The Paradoxes of the Russian Defense Ministry’s ‘Soft Power’

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Pavel Viktorov, Alexander Sheffner

With the Moscow confrontation with the West, Russia’s Defense Ministry uses it as a tool of bolstering the image of the army within the country. Specifically, it showcases its military potential and the newest weapon to counter American missile system in Eastern Europe. Yet, while the popularity of the Russian armed forces is increasing among the population, it is not the case in the West: some hardliners see the Kremlin as a force that provokes a new arms race.

Since the start of the Kremlin’s military operation in Syria, Russia’s Defense Ministry was in the spotlight. And its new weapon presented by President Vladimir Putin on March 1 provoked even greater interest in the West and bolstered the publicity of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. At first glance, he seems to be eager to reveal all Russian military achievements to its opponents. Some would say that he seeks to show off Russia’s newest military arsenal to intimidate the West. Yet such speculations don’t tell the whole story: Shoigu might pursue other goals.

Arms Race in the information space 

First, Russia’s Defense Ministry wants to change its image to present itself as a robust agency that keeps pace with military technologies and can conduct an effective information campaign both inside and outside Russia. By showcasing its newest weapon to the West, Russia implies that it is not going to lose in a new arms race; it will be able to counter American missile systems in Eastern Europe and it does its best to let the world know about its military achievements.

Why does Russia’s Defense Ministry seek such publicity? It is because its negative experience during the Soviet times, which makes Russia reassess its tactics and strategy in the information space. After all, one of the reasons of the collapse of the Soviet Union was its defeat in the Cold War arms race with the United States. Extremely high expenses on maintaining the military parity with NATO became a burden for the Soviet planning economy and led to its total collapse. The new generation of Russian top brass tries to persuade their domestic and external audience that military modernization won’t affect the country’s economy. Modern Russia doesn’t copy the most expensive military technologies from the West, but produces its own version of missile system, which is cheaper, yet effective as their Western analogues.

This narrative is what Russia’s Defense Ministry tries to promote. One could describe it as the “transparent war” concept, which means creating extensive publicity around the activity of the Russian army on the Internet and in the media space, in general. By posting video from its military operating in Syria, which describes how it destroys Islamic terrorists, Russia’s Defense Ministry is addressing to its audience in the real time regime to create the presence effect. After all, the footages of the jets and rockets destroying the Islamic militants and the interactive maps showing the Russian bombings in Syria do produce a strong effect.

At the same time, by flexing its military muscles overtly, Moscow invites Western military professionals to assess its new weapons and challenges the U.S., NATO countries and its allies. This boosts their scrutiny and suspicion over Russia’s military buildup, as indicated by their response to the Kremlin’s new weapon. After Putin’s Federal Assembly address, former CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in an interview to Fox News that “America has a responsibility, and national security team is fully engaged in making sure that we’re prepared to protect America from those threats.” The U.S. is ready to respond to any threats from Russia and “our submarines, they [Russians] do not know where they are, and they have the ability to decimate their country if we go down that path,” said U.S. Strategic Command Chief General John Hyten during budget hearings in the House Armed Services Committee.

Boosting the image of the army

For several years Defense Minister Shoigu improved the image of the Russian army among ordinary people. “Polite people” or “Little green men” — Russian troops deployed in Crimea in March 2014 to orchestrate the referendum — became a symbol of Russia’s military success, at least, within the country.

“A short victorious bloodless campaign” in Crimea in 2014 and a longer-term military operation in Syria, which started in 2015, are now turning into an interesting online show, which is popular among Russians. Yet for certain reasons they don’t see the failures that the Russian army experiences during testing new weapons or during military exercise.

An exemption may be the cases, which are impossible to cover up like the Feb.7 defeat of the Russian battlers from the Wagner Group, reportedly killed by U.S. airstrikes in Syria’s city Deir ez-Zor. Yet this incident didn’t affect the image of Russia’s Defense Ministry in the country, because the killed people were the private citizens, who formally were not belonged to the Russian armed forces, but fought in Syria to earn money and do something for a living

In this situation one should understand the priorities of the Russian Defense Ministry: the final goal of the information campaign is not to intimidate the West, but rather to have an impact of the ordinary Russians to boost interest and respect toward the army. After all, before the Russia-West confrontation, the Russian army was not very popular among people, with draftees seeking to dodge the army. Yet today the number of dodgers is decreasing.

“In the 2014 fall more than 6,100 conscripts were recognized as army dodgers, while the 2015 spring saw the decrease in their number to 3,700, which is 11 percent lower. Throughout several draft seasons there is a downward trend — annually there is the 20 percent decrease among army dodgers,” said Major General Alexander Nikitin, a department head at the Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office, in September 2016.

In 2018 the popularity of the Russian army reached its historical maximum for the last 30 years, according the February polls of the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (WCIOM). Most Russians see their army as one of the best in the world, with its fighting efficiency index boosted: in the 1990s, it was minus 23 points, yet now it reached 73 points.

Thus, Russia’s Defense Ministry uses the Moscow confrontation with the West as a tool of bolstering the image of the army within the country. Specifically, it showcases its military potential and the newest weapon to counter American missile system in Eastern Europe. Yet, while the popularity of the Russian armed forces is increasing among the population, it is not the case in the West: some hardliners see the Kremlin as a force that provokes a new arms race.

In this situation, cooperation, openness and transparency are the best ways to alleviate the problem of a new arms race and avoid another war. Yet, paradoxically, the transparency and the readiness to cooperate with Western media, observers and experts could backlash. Publicity could be a leverage to explain Russia’s foreign policy for the Western audience. Yet if such tactics creates trust is a big question.

Pavel Viktorov, a military columnist.

Alexander Sheffner, a military expert.

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