How to Covid a State Image: Russia’s Strategy

Maria Ivanova, School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University

Nikolay Ignatenko, School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University

Lyubov Nechaeva, School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University


The article deals with Russia’s image-building as a tool to project soft power during the pandemic. Nowadays this issue is particularly relevant since states have entered intense competition in the field of information. To begin with, original studies in the field of image-making date back to the eve of the twentieth century. They focused first on individuals and then shifted to organizations and states. A state image is a comprehensive term and an instrument to increase a country’s attractiveness both for domestic and foreign purposes. This, in turn, allows to harness people’s minds through shaping public discourse. It might be a problem for Russia with its decades-long historical passivity manifested in disproportionate response to bellicose Western media outlets. Such policy pattern attributes to the country’s history and culture which encourage both seeking recognition but failing to pursue a hard line in the international arena. Nonetheless, the COVID-19 pandemic has given a chance for the country to reassert itself through significant medical achievements and vaccine diplomacy guided by Russia’s core foreign policy documents. The measures taken to contain the coronavirus were initially recognized as effective by WHO but later received severe criticism from Western media. Today Russia faces a number of domestic, international, and market risks to advocating Sputnik V which could discredit its state image. The conclusion to be drawn is that today countries strive to strengthen their position by means of conducting an active media campaign. The only serious obstacle which Russia has to cope with is its historically passive attitude towards image-building. Reconsidering the vaccine PR actions Russia will manage to derive both reputational benefits and political advantages from the COVID-19 crisis.

Key words: state image, vaccine diplomacy, COVID-19, Russia’s image, Sputnik V


The fact that political competition became more intense on the eve of the 20th century necessitated new methods to promote politicians. Thus, market advertising was adopted to public arena in the form of image-building: a voter could choose the most appropriate option within the variety on the basis of personal preferences. With the conventional power receding, soft power rivalry is expanding to the global scale: striving to win over public sentiments depends significantly on a country’s image rather than on images of officials. It is especially noteworthy with regard to so-called vaccine wars.


The methodological base of the research involves case study to elucidate distinctiveness of Russia’s vaccine diplomacy strategy and comparative analyses to contrast it with other countries.


Despite the objections of liberal political economy advocates the world cannot be comprehended through rational choice theory. Many factors influence people’s behavior and in this sense an image is particularly prominent. Studies in this field gained ground amongst sociologists at the beginning of the twentieth century. They developed several conceptual frameworks: psychosemiotic, socio-psychological, intersubjective, acmeological and dramatic approaches.


The concept of a state image in theoretical retrospective

Among these approaches a socio-physiological paradigm is particularly worth discussing. It involves a number of famous concepts, such as cognitive dissonance theory by L. Festinger, social identity framework by A. Teshler, social constructivism concept by K. Herzten etc. The socio-physiological paradigm was the first to shift the focus from an individual to an image of organisations, social groups, and professions and to underscore their multidimensionality (Dagaeva, 2011). Sociologist G.M. Andreeva gives the following definition of an image, “An image is a specific vision of a particular object with perception shifted to its certain aspects. Thereby we develop an illusionary notion of an object or a phenomenon” (Andreeva, 2001). The difference between an image and a vision consists in artificial character of the image constructs compared to visions with their cognitive independence. I.P. Shkuratova points out that an image appears only given an act of communication: interaction of an information sender and its recipient reflects social nature of this phenomenon (Shkuratova, 2005). D.A. Gorbatkin underscores dynamics, dependence on cultural and historical context, and mass appeal as the main attributes of an image. (Gorbatkin, 2002).

The socio-phycological approach implies a common model for image-building. At the first stage a subject enters public discourse and attracts attention from an audience, since an image presupposes reciprocal communication. At the second stage, namely objectification by S. Moskovisi, the audience ascribes already known concepts to this new subject. For instance, if a person positions himself as a genius manager, a target audience will be likely to asses him using associations with Steve Jobs, Ilon Mask, Jeff Bezos and other well-known CEOs. W. Lippman accounted it for peoples’ natural striving to reduce perception to superficial ideas. He noted that the human brain seeks to save energy and time. Given this fact, evaluating something for the first time, it uses already known notions which the sociologist called “stereotypes” (Lippman, 2004). At the next stage, figuration of the subject is in place. In other words, the audience can both rely on analogies with the image but also on the idea inherent in it. For example, the renowned apologist of Marxism Antonio Gramsci was initially associated with his ideological predecessors and peers, and only then with his own statements and ideas. At the last stage the image becomes an embedded part of a current world view: it acquires autonomy and no longer depends on a person who projects this image.

Interestingly, there is no clear answer how an image recultivates itself when a paradigm changes. Perhaps, in this case memory sacralises, reconstructs, revaluates some of its elements or completely erases them.

