Soft power requires a firm handshake.

Photographer: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

Don't Go Soft on Putin

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Russia under President Vladimir Putin doesn't rely much on soft power to get its way abroad, in the same way it doesn't do much liberal democracy at home. It does, however, do manipulation, and Europe is only just waking up to how much and how well.

The latest example came in Moldova, where a businessman from Russia, Renato Usatii, was excluded at the last moment from Sunday's parliamentary election. Little known in Moldova until April, Usatii ran a remarkably successful campaign boosted by elements of Russian soft power -- including concerts given on his behalf by Russia's biggest pop stars -- as well as money and coercion, in the form of trade sanctions that would be lifted if Moldova chose a pro-Russian course.

Had Usatii been allowed to run in Sunday's vote, the tight result suggests he might have tipped the balance against the parties that signed a trade deal with the European Union during the summer, and will now try to form a new coalition government. He had said he would freeze the deal.

Usatii, as I wrote after meeting him, appears to have been part of a rather clever Russian manipulation. Once excluded, many of his voters switched to the openly pro-Putin Socialist Party, which on Sunday won about 21 percent of the vote, up from the approximately 5 percent that it was polling while Usatii was in the race.

Removing Usatii was tough stuff for a would-be European democracy; excluding political parties from elections (in this case on grounds of illegal foreign funding) is bad. Yet if the government had let Usatii run, it would have permitted Russia to determine its government by creating a stooge party.

The Bulgarian and Romanian governments believe they, too, have been the objects of recent Russian manipulations. They say anti-fracking protests in their countries were organized and funded by fronts for the Russian security services, which are determined to ensure Russia keeps its dominance over the energy supplies of former Soviet satellites.

Such manipulations aren't new, but Europe only woke up to the fact they were in competition, not partnership, with Russia this year, as it watched Putin invade Ukraine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel articulated that realization in a speech last month while she was in Australia for the G-20 summit, warning that Russia wasn't just trying to dominate Ukraine, but also "Moldova -- maybe even Serbia and the western Balkans, the Baltics."

Putin has in one sense done Europe a favor with the Ukraine crisis, by making his use of force and manipulation in Europe’s neighborhood impossible to ignore. The notion of soft power, coined by the U.S. political scientist Joseph Nye in 1990, may best describe a state of mind right after the end of the Cold War, when there seemed to be no more competition to Western ideas of liberal democracy. Europe in particular seized on the concept to suggest an ability to achieve geopolitical goals just by radiating attraction.

The EU built an entire accession system on the idea that it had an excess of soft power: It didn't go out and bid for new members, it interviewed a seemingly endless line of applicants and produced an ever expanding list of conditions for them to meet if they wanted to succeed.

Russia, by contrast, has few willing applicants for its alternative Eurasian Union. Yet it very much wants -- indeed it demands -- that the former Soviet republics join. It also wants to restore leverage over countries in central and Eastern Europe, and encourage the disintegration of the EU: How else to explain a 9 million euro loan to the ultra-right, anti-EU National Front party in France?

The EU needs to understand the narrow limits of what soft power can achieve now that geopolitical competition has returned to Europe. Countering Russia's challenge will require a much tougher approach from EU leaders, in which they start promoting their union more actively; commit more funds and attention to defense; and demand loyalty to EU values and policies from members such as Hungary that may be tempted to side with Putin.

Otherwise, the EU will find itself a spectator as Putin reshapes Europe for years to come.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net