If timing is everything, then Russian President Vladimir Putin's three-year soft power initiative is right on schedule. The plan, which Putin ordered last July, involves the usual checklist for improving a nation's image abroad: building new (and modernizing currently existing) science and cultural centers, hosting youth festivals, and promoting the Russian language.
So back to the timing of this…last summer Putin began stressing the importance of soft power, lamenting that Russia's image abroad was "lopsided" and thus needed attention by government officials.
But did this frame of mind just pop out of nowhere? It's difficult not to notice that Putin's July appeal for aggressively pursuing soft power conveniently occurred within four months of the arrests of feminist punk band Pussy Riot for their "hooliganism"--a case that produced perhaps the biggest media frenzy surrounding Russia in years.
Putin has publicly discussed the subject of his country's image abroad in the past, but before states look to exercise soft power in order to counter unattractive domestic cases they might want to consider some self reflection.
Without acknowledging or dealing with the Russian Orthodox Church's exorbitant influence on not only Pussy Riot's criminal investigation but also their internal propaganda to their trusting citizens, Moscow's self-promotion of "youth," "culture," or even "science" abroad probably won't be received as very organic or even very trustworthy--at least not to most Western audiences who enjoy freedom of speech without a backlash from their local church, and so forth. According to polls by Levada Center, public opinion in Russia veered heavily with the Orthodoxy and even considered the global reactions to the arrests and harsh sentences as "unfair" and "hysterical."
Ironically, despite Moscow's good intentions, Pussy Riot is the real winner from this situation. There are very few speedier ways to reveal a progressive sensibility in an unlikely setting than by getting arrested and jail time for playing a punk song that challenges conservative society. In this case, the soft power of the "unlikely setting" will probably get a lot less traction than anticipated simply because Pussy Riot's philosophy is already the status quo in many parts of the world.