The similar approach was developed by I. Hoffman within his theatrical concept of social interaction. He identified an image with a “social cover” which a subject chooses according to his role in a “drama play”. In such situations an “actor” idealizes his image and outside the social context puts this “mask” off (Hoffman, 2000).  Hoffman’s approach is of great relevance to politics; however, it hasn’t gained traction in this sphere.

Refusal to consider an image as a market instrument distinguishes the acmeological approach from the two aforementioned perspectives.

Thus, the most scientifically developed direction in the study of an image is the socio-psychological approach, since it helps to assess not only an image, but also motivation for its building.  It is worth noticing that this approach served as a framework to research an image of both individuals, organizations, and ultimately states. The interest to study state image grew, as governments first perceived it as an efficient instrument of soft power amid the Cold War. In this context an international state image was regarded as a reflection of a state itself at an emotional level and was used to reach geopolitical success. Both the USA and the USSR made great efforts to build their own image in the Third World countries in accordance with special criteria, which are the following (Kartseva, 1971):

  1. a simple and sketchy character;
  2. flexibility under inner and outer challenges;
  3. idealization;
  4. self-sufficiency;
  5. a borderline position between a real image and an emotional assessment.

The study of an image of a state is due to its broad functionality. First, a positive image helps to build international political and economic ties, increases investment attractiveness and chances of successful cooperation. Second, a wholesome state image might influence a sense of identity within a country’s population.

At the same time A. Galumov points out that a state image is a complex instrument which cannot be reduced to stereotypes about a country (Galumov, 2005). In this sense, it would be reasonable to turn to the elements of an image distinguished by S. Krylov (Krylov, 2006):

  1. an objective element shapes a country’s image within populations;
  2. a subjective element is underpinned by impressions conveyed by top public officials;
  3. a simulated element involves concepts developed by imagemakers and political experts.

It should be acknowledged that the phenomenon of a state with its specifical features is a holistic sum since it is based on a number of elements which exhibit brand-new characteristics if taken together. These components imply:

  1. an image of political decision-makers;
  2. an image of elites and interest groups;
  3. a historical and cultural image of a state;
  4. an image of decisions at domestic and international levels;
  5. an image of a population;
  6. an image of relations between governments structures and citizens.

An institutional design and mass media messages are also to be taken into account. All these factors shape country’s identity which is a cornerstone for image-building. Some states seek to remain socially and culturally unique, while smaller entities are apt to draw on others’ experience which blurs their distinctiveness.

Impact of other actors is also of particular importance. An image depends reportedly not only on PR-campaigns, but also on the way how “friends” and “rivals” perceive it. A country with lacking resources and creativity is likely to fail to handle counter-messaging, that is why in this case individual effort might appear desperate. With globalization and digitalization spreading at breakneck speed, a state image becomes especially vulnerable to multiple external factors. Due to this vulnerability a state can opt for one of the following strategies:

  1. not to compete with countries with advanced PR-technologies;
  2. to build a highly resistant image;
  3. to choose focusing on particular target groups over building a coherent international image.

Today rivalry amongst states in information space is an indispensable part of reality. Many mechanisms and technologies were borrowed from market environment because of its long-standing experience in developing corporate images and many high qualified specialists. They, in turn, might be very helpful: hiring people with necessary skills, governments can both spare money for PR campaigns and capitalize on already tested market models. Moreover, active engagement of new nongovernmental actors in international relations, such as TNCs, necessitates these practices, because conventional hard power methods are irrelevant in this case.

Reasons for Russia’s passivity

In historical retrospective Russian has been present in the world public space for tens of decades. From the very beginning of Russian political genesis its image has been clearly distinct. At the same time the significance of this issue is dwindling in the eyes of Russia’s powers-that-be. This tendency is especially conspicuous considering disproportionate and pathetic Russia’s responses to the aggressive Western PR campaign over the past 10 years. That’s why many people abroad are extremely against this country. In 2019 Russia Today’s survey revealed that only 2 % of references to Russia in foreign media outlets were positive, whereas 50 % were negative and 48 % were neutral. When it came to Russia, 5 % of references to 7 European countries were with 24 % of negative cases and 71 % of neutral ones [1].

It is important to point out that the Winter Olympic Games and FIFA World Cup were graphic examples of stepping back from the traditional image of a military power. However, belligerent media politics of Western countries tarnished all reputational achievements. This poses several questions. Why does the country of the long-standing unique image fail to counter aggressive propaganda? What is the reason for its passivity?

Answers to these questions could be found in the peculiarities of Russian individuality. It is based on many elements: a border civilization position between the East and the West, national diversity, territorial expansion seeking to create buffer zones due to the absence of natural protective barriers, self-identification as the worlds’ orthodox centre, and rich resources desired by many neighbours.

