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Putin’s Rules of Attraction

CAMBRIDGE – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s covert aggression in Ukraine continues – and so do Western sanctions against his country. But the economy is not all that is under threat; Russia’s soft power is dwindling, with potentially devastating results.

A country can compel others to advance its interests in three main ways: through coercion, payment, or attraction. Putin has tried coercion – and been met with increasingly tough sanctions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin’s main European interlocutor, has been expressing her frustration with Russian policy toward Ukraine in increasingly harsh terms. Whatever short-term gains Putin’s actions in Ukraine provide will be more than offset in the long term, as Russia loses access to the Western technology it needs to modernize its industry and extend energy exploration into frontier Arctic regions.

With Russia’s economy faltering, Putin is finding it increasingly difficult to employ the second tool of power: payment. Not even oil and gas, Russia’s most valuable resources, can save the economy, as Putin’s recent agreement to supply gas to China for 30 years at knockdown prices demonstrates.

This leaves attraction – a more potent source of power than one might expect. China, for example, has been attempting to use soft power to cultivate a less threatening image – one that it hopes will undermine, and even discourage, the coalitions that have been emerging to counterbalance its rising economic and military might.