The ‘soft power’ role of science in international conflict

Science does not exist in a vacuum. The effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are felt everywhere, on a global scale – and the academic community is no exception.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it, the bipolar world opened the doors for globalisation – the formation of planet-wide entanglements, knowing no borders. Economic, social, cultural, and importantly, scientific bonds were formed – and in no time, they were relied on heavily by the international community. However, by the 2000s, it was clear that global political trends aren’t indicating the dominance of western-style liberal democracies (Lewitsky & Way, 2015). While global ties continued to form, it became more and more evident that the interests of major political actors may not be compatible.

This incompatibility reached a breaking point in February 2022, when Russia attacked Ukraine. Western states – and especially the European Union, being in close geographical proximity to the conflict – needed to act. However, a direct military confrontation would have led to dire consequences. Hence, the tool that remained in the hands of the EU is a pair of metaphorical scissors, that can be used to cut the ties woven by globalisation in the last decade, many of which is thought to be precious for Russia – and thus exercise its so-called ‘soft power’.

Power – ‘soft’ and ‘hard’

Power is an exceptionally important concept of international relations – it decides which international actor can exert its will and it can be an instrument of deterrence. However, power is multifaceted. Upon hearing about a nation’s power, many may associate to military strength – it’s so-called “hard power”. However, relying on hard power in contemporary international conflict is very problematic, as global systems of alliances can escalate such a direct conflict, and easily trigger ‘mutually assured destruction’ (Deudney, 1983).

Hence, a new sort of power arose – one that relies on the valuable international ties instead of on firepower. One that intends to impair the opposing side not by destruction or violence, but by crippling its economy, diplomacy and innovation, and put it into a situation where it makes favourable decisions, instead of coercing those decisions by the barrel of a gun. This, so called soft power (Nye, 2004), utilises diplomacy, economy, culture and science – and it is used in a yet unprecedentedly coordinated way today, to try and make Russia cease violence.

Science as soft power

We see coordinated actions, and sanctions against Russia utilising soft power on European, national, and institutional levels. Involved in these, among many others, are Horizon Europe’s suspension of cooperation with Russia, the CERN severing ties with its Russian counterparts or Germany instructing its institutions to halt scientific projects across the two countries. But how exactly could breaking up scientific connections could contribute to co-opting Russia?

The withdrawal of funding and scientific innovation has straightforward disadvantages for a country, as money and development stops flowing into the economy, that ultimately supports military action. However, scientific collaboration also leverages soft power on a more abstract level, in the field of science-diplomacy (Turekian, et al. 2015). Scientific and higher education institutions often serve as a support or even as a foundation for larger scale cooperation by helping the formation of diplomatic ties, increasing prestige of institutions and countries, and generating “educational leverage”. Exploiting such leverages may be very useful in co-opting international actors (Ostashova, 2020).

Scientific ties also bear symbolic powers (Adamson & Lalli, 2021). Publicly denouncing actions, or expressing solidarity generates exposure, and helps to influence public opinion. This is not to reduce science to a simple tool to sway polls – quite the opposite: to acknowledge that science has more than direct influence on its subjects, it has the potential to move masses.

Policy infrastructure to ‘keep science going’

While seeing scientific bonds breaking because of global politics and conflicts is regretful, it is important to note that there are policy initiatives aimed not only at the disruption, but also at the continuation of scientific projects. The EU fully utilises the existing infrastructure of its “EURAXESS – Researchers in Motion” initiative, which can grant access to 600+ scientific and academic centres for Ukrainian scientists whose research was interrupted by the war. In addition, as a consequence of the war, it is likely that science-policy collaboration will be further emphasised. Scientific advice will be needed to help implement and innovate alternative energy sources in the process of reducing the EU’s dependence on Russian energy, as well as to come up with effective reserve storage mechanisms.

The turbulent global political landscape effects science without a doubt. Adopting to these changes will be the priority of scientific communities, and the science policy interface, possibly even beyond the scope of this conflict.

Marton Kottmayer
EuChemS Science Communication & Policy Officer



Adamson, M., & Lalli, R. (2021). “Global perspectives on science diplomacy: Exploring the diplomacy‐knowledge nexus in contemporary histories of science”. Centaurus, 63(1), pp. 1–16.
Deudney, D. (1983). Whole earth security : a geopolitics of peace. Washington: Worldwatch Institute. p. 80
Levitsky, S., & Way, L. (2015). “The Myth of Democratic Recession”. Journal of Democracy, 26(1), pp. 45–58.
Nye, J. S. (2004). Soft Power: the means to success in world politics. Public Affairs: New York
Ostashova, Y. (2020) “Higher Education as a Soft Power Tool of State’s Foreign Policy”. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, 489, pp. 259-265
Turekian, V. C. et al. (2015) The emergence of science diplomacy. In: Davis L. S., Patman R. G. (eds.) Science diplomacy: new day or false dawn? World Scientific Publishing: Singapore, pp. 3–24