MOSCOW — The Russian government is hoping to boost its 'soft power' after installing new leadership at Rossotrudnichestvo, the state agency responsible for overseeing foreign aid and cultural exchange. 

In late June, well-known Russian journalist and former State Duma member Yevgeny Primakov Jr was named as Rossotrudnichestvo's new head. Primakov Jr, who is also the grandson of former Russian Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, succeeded Eleonora Mitrofanova, who takes on an ambassador at large role at the Russian Foreign Ministry.

In interviews with Russian media, Primakov outlined the need to win hearts and minds outside Russia. His comments come as the country faces sustained criticism for its efforts to influence other countries' political affairs, which have resurfaced again with the publication of the UK's 'Russia Report'

"While we had some necessary skills, which had been accumulated since the Soviet times, the majority of them have already been lost, so far, while there is an acute need to focus on their restoration," Primakov earlier told Russian media. "Russia has spent and is now spending large volumes of funds on various international humanitarian projects, however it is currently unclear, how effectively these funds are currently  spent."

In particular, Primakov noted that the current Russian concept of 'soft power' does not seem effective to him. Accordingly, Rossotrudnichestvo is expected to focus on building a more positive image of Russia in the international arena, along with boosting support of the Russian language and diaspora. 

Russian PR observers are hopeful that Primakov's appointment may help the country rehabilitate after failing to shift global perceptions in recent years. 

According to Vlad Krymsky, a Russian columnist and PR analyst, Rossotrudnichestvo has failed to address the various 'colour revolutions' that have taken place in post-Soviet countries since the start of the 2000s. 

"That led to major failures of Russia in such countries as  Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, not mentioning the Baltic States," said Krymsky. "At the same time the biggest failure was observed in the Belarusian direction." 

Representatives of leading Russian PR agencies are similarly hopeful, with iMars Communications president Vladimir Stupnikov pointing out that "the goals of Rossotrudnichestvo are very important," given the influence of the 30m-strong Russian-speaking diaspora.  

"Of course, Russia is interested in strengthening ties and a quality humanitarian exchange with compatriots," said Stupnikov. "And there is a huge field of opportunity for this. It is important that Rossotrudnichestvo would be able to react faster on the various requests from outside. And that means Rossotrudnichestvo can become a kind of communication hub connecting the Russian-speaking diaspora with the already existing and very diverse domestic agenda. If we add modern means of communication to this, then it can be very effective and in demand.

"However, much will depend not only on the own efforts of Rossotrudnichestvo and its new leader to strengthen the positions of Russia in the international arena, but also on how much the countries, where Russians live are themselves ready for this," added Stupnikov.
Mariya Lapuk, co-founder of Russian PR firm Vinci, believes that perceptions of Russia are often outdated, despite the major events — the Olympics, World Cup and Eurovision Song Contest — that have taken place in recent years. 

"There are a number of established myths about Russia in the world: cold, dangerous, bears, weapons, earflaps, pancakes," said Lapuk. "Since the formation of this image in the country, the truth has changed a lot. And the program to show the new country to the world was also carried out — the Olympics, the World Cup, Eurovision and much more. But it is impossible to bring so many tourists and show everyone inside that life in Russia has stabilized. And therefore, it is important not only to organize world events in the country, but also to form its new image in the world, taking into account the existing mythology."

This is not the first time that Russia's Foreign Ministry has attempted to reform Rossotrudnichestvo. One such attempt was overseen by Konstantin Kosachev, the current head of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Council of Federation, the upper house of the Russian Parliament, who aimed to turn the agency into an analogue of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). 

In accordance with those plans, Rossotrudnichestvo was given new powers, primarily in the field of so-called “assistance to international development”, while its budget was expanded. Ultimately, though, the reforms stalled. 

Many Russian analysts believe that Rossotrudnichestvo's new mandate will serve to postpone any plans the Russian government might have of appointing a new Western PR firm, after parting ways with Ketchum in 2015.