Russia’s Soft Power Play in Europe

Russia sends millions to organizations to counter U.S., advance foreign policy in EU

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin / AP

Putin’s Russia has invested heavily in organizations that promote a negative view of the United States and push Europeans to view Russia and its policies in a positive light, according to a new analysis.

The Russian government directs at least $62 million—and likely much more—to state-sponsored non-governmental organizations, according to the study conducted by the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, a center-right think tank based in Brussels. Russia has also used tactics common in terrorism finance to covertly direct funds to NGOs and think tanks operating in the European Union.

These organizations have become a key element of Russian foreign policy, particularly the country’s effort to exert "soft power" on European nations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin described "soft power" in 2012 as "a matrix of tools and methods to reach foreign policy goals without the use of arms but by exerting information and other levers of influence." His government has used state-owned media outlets like RT, formerly known as Russia Today, and other pro-Kremlin organizations to bend public opinion in other countries toward Russia.

At the same time, Russia has taken punitive action against organizations it wants to repress within its own borders, cracking down on foreign and international organizations it deems "undesirable."

"Russian and Russia-funded … NGOs and think tanks belong within the framework of a particular vision of ‘soft power,’" the Martens Centre researchers wrote in an extensive report released Wednesday.

"It is one that relies on coercion more than on attraction, opposes democracy and human rights, offers ‘traditional values’ and ‘a strong leader,’ and promotes the narrative that the U.S. is a common enemy for Russia and Europe."

Most of Russia’s soft power organizations were established by government bodies between 2006 and 2011 and target Russian-language speakers. Russia invests roughly $62 million annually in these organizations, according to a partial estimate by researchers generated from publicly available data. Some estimates have put Russian spending on NGOs worldwide at around $130 million per year.

One of the most well-funded organizations is Rossotrudnichestvo, an organization established by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 to advance the country’s political and economic interests abroad. Until recently, the organization was headed by Konstantin Kosachev, a Russian lawmaker who is viewed as an architect of Russia’s soft power strategy and sits on the boards of four groups that serve as vessels for Russian government messaging.

Russia supports pro-Russian organizations and think tanks that are critical of NATO and U.S. military presence, like the Czech "No to the Bases" initiative. It also helps groups that advance a narrative justifying Russia’s military activity in Europe, such as its invasions in Georgia and Ukraine. These organizations, which span western European countries and the Baltic states, produce research and host events that generally favor Russian interests.

The methods Russia uses to finance non-governmental organizations is similar to the "hawala system" used to finance terrorism, the researchers wrote.

"Basically the money is transferred through various informal mediators (hawaladars)—companies or individuals based in tax havens such as Saudi Arabia, the Cocos Islands, the Pitcairn Islands or Nevis—before turning up at a company based in the EU," the researchers explained. "This company then finances a pro-Russian organization, individual, event or advertisement. Sometimes the money is also laundered through gambling houses or restaurants."

Funding for pro-Kremlin NGOs also comes through Russian state-owned companies like energy giants Gazprom and Lukoil, according to the report.

One of the newly established pro-Russian think tanks is the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, which was partially founded in Berlin by Vladimir Yakunin and launched internationally this summer. Yakunin is an ally of Putin who is targeted by U.S. financial sanctions for involvement in the situation in Ukraine.

Kremlin-friendly organizations are fighting an uphill battle because Russia and Putin are viewed unfavorably throughout the world. Roughly seven-in-10 individuals view Russia unfavorably in the United States and other Western nations, according to Pew Research Center data spotlighted earlier this month.

Still, Western nations have not done enough to counter these organizations, according to the research released Wednesday, which advised the EU to institute policies for increased transparency over NGOs and their funding. The researchers also recommended that political intelligence agencies improve their oversight of these groups.

Russia has sought to gain global influence through military activities as well as soft power activities, most recently cooperating with Iran in a campaign to bomb ISIS militants and Syrian opposition groups fighting Bashar al Assad in Syria. This week, Russia for the first time deployed warplanes from an Iranian air base to launch airstrikes on targets in Syria.

Russia has also maintained its grip on Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, and has bolstered military forces near its border with Ukraine in possible preparation for confrontation.

The Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment on the report.