How Russia switched to soft power tactics to charm during this World Cup

Date 2.07.2018

Marc Webber, our Senior Lecturer in Journalism & Media and regular matchday reporter for BBC’s Final Score and Radio Five Live, shares his thoughts on the special atmosphere in Russia during this year’s World Cup…

Say it quietly, but I think Vladimir Putin has gone soft!

As millions descend on his country for a feast of football, Russia seems to have called a truce on its overt tub-thumping and cyber-bullying in preference for generating images of happiness and world peace in Red Square.

Russia has grasped the soft power of a major sporting tournament with both hands. Over the past few weeks the discourse and imagery we have seen of the nation isn’t that of an aggressive nanny state demanding more global attention,  but that of a country welcoming foreigners and open to public displays of affection (within reason).

Our TV screens and Twitter feeds over the past few weeks have been littered with positive images of rival fans hugging each other and having fun and world leaders turning up to watch what is turning out to be the most open and exciting World Cup ever seen.

There is no evidence that personal safety of fans has been threatened. We are not seeing riots between rival hooligans and we’re not seeing any police interceptions.

Media colleagues I know in Russia talk of freedom to roam and engage with locals and a real chance to enjoy cities and major towns nightlife without fear.

Even Portuguese captain, Cristiano Ronaldo, complemented the organisation and the welcome that he has received in Russia during this World Cup when his side was knocked out of the competition the other day.

That’s a stark contrast to the stories we have read over the past few months where are the headlines have been hardly positive for Vladimir Putin’s government.

Allegations of poisoning in the UK, its role in the Syrian crisis and ongoing poor relations with European countries have suggested that Russia’s foreign policy takes a much harder line on those that do not support it.

So why are we now seeing fluffy images of happy people on the streets of Russia?

It is media management, but in what form is it taking?

There are three theories as to why negativity has been dialled down on Russia during the World Cup.

Soft Power

Firstly, the Russians really have learnt the value of soft power diplomacy and have made a concerted effort to benefit from it.

It could be an order has come from on high to dial down the forceful rhetoric normally seen from the Russian state and concentrate on winning friends by ensuring positive images are available to the world Media during the World Cup.

This is nothing new, it happens at every Olympic Games.

Every four years there is an Olympic truce and the host nation of the Olympics goes above and beyond to ensure that a positive Image is portrayed of its country in alignment with that.

When you think back to the opening ceremony of London 2012, with Her Majesty the Queen falling from the Sky with James Bond, you see that it is a well walked path and a lucrative one, certainly in the short term.

Maybe the Russians studied London 2012’s soft power propaganda and thought there are lessons to be learnt here?

From Russia, with love

The second theory is one of self-censorship amongst broadcasters and nations.

Maybe there is a belief by certain broadcasters and governments that it is better not to broadcast negative stories about Russia during the World Cup because it may make that country look bitter compared to the Host nation.

Compare the negative media coverage around the Brazil 2014 Olympics to the run up to the 2018 World Cup and you will see that global Media were more than happy to criticise the Brazilians. But there has been less scrutiny of facilities and political issues in Russia in the past two months leading up to this World Cup.

If England continue to progress on the pitch in this World Cup it could add weight to this argument, as no one in British media would want to do anything which distracts from a positive England performance.

Media clamp down?

The third theory is that Russia has had a clamp down on media access to negative stories about it during this time, that the military and police forces are constantly ensuring no negative stories about Russia gets out. I am not a believer in this theory because knowing people who work in the media For This World Cup in Russia there has been no evidence of restricted movement.

Russia still has issues and some stories are getting out in relation to its attitudes towards LGBT members of society. The question is whether the overdrive on soft power diplomacy and the facilitation of positive images has helped to drown out the noise around the issues that are still there.

I believe it has and the Russians have applied the first theory with aplomb.

It could go down in media and international relations teaching as a case study in soft power.

The question is, will hostilities resume when the World Cup circus leaves Moscow?