28 March 2022
Does Russia have soft power – that is, the ability to attract and persuade rather than coerce – in Africa? Today, Russia is associated mainly with hard power, which relies on force (or the threat of force), economic sanctions or incentives. Yet, since the 2000s Russia has been trying to recover at least some of the Soviet Union’s soft power as part of its toolkit to gradually rebuild influence in Africa. While some observers are optimistic regarding the actual leverage of Moscow’s soft power in Africa, others deem it limited or non-existent. However, to fully grasp Russia’s strategy in Africa, it is important also to look at its ‘soft dimension’, even in contexts in which Moscow predominantly uses hard-power tools. Russia also has some potentially strong sources of soft power, but needs key resources and investments to capitalise on them fully. This policy insight describes Russia’s soft-power sources and potential, following Nye’s categorisation of the three sources of soft power: the attractiveness of culture, political values and the legitimacy of foreign policies. It briefly analyses the main features of Russian soft power, and then presents the main soft-power elements deriving from Russia’s culture, political values and the perceived legitimacy of its foreign policy. In so doing, it also considers concrete examples in African countries, as well as similar or competing soft-power strategies used in Africa (eg, by China or Turkey). In conclusion, this policy insight suggests three possible directions for future research on this important yet often overlooked topic: carrying out more country- and case-specific soft-power assessments; following preparations for the upcoming second Russia–Africa Summit and assessing post-summit developments; and looking at specific agents of soft power who conduct public diplomacy and actively promote Russia’s image.