Another year, another host of contentious issues for Russia to deal with. From the coordinated global response to the Skripal poisoning case which saw hundreds of Russian ‘diplomats’ expelled from countries across the world, to its controversial Syria policy which culminated in some of the most acrimonious exchanges seen at the UN in decades, it’s easy to see why international perceptions of Russia have soured. On top of this, Russia’s position across all objective sub-indices has fallen this year as economic sanctions impact its ability to invest and remain competitive. However, at the mid-point of 2018, Russia stands at a crossroads. Having successfully hosted the World Cup, and with a much trailed summit with the U.S. soon to take place, the country has a chance to build on unexpected international goodwill, reset its relationships with the West, and set out a clear policy for Syria from a position of power. The foreign policy community will be watching President Putin’s next move with great interest.
Despite returning a lower score than last year, Russia’s varied cultural assets still provide a foundation for its soft power ranking. The high-culture of the Bolshoi Ballet sits comfortably alongside a burgeoning contemporary fashion scene and vibrant film industry that acts as a favourite medium through which to spread traditional Russian values. Boosting international awareness and appreciation of these assets will be tough when suspicion of the country still remains high, but as the World Cup has shown, expectations can be very different to reality.
This year’s polling saw Russia fall to the bottom of the top-30. Continued trolling from the Russian Embassy network has provoked a furious public backlash to insensitive and poorly timed jokes, while effective public awareness campaigns about Russian disinformation efforts have turned the country into a pariah state. As long as Russia pursues its sharp power strategy – looking to deceive and distort – it’s hard to see how it can improve its ranking.
Despite the negative perceptions around Russia’s contribution to global affairs, the successful World Cup has smashed the rock-bottom expectations and delivered a thrilling spectacle to a huge global audience. Scenes of happy fans from all nations celebrating together with Russians should be seized upon as a way to encourage more visitors and finally vanquish stereotypes that have hung over the nation since the early 90s.