Nowadays the image of Russia might be considered as a concept of three elements:

  1. a conditionally static element;
  2. a conditionally dynamic element;
  3. expectations.

The reasons for Russia's passivity in its image-building are anchored to the “conditionally static” component, in other words, to its history and culture [2]. In retrospective Russian history splits into several milestones which greatly contributed to its current image:

  1. patience and endurance manifested themselves during the Tatar-Mongol yoke;
  2. readiness for reforms which proved viable during westernization initiated by Peter the Great;
  3. the Patriotic War of 1812 and the following European campaign, during which Russians demonstrated unprecedented courage and readiness for self-sacrifice, along with unpretentiousness and altruism.

Many historians are convicted that by the advent of the 20th century Russia already lost its identity which was attributed to decades-long dominance of Western behavioural patterns and culture.

  1. the USSR is often referred to as the period of revived patience and self-sacrifice as well as the notion of the unpredictable and mysterious Russian soul.

Citing N.A, Berdyayev, the Russian soul is highly contradictive: it seeks both “angelic holiness” and “savagery”, loyalty and rebellion, a wish to change the world and indolence. The same aspects were touched upon by V.V. Rosanov and V.S. Solovyev, who explained Russian ambivalence referring to its position between the West and the East.

All these elements have built the image of a strong and volatile country which strives to take over an international arbiter role and at the same time fails to come to terms with other great powers.

Russia's foreign policy during the COVID-19 outbreak 

From January to April 2020 the Russian leadership implemented a pragmatic foreign policy aimed primarily at curbing infection cases and providing assistance to affected countries.

The actions of the Russian leadership to cooperate with other countries and international organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic generally corresponded to the fundamental documents of the Russia’s Foreign Ministry. Threats in the field of sanitary and epidemiological security were listed as rapidly growing cross-border challenges in the 2016 Foreign Policy Concept [3]. Moreover, the 2015 National Security Strategy of Russia also portraits the spread of epidemics caused by previously unknown viruses as a threat to the country’s national security.

Russia adheres to respecting the central coordinating role of the UN [3, Article 25] and the leading role of its institutions: the UN Security Council [3, Article 24, paragraph b], WHO [3, Article 43] - and active cooperation through these organizations. In addition, Russia participates as a member in alternative fora such as G-20, BRICS, SCO, RIС etc.

Thus. it can be noted that in multilateral cooperation on the coronavirus issue Russia has not deviated from its foreign policy line. Contacts are carried out through WHO in strict accordance with International Health Regulations (IHR). The organization highly appreciated measures taken by the country to suppress the coronavirus outbreak, and its healthcare system also received a quality mark [4].

Russian foreign policy perceives the UN as an "uncontested and legitimate" center for regulating international relations. The UN Security Council bears primary responsibility "for the maintenance of international peace and security" [3, Article 24]. Using the UN as a paramount global governance body became the purpose of the Russian leadership in 2020 for enhancing country’s diplomacy and overcoming political barriers at regional and international fora.

Summing up, Russia has demonstrated the humanitarian orientation of its foreign policy in both multilateral and bilateral relations. However, the reaction of Western media outlets has become a marker of how to indoctrinate against this country. With a decrease in the number of cases in the world, Russia's humanitarian actions were pushed out of the news agenda. The PR campaign of the world's first COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, has failed and received criticism for insufficient evidence base.

Three main streams of risks to Russian image

The image of a county is both dependent on economic and political upheavals and quite persistent to intended pressure.  The image of the Russian Federation in the world leaves much to be desired since Russia and other countries, especially the USA and members of the EU, have a long history of reputational standoff. According to the statistics only 2% of publications in Western mass media sources related to Russia are positive. With the COVID-19 outbreak the fertile tit-for-tat reputational standoff spread to the new theatre of war, namely the vaccine one. Given all the tumble related to the pandemic countries strive not only to provide their population with aid but also to capitalize on this instrument in both political and economic ways. Following the desire to reap possible benefits countries should be “embattled” to face onslaughts which are not that easy to bypass. The possible risks to the image of Russian vaccines and the country itself split into 3 major streams:

1) risks imposed by the competitors;

2) international geopolitical risks;

3) domestic political risks.

