Ukraine and Russia's Soft Coercion


Mira Milosevic is a writer and professor at the Instituto Universitario Ortega y Gasset


Joseph Nye defined power in political strategy as the ability to influence the behaviour of others in order to get what you want. He distinguished between hard power and soft power, stating that the former is the threat and, where appropriate, the use of military power, while the latter has to do with the peaceful ability to attract, convince or seduce. However, in the case of Russia, this paradigm is not sufficient to define the course of action of Vladimir Putin's government, both in its neighbouring states--the former republics of the Soviet Union--and in its areas of influence (Eastern Europe and the Balkans).

The Russian expression prinudit druzhbe ("forced to be friends") dates from tsarist Russia, although the USSR exercised it with much more enthusiasm. Unlike the Communists, Putin's government does not use hard power to make friends, nor soft power either, but rather soft coercion: blackmail--economic and political--, corruption and new forms of pressure, such as energy dependence.

The announcement by the Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovich that it is preparing itself to sign the free trade agreement with the European Union in the next Vilnius summit has sparked the Russian Government's rejection. This disagreement has adopted the shape of specific trade sanctions: ban on chocolate imports from Ukraine and of dairy products from Lithuania (host country of the signing of the treaty), although these measures are not unheard of (between 2006 and 2013 wine imports from Moldova and Georgia were prohibited). This type of commercial blackmail is not justified by geostrategic arguments, but with the explanation that the banned products undermine public health.

The Russian reaction is due to both historical and current reasons: the first Slavic state, Kievan Rus' was the centre of the Russian Empire. After the Cold War, Eastern Europe has been reduced to Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia, three states that have become the scenario of the tensions between Russia and the EU to impose their influence. The agreement between Ukraine and the EU means that Putin's star proposal--the creation of the Eurasian Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan--to compete with the EU and serve as a bridge between Europe and Asia, has no attraction for Ukraine and lacks future prospects if this country is not added to it. And, of course, it shows that European soft power is much more effective than Russian soft coercion.