On the ‘WhatsApp University’ in India, some time back a ‘fauji’ (in Hindi anything related to the military) article was in circulation that compared the national level mourning on death of Lata Mangeshkar with the absence of similar honour not being bestowed on Field Marshal SFJ Manekshaw. There is no argument that Manekshaw was treated shabbily in later life and on his death, but to equate the kind of impact Lata Mangeshkar had with achievements of Manekshaw betrayed a lack of understanding of ‘soft power’. This issue has again come to fore as Russia has used hard military power to achieve its political objective of stopping Ukraine from getting closer to West. The Russian failure to keep Ukraine friendly is due to its lack of ‘soft power’. On a forum like the Indian Defence Review, populated by and catering to military audiences, some clarity on relationship of ‘soft power’ with hard power and importance of former is timely as far too many ‘faujis’ tend to scoff at it. Its relevance to India is obvious as we seem to be losing out some of our reservoir of soft power of late.
In a generic sense, what Russia is doing in Ukraine today is a repeat of what it did in Georgia in 2008. This author spent two weeks in Georgia in October 2019 and travelled extensively in the that beautiful country. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, parts of Georgia where ethnic Russians are in majority, were occupied by Russia in 2008. Like in Ukraine, there is fair presence of ethnic Russians in rest of Georgia as well and like Ukraine, Georgia has a long history of being a part of Tzarist Russia and a mainstay of USSR. The longest ruling leader of USSR, Stalin, was a Georgian. Georgia, like Russia, is a follower of the Orthodox Church and Russian is the second language in Georgia.
Yet, everywhere we went and interacted with ordinary Georgians, their aspiration was to join the European Union (EU). This is despite the fact that Georgia has no direct land link with EU and under the current rules cannot realistically hope to join EU or NATO. As a sign of this European influence, we found the EU flags flying alongside Georgian at many places. Common people are making strenuous efforts to learn English and do away with Russian.
One can make an educated guess that the situation is not very different in Ukraine. The seduction by West is due to the economic factors in large measure. Russia, even after thirty years of market reforms is 43 out of 45 European countries in terms of per capita GDP. It is 25% of Italy, itself not the shining economy of the EU. On purely economic terms, the erstwhile republics of the Soviet Union, have no attraction for Russia. The open society of Western Europe combined with their economic prosperity makes for a heady brew (that it is ill-gotten through centuries of brutal colonization by every European nation is a different matter). A Russia under autocratic rule and relatively poor is not a magnet of attraction.
One must hasten to add that situation of Georgia and Ukraine are dissimilar in many ways. Georgia is predominantly rural and agricultural country with very little industry while Ukraine is highly industrialized and urbanized country. In addition Georgia has no direct land border with NATO/European Union countries while Ukraine has land link with Poland, Hungary and Romania. In trying to replicate its actions in Georgia in Ukraine, Russia has made serious miscalculation.
The greatest Russian tragedy is that despite its long association and large sized economy vis a vis these smaller countries, it has close to zero ‘soft power’. It is this lack of soft power that Russia has failed to develop under the two-decade long rule of Vladimir Putin. Thus, to secure its legitimate national interest of security, the only option for Russia is to use its hard power.
Historically, India soft-power had great influence and attraction over most of East, South East and even West Asia. India would do well to nurture its ‘soft power’ and not fall in the trap of losing its edge in regional politics. The Indian ruling elites ought to show a better understanding of our culture of tolerance and open ness and our military leaders and thinkers must alert them to the perils of doing otherwise.