Russian think tanks and soft power

8 January 2018

A new study on think tanks in Russia and how they are used to promote the country’s (or, most appropriately, the leader’s) interests abroad sheds a light onto an important function of think tanks, what works best when using think tanks as a tool of soft-power, and Russian think tanks more generally.

The paper is authored by Carolina Vendil Pallin and Susanne Oxenstierna from the Swedish Defence Research Agency. It can be dowloaded here.

Russian think tanks, the State and big business

The paper establishes an interesting fact about Russian think tanks and their relationship to their funding (and funders). Public funding and private funding (especially that coming from large corporation and high worth individuals) are closely associated with power and its interests.

Therefore, questions about think tanks’ independence from the interests of the State are rather hard to assess when it is unclear how much private funding is truly independent.

Would they receive private funding if they did not have the “seal of approval” of the State? In this respect, think tanks in Russia resemble think tanks in countries such as China and Vietnam where the State is the most influential figure and where think tanks serve the State’s (and the Communist Party’s) interests.

Think tanks as soft power tools

The main question the authors try to address is how effective are Russian think tanks (not all, just those with a clear outward-looking approach) in promoting Russian interests abroad? And, what works best?

The second question offers an insight into the first:

Overall, the think tanks and GONGOs that have the widest interface with Western researchers tend to be the ones that are the least propagandistic, that take on less of an advocacy role in their messaging.

Put another way, think tanks that are less overtly ideological are those that Western think tanks, experts, business groups, media, etc. tend to be more comfortable engaging with.

Those who re overtly ideological, on the other hand, are more likely to end up working with organisations with equally propagandistic credentials – less mainstream.

Promoting versus understanding Russia

An interesting irony described by the study is that the policy driving the Russian establishment to support and encourage think tanks to promote Russian interests and narratives abroad and which are meant to counter a perceived bias in the West, may be preventing Russian from getting their message across.

In other words, mainstream Western institutions (certainly think tanks and other policy research centres) won’t use the information and the arguments presented to them by institutions which, to all accounts, are foreign policy tools. In fact, they are more likely to reject them at face value – even if the information and arguments presented (at least some) was accurate.

Lessons for think tanks elsewhere

Think tanks face this trade-off constantly. Should we promote our arguments or who we let “the evidence speak for itself”? If you promote them you may be labeled as ideological; if you do not you may not manage to be heard among all others trying to inform policy.

The challenge presented by the Russian think tanks goes beyond their communications, though. Crucial to the assessment of credibility that Western mainstream institutions are making of Russian think tanks is the source and nature of their funding.

Without transparency in their funding (who provides it and for what purpose) it is imposible to assess the information and arguments provided. Absolute independence isn’t the issue for most think tanks – this is not possible. Transparency is enough to allow their audiences to read in between the lines and assess the accuracy (and their degree of confidence on) the information and arguments they present.