from their American summer residences, because they were suspected to have used the compounds in electronic intelligence and espionage. Moscow, in its turn, denied such accusations and responded with the reciprocate measures.
2. U.S.–Russia political differences
Mutual suspicion between Russia and the West has been increasing since 2012, resulting from deep political differences between the countries, and Vladimir Putin’s election for the third presidential term contributed to the Moscow–Washington tensions. At that time, the U.S. didn’t trust him, while Putin himself firmly believed that America tried to interfere into the 2011–2012 Russian parliamentary and presidential elections.
Amidst this background, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which contributed to the public diplomacy efforts in the world, left Russia in September 2012. There was no unanimity about the real reasons of USAID stopping its activity in Russia. While the U.S. argues that the Kremlin demanded to shut down the USAID programs in Russia, the Russian side claims that the Agency cut its presence in Russia because of the loss of interest toward the country.
Afterwards, during his third term, President Putin adopted a series of laws, which were met with harsh criticism in the West: the Dima Yakovlev law that bans American families from adopting Russian orphans; two laws on foreign agents and undesirable organizations that create unfavorable environment for Russian and foreign NGOs; the law that forbids the homosexuality propaganda and so on.
The strongest blow on public diplomacy came from the authors of the laws about foreign agents and undesirable organizations. After their adoption, in summer 2015, Russia’s Federation Council created so-called "patriotic stop-list” that included many foreign NGOs, which eventually had to leave Russia. Among them were National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the Soros Foundation, the McArthur Foundation and Freedom House. They supported professional, academic and civil initiatives.
The Kremlin did ban the activity of these organizations in Russia, because, according to Moscow’s narrative, these NGOs attempted to secretly change the current political regime in Russia. The stop-list’s goal is to withstand those forces that "openly demand the change of power in Russia,” said Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Federation Council of the Russian Council.
Thus, the Kremlin’s domestic initiatives became the key factors that plagued U.S.-Russia public diplomacy during Putin’s third term with his attempts to increase political control domestically. At the same time, democrat Barack Obama’s penchant for defending human rights in Russia also played a role in fueling Russia–U.S. differences. Since 2012, the West has perceived Russia as a rogue state that violates human rights, while Moscow has viewed Washington as a meddler that poses a threat to Russia’s sovereignty.
Likewise, public diplomacy suffered a great deal as a result of the Russia–West differences over Crimea’s 2014 takeover and the ongoing war in Donbas. For instance, in 2014, Russia closed Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX), the U.S. cultural and educational program for high school students, ostensibly because one of the program’s alumni refused to return to Russia. One year after the FLEX shutdown, Russia closed the American Corner in the State Foreign Literature Library: It had to move to the building of the U.S. Embassy in central Moscow.
3. The Russia–West information warfare
"The idea that Russia did not meddle in our election is fake news,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) last summer. The U.S. political establishment has no doubts that Russia interfered in the American presidential campaign.
However, the Kremlin repeatedly denies these accusations, with many Russian pundits and media overtly ridiculing the American narrative about Moscow’s role in the U.S. elections. Usually, the arguments of the Russian side boil down to three bullet points: first, America is facing the national identity crisis (or a political one); second, democrats try to justify their failure during the 2016 presidential election; third, demonizing Russia is a convenient tool for liberals to reach their political goals.
The Russia–U.S. differences over the Kremlin meddling indicate that Moscow and Washington are in the state of the large-scale information war. This has a negative effect on public diplomacy. One does not need to go far to find the examples.
In July 2015, Daily Beast published an article, which cherry-picked the comments of American experts and diplomats, accusing Carnegie Moscow Center of being the Kremlin’s Trojan horse and promoting the pro-Russia narrative in the U.S. One of the reasons behind such accusations might be the fact that the Center’s Director Dmitri Trenin had always been well-balanced in his comments about the events in Ukraine and avoided blunt and harsh rhetoric toward the Russian authorities. In 2015, this article created a lot of buzz among Russian and American experts. For public diplomacy, again, it was a blow, if insignificant: in his article, Daily Beast’s author James Kirchick tried to question the reputation of Carnegie Moscow Center.
