2018 was an eventful year for Russia with the world’s eyes on the country not for geopolitical reasons, but as host of the 2018 World Cup. As the dust settles on what could have been a transformative platform for Russia to ‘reset’ its relations with the West, it appears no such benefits were realised. Russia has fallen to 30th this year, its worst showing in The Soft Power 30 rankings since 2015. It is once again bottom of the international Polling sub-index, showing that negative international perceptions of Russia persist. 2018 presented a great opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to reset the direction of Russian foreign policy. Instead, continuing accusations of interference in Western elections, menacing Ukraine’s east, and opportunism in the Middle East still colour how many audiences abroad view Russia. Without fundamental change, it’s hard to see Russia climbing back up the rankings any time soon.
The 2018 World Cup did not have the transformative impact some in Russia might have hoped, but it did provide an opportunity to showcase the best of Russian culture to the world as it moved up to 20th in the Culture sub-index. Russia possesses one of the largest diplomatic networks in the world, which will be a key plank of any improvement in the rankings. Following President Trump’s call for Russia to be readmitted to the G7 earlier this year, it may even regain a seat at one of the world’s most prestigious tables.
Across the board, familiar problems persist. Russia’s continued disinformation campaign across the West and increasingly in the Middle East will only raise suspicions and alienate other countries further. A weak Enterprise score reflects the difficulties facing the Russian economy as it is still addressing the damage caused by the financial crisis and an economy overly reliant on raw materials. Without a change in approach, it is difficult to foresee an improvement.
If Russia was seeking return on its investment – in soft power terms – for hosting the football World Cup it will be sorely disappointed. For all of Russia’s genuine soft power assets, it cannot compensate for the fact that global audiences do not see Russia as a trustworthy force for good in the world. Without a significant change in tack on its foreign policy, Russian soft power will remain in the relegation zone.