The first stream is easy to comprehend since the more deals these companies clinch the more financial flaws go to a country in which they are registered. Amid the world pandemic countries have lost enormous sums of money and their potential: seizing the markets is one of the few instruments to muddle through the crisis. The range of these companies is still not that wide but the confrontation is intensive. One of most efficient instruments to question safety and efficiency of Russian vaccines is to use the so-called Notes of Concern expressed by scientific circles in highly respected journals like The Lancet. Most often they impugn the safety of these vaccines claiming that their temperature regime is far from the international standards and Russia has no special infrastructure and logistics to keep them frozen. The second concern deals with the lack of volunteer testing. Due to the peculiarities of Russian mentality concerning image-building the official response to these attacks is not commensurate with the harm. For example, after waves of such attacks Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology provided the Lancet with the test report but did not publish it in open sources which caused new accusations on the same grounds. The truth is that the technology used in Sputnik V based on adenovirus viral vector tool has a long history of medical practice while the European companies use some brand-new methods which should be tested with scrutiny. The main advantage of Russian vaccines is the reputation of the USSR and its medical achievements which left the necessary foundation for full cycle of production and supply of vaccines and Russian official and PR-experts tried to reflect this in the branding evoking associations with the first manned flight into space, which was also carried out by the Russian. At the same time, it is worth noting that the entire image potential is not used in the fight against competitors.

The second stream of image risks relates to the geopolitical interests of countries which produce or receive vaccines. First of all, the issue of vaccinating is used for legitimizing not popular political measures. It also provides countries with political loopholes. Under the pretext of the new COVID outbreak Russia suspended flights to Turkey though the true reason for it appears to be connected with the conflicts in the Caucasus. The vaccine issue was used as the reason for the visit of the President of Transnistria Vadim Krasnoselky to Moscow. He needed an official cause to have a meeting with Vladimir Putin. In Moscow he was met by other ministers which was the signal to the world that from now on this direction of Russian policy in Europe was no longer a priority. In other words, the vaccine issue provides decision-makers with an opportunity to pursue geopolitical interests without any specific damage to their image.  At the same time vaccines appear to be a soft belly which countries try to toy with. Since every statement can bring down stocks or derail deals, the international relations now look like a geopolitical tango more than ever as the new state image dimension has been added to the conventional ones, e.g., nuclear potential or space programs. Although Russia has successfully won the image of the creator of the first vaccine, it still has a long struggle for the image of the safest vaccine. Secondly, amid this COVID-19 outbreak countries can acquire an image of those international actors which seek to help other nations. When Germany and France refused to help Italy in May all the mass media sources rumbled that these countries were no longer reliable and committed to liberal values. Now such countries as India or Austria use this instrument to spread its clout in the world and to gain the status of the countries which contributed to suppressing the main danger of the 21st century. Russia appears to be trying to complete the same task but it has faced a significant obstacle: Western countries have been undermining the image of Russia for too long trying to impose a negative notion of Putin. Now people believe that Sputnik V is a novelty with clear political purpose to conquer the world. And although many countries themselves ask to supply them with vaccines this does not relieve Russia of such a harmful label.

The third stream of risks has an indirect impact on the country's image. Domestic policy of the country concerning vaccination provides mass media sources with news hooks which can affect the image of a country. For instance, the European countries started a vaccination campaign by vaccinating the older generation while Russia vaccinated the youth first. As a result, the proportion of deaths in the aftermath in Europe is much higher than in Russia. It goes without saying that some mass media sources saw a correlation between mortality rate and vaccination but only a few of them considered that statistically the older generation is much vulnerable. In sum, such a simple solution allowed Russia to avoid large reputational losses. Since we live in the world in which information disseminates at ferocious speed every step should be taken carefully. 


First, a country’s identity consisting of many intertwining elements is a basis of the complex concept of a state image. There is a wide range of image-building options for countries to choose from, except complete negligence of this aspect, because it might lead to potential economic, political, demographical costs. The world public space in a state image sphere is highly competitive, that is why a country has both to invest greatly in its perception by people and to quell threats caused by other actors.

Second, it is important to mention that Russia evolved surrounded by its mentality, Orthodoxy, permanent wars with aggressors, unique natural resources and geographical profile, poor self-identification of Russians along with the stable multi-ethnic population, the habit of living in poverty fostering high spirituality, and the combination of the acutely attuned sense of justice, political negligence, and tolerance of authorities.

Third, Russia’s response to coronavirus outbreak first received positive feedback from abroad. In foreign policy terms the country also respected its core documents and the rule of international law. However, later Western media greatly contributed to distorting the country’s image questioning the effectiveness of Sputnik V.

Forth, the coronavirus pandemic and vaccination issues can be both a blessing and a curse for a state image giving an impetus to image building process. Of course, Russian top officials realize that it is crucial not only to create the world’s best vaccine but also to overcome stereotypes against Russia and to prove itself. 


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  3. Goffman I. (1959) The presentation of self in everyday life. N.Y.: Garden City. 163 p.
  4. Kartseva N. Tri litsa Imidja, ili koye-chto ob iskusstve vnusheniya // Inostrannaya literature. 1971. №9. P. 229-234.
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  6. Lippman W. (1921) Public opinion. London: Transaction Publishers. 427 p.

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