Another example is the attempt of Western journalists to create blacklists of those media, which spread Kremlin propaganda and fake news to discredit democracy in the U.S. and in Europe. In late November, 2016, the Washington Post created publicity for the so-called PropOrNot project (Propaganda or Not). It came up with the blacklist of the Russian and Western publications, which disseminated fake news about America. Russia’s propaganda contributed to Trump’s presidential victory and democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s debacle, according to PropOrNot. The blacklist included not only those outlets, which are seen as the Kremlin’s mouthpieces in the West (RT, Sputnik), but also the state-sponsored project that fostered public diplomacy — Russia Direct (which was closed in March 2017). It organized expert round tables on U.S.-Russia relations both in Russia and the U.S. In October 2016, together with the nonprofit Fort-Ross Conservancy, it initiated a discussion on educational and cultural exchanges during the Fort-Ross Dialogue forum in the Stanford University Campus.
Although, afterwards, Russia Direct was excluded from the PropOrNot blacklist, the problem remains relevant: the campaign against fake news becomes a tool in the information warfare in the hands of both sides — propaganda about propaganda. Interestingly, in early 2018, the Russian state-sponsored outlet Sputnik published an article, which links PropOrNot’s activity to the Washington-based Atlantic Council and U.S. Department of State. It is unclear whether it is true or not, but Sputnik supports its arguments by quoting an investigative reporter George Eliason.
4. Disruptive technologies
The breakthrough in the information technologies development, like a double-edged sword, creates both opportunities and challenges for public diplomacy.
First, the value of face-to-face contacts during roundtable and forums is decreasing in the digital era, with social networks stealing most attention and becoming a substitute for reality.Frequently, Internet users prefer virtual communication over the real one, which does not always increase the efficiency of public diplomacy.
Second, the increasing number of cyber threats spurs the Russia–West mutual suspicion and, thus, aggravates the main problem – the credibility crisis. A new wave of Russia–U.S. confrontation started after Washington accused the Kremlin of hacking the Democratic National Committee and leaking Clinton’s private correspondence with her adviser John Podesta.
Third, social networks now impose greater control over the political advertisement on their platforms. Such shifts are related to the recent buzz around Facebook and British consultancy Cambridge Analytica that worked for Trump’s election team. In spring 2018, Facebook admitted the personal data of 87 million people had been leaked to Cambridge Analytica, that used the data in numerous advertisement campaigns in Trump’s favor.
In April, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg took the floor during the U.S. Congress hearings on Russia’s role in the 2016 American elections. In May, the social network changed the political advertisement rules for its American users. From now on, political ad is seen in any text or illustration that mentions or contains the images of politicians and government agencies. In practice, the reports and articles on the websites of thinks tanks or NGOs might be labeled as political advertisement. This, in turn, could create distrust toward public diplomacy among people.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Facebook tightens the ad authorization rules for those foreign organizations that seek to conduct "political” advertisement for the American audience. Henceforth, only American citizens can do this: a user has to prove his / her U.S. citizenship and legal residency by presenting his / her American passport, driver’s silence, residency affidavit and social security number.
As a result, analytical publications from foreign countries might not reach Facebook’s American users, including those who deal with academic research and foreign policy. Given that Facebook is popular among Russian experts and think tanks, who share their publications and conduct targeted advertising on their pages, the access to their research through social media might be restricted to a certain extent.
5) The problem of perception
The Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act (DASKAA), a bill proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, contains the part "Public Diplomacy Modernization,” offering the measures to improve the efficiency of the U.S. public diplomacy and "ensure that [public diplomacy] programs are increasing the knowledge, understanding, and trust of the United States among relevant target audiences.” The fact that public diplomacy is mentioned in the context of countering Russia’s "aggression” implies that people-to-people communication is viewed as a propaganda tool.
Earlier U.S. diplomats Richard Holbrooke and Kim Elliot made no bones about their views on public diplomacy. They saw it as "psychological warfare” and "international propaganda.” But, mainly driven by governments, public diplomacy includes grassroots initiatives that cannot add up to state propaganda. For instance, in 1985–1991, people-to-people contacts became one of the key drivers of the perestroika: The Soviets, Meet Middle America program, founded by a Center for U.S./U.S.S.R Initiatives, sent hundreds of Soviet citizens to the United States. They became cultural ambassadors and refuted mutual stereotypes.
