I think we have to make a distinction here between “soft” soft power and “hard” soft power.
The US’ “soft” soft power is, of course, overwhelming. By “soft” soft power, I mean its accumulated cultural capital: The popularity of the English language, Hollywood, the Ivy League, Apple and American Pie, and so forth. If this were a Civilization game, the Americans would be maxing out the “culture” meter. There is no feasible way for Russia to ever overtake the US in this respect, if only because its limited population constrains the ultimate scope of its civilization (China is another matter).
What is of greater interest, and CAN be influenced relatively cheaply, is “hard” soft power. By “hard” soft power, I mean the ability to harness support for a sovereign internal and foreign policy line. “Hard” soft power is promoted by media and cultural organizations catering to foreign audiences, and can be measured by indicators such as a country’s international approval rating, which the BBC World Service measures every year. This rating can, in turn, affect diplomatic influence, investment attractiveness, and promulgate a general sense of moral vindication among the citizenry.
Lavishing resources into raising international approval ratings – that is, building up “hard” soft power – can produce vast returns on investment. There are several ways this can be done:
(1) Avoiding embarrassing situations so far as possible, and responding to them in a timely and comprehensive way AS SOON AS they arise. The entire Magnitsky debacle is a case study in how NOT to manage a genuine screw-up followed up by an oligarchic PR attack. Khodorkovsky is an earlier example. The ECHR eventually concluded that the case was NOT politically motivated, but so far as everyone and their dog is concerned the Menatep bandits are martyrs for democracy. The scope of the PR failure here is astounding. But the Russian government just doesn’t seem to care, leaving the heavy lifting to bloggers (!) like PoliTrash.
(2) Countering negative “hard” soft power. As one of the few countries to pursue a truly sovereign foreign policy – China is another example; so is Venezuela and Iran – it is not surprising that Russia would come under intensive information attack. One need do little more than recall Western coverage of the 2008 South Ossetian War, in which the victim was literally presented as the aggressor. Even institutions like the EU were later forced to acknowledge the truth, but no matter – the first week of coverage permanently implanted the perception it was big bad Russia that attacked plucky democratic Georgia, and neocons continue to push the lie even though a 5 minute perusal of Wikipedia would totally discredit it.
Information attacks are an inescapable price of sovereignty. However, the effects of such attacks can be minimized by establishing a special office that could coordinate the writing of press complaints to combat factually wrong and/or defamatory coverage; working with non-Western countries to reduce Western dominance in various international financial and regulatory bodies; promoting the integration of the Russian media space into the global media space, first and foremost via the Internet; creating and popularizing alternate, more objective indices of freedom and corruption than the politicized Transparency International and Freedom House ratings.
(3) Building up the keystone institutions of “hard” soft power. Every self-respecting country needs a channel or two to promote its views abroad (The BBC, France 24, RFERL/Voice of America, CNBC, Al Jazeera) and Russia, through RT, RIA, the Voice of Russia, and RBTH, performs solidly in this respect. But other aspects need touching up. For instance, the main vector of Russian cultural influence abroad is Rossotrudnichestvo, which no foreigner can even pronounce properly; compare and contrast with the British Council, the Goethe-Institut, or the Confucius Academies. It definitely has to step up its game here: Rebrand (Pushkin Schools?), and expand.
“Hard” soft power is fairly easy to increase with targeted investments (unlike “soft” soft power), and it is comparatively very cheap (unlike “hard” military-industrial power). There are no Great Power wars on the horizon, which makes the vast spending on military modernization rather questionable; while the task of building up “soft” soft power isn’t a matter of years, but of decades or even centuries. In contrast, “hard” soft power can be maximized relatively cheaply and quickly. Although Russia is much better in this respect than it was even a decade ago, there are still many low-hanging fruits left to picked.