Written by Jessica Storey-Nagy, PhD student in Central Eurasian Studies, Hungarian Studies
Péter Krekó is the Executive Director of the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital. He also serves as Professor of psychology and political science at Etövös Loránd University of Sciences in Budapest and is a member of the presidential board of the Hungarian Political Science Association. He was a Fulbright visiting Professor at IU Bloomington for the 2016-2017 academic year and is a frequent commentator in Hungarian media, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. He spoke with the RSW community via Telebridge on February 1st, 2019.
The influence that Russia wields over western institutions has been in the spotlight as of late. There is, however, an academic who alerted this influence in action to his colleagues, scholars and Budapest-based think-tankers years ago, Professor Péter Krekó. He presented an unpublished new work to IU students and faculty at an early morning bagel-and-coffee-infused teleconference in the graduate research commons of Bloomington’s Woodburn Hall in February.
Prof. Krekó began his talk by defining “soft power,” influence that is wielded via attraction, not coercion. The Weberian definition follows as “the ability of anyone to change the behavior of other people, or of other state institutions.” Putin, for example, consistently speaks of the importance of investing in soft power and, according to Krekó, there are three separate but related tactics of “soft” ideology that are utilized the world over. First off, there is the tendency to mimic, or copy-and-paste the ideological counter points of US strategies. Second, efforts are decentralized. For example, in Russia Putin acknowledges the diversity of actors needed for a successful soft power campaign and his network is wide-ranging from the Russian secret service, the Mafia, and the Communist Party to the Russian Orthodox Church. Lastly, soft power strategies often promote a non-Eurasianist ideology where anti-Western narratives are the norm. Russia is certainly interested in expanding its soft power networks as the state’s goals “are to maximize political and economic power and to become a role model for other nations.”
Krekó then moved into defining traits specific to Russian soft power where the limits of soft and hard power are blurred because “active political measures and intelligence services play a central role” in exerting influence. Russia also finds repulsion a more compelling feature than attraction, promoting conspiracy theories and institutional distrust whenever possible. Putin’s goal is to “destroy the image of his opponent.” The same ideology follows for Hungary’s Viktor Orbán who some say, is following in Putin’s strategical footsteps. Thirdly, Russia excels at communicating chaos and contradictions, publishing multiple official versions of notable national and international events “in order to confuse the audience and create a world where ‘nothing is true and everything is possible.’”
For the reasons listed above, Krekó suggests that the term “sharp power,” a term coined by J.L. Wilson, better defines Russia’s global influence than “soft power.” Sharp power institutions “seek to pierce, penetrate, or perforate the political and information environments of targeted countries,” and depend upon strategies of “distraction and manipulation.” Russia has interfered with multiple international elections and often supports and employs hackers who attack databases of state institutions worldwide, penetrating the fabric of western institutional trust.
The picture painted above portrays Russia as a tentacled and threatening global power, encroaching upon soft power territories that once belonged to the western world. However, this portrayal is not entirely accurate—the image itself is a result of Russian soft power strategies. Krekó pointed out that on Pew Research Center polls, globally, confidence in Putin is low, Russian military spending is relatively low, and the market for its natural resources is shrinking. In other words, creating an illusion of power where little exists is all part of the game.
National image isn’t everything, but it matters a great deal. Krekó believes that in the present day, political rhetoric plays a more important role than the history of a people or place where individuals shape their political preferences. In other words, the harnessing of soft and sharp power can have very real political consequences and plays a large part in the shaping of the political landscape we see today.