Thus, the problem of the public diplomacy perception in media, political and business circles is also a serious obstacle. How is citizen diplomacy perceived?
First, people-to-people projects are not attractive from the entrepreneurial point of view, because they are educational and humanitarian in nature. But business might support public diplomacy initiatives for the sake of publicity through fostering philanthropy and charity.
Second, it is very difficult to assess the efficiency of public diplomacy, because it pursues long-term goals. Their implementation requires years and decades. Moreover, the key result of public diplomacy is not material: It is a matter of winning hearts and minds among people and developing empathy. Quantitatively, it is very difficult to evaluate.
Third, since it lacks commercial viability, public diplomacy earns support primarily from research centers or political institutes, which frequently use human ties and professional exchanges to pursue their ideological goals and promote partisan agenda. Hence, public diplomacy is seen as hidden or sophisticated propaganda. Skeptics argue that independence, objectivity and honesty are impossible to reach in today’s politics, because there are sponsors who determine the agenda. Natalia Burlinova, the president of the Center for Support and Development of Public Initiatives – Creative Diplomacy (PICREADI), is a supporter of this view. "Reputation depends on the image of stakeholders and interest groups that support public diplomacy, while efficiency rests upon their good financial resources,” she said.
Of course, sponsors play a big role in the public diplomacy initiatives, but any attempts to link an affiliation of research centers with the quality of their job discredit the very notion of public diplomacy and affect it. The fact that political and academic institutions have their own sponsors doesn’t necessarily mean loss of reputation. By the same token, one can question the integrity of NGOs or independent organizations that can be also funded from the coffers of different stakeholders.
What is to be done?
The problems of public diplomacy are complex and require a comprehensive approach. Today’s top priority for Russia and the West is to deal with the grave credibility crisis. It is out of the question to talk about overcoming the crisis in the near future, given Moscow’s and Washington’s intransigence, but the problem can be alleviated at least through intensifying bottom-up dialogue among Russian and Western experts, academics and students. The Helsinki Putin-Trump summit failed in July, yet joint people-to-people projects could still work despite the hostile environment both in Russia and the U.S.
Second, Russia, the U.S. and Europe should relearn the basics of classic diplomacy: It is a matter of achieving compromise for the sake of the common good, not only country’s national interest. In this situation, one should be both a realist and an idealist. After all, Russia’s realism and the West’s idealism are not necessarily mutually incompatible. In contrast, they could be mutually reinforcing. Compromise is not a sign of weakness, but rather an indication of strength and political maturity.
Third, Russia and the West have to shy away from pushing propaganda: It doesn’t create trust, but fuels suspicion. Russian and Western journalists would better avoid mutual finger-pointing and stigmatizing: It is necessary to listen to and understand each other. It is a matter of trust and political empathy.
Forth, disruptive technologies can be used not for fueling political confrontation, but for expanding dialogue. Organizing joint webinars and videoconferences is a move in the right direction. Besides, creating practical and interactive projects in the Internet and social media, like the fact-checking tools, is the example of technologies’ positive impact on public diplomacy. In this regard, the Facebook grassroots project "Make Fact Great Again”, initiated by the alumni of the European Solidarity Centre’s exchange initiative — young journalists from Estonia, Sweden, the Netherlands, Russia, Finland, Poland and Belarus, is a shining example.
Fifth, Russia and the West would better separate public diplomacy from propaganda and focus on their nuances. They are not the same terms. One could agree with Robert Pszczel, the former Director of NATO Information Office in Moscow. He argues that the primary goal of public diplomacy is to inform, explain and respond to the question from the people; it means open debates on differences and problems. Public diplomacy is based on facts and verified information, while propaganda, both open and hidden, aims at misleading the audience by spreading lies. Second, reputation and principles, truth, responsibility and respect for the audience are top priorities for public diplomacy, which is not the case for propaganda that doesn’t care about a good reputation and principles, concluded Pszczel.