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Lessons in communication from Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin has done it again, grabbing American and international attention with his New York Times op-ed cautioning the United States
Russia's President Vladimir Putin, June 18, 2013.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has done it again, grabbing American and international attention with his New York Times op-ed cautioning the United States against the use of force in Syria, and scolding America for considering itself exceptional. Putin’s piece has been met with surprise and outrage in the U.S., but its basic message has resonated with groups opposed to a unilateral U.S. strike against regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Putin has put himself right where he wants to be, at the top of the headlines on Syria, and writing the script for where the United States will have to take the crisis next: Back to the United Nations.

President Putin has claimed penmanship of the opinion piece—putting himself (not his PR team) firmly on the record. This is a risky move if the message backfires. Putin could have had Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, or Russia’s Ambassador in the United States, Sergey Kislyak, author this provocative communiqué. But the message would not have been so strong, and Putin is particularly proud of two skills he honed back in his days as a KGB operative: “working with” or “communicating with people,” and “working with information.” In the KGB, Putin learned how to identify, recruit and run agents, and how to acquire the patience to cultivate sources. He also learned how to collect, synthesize and utilize information. These skills were key to Putin’s career. As the leader of Russia, he has scaled them up to deal with everyone who comes his way.

Working with people is sometimes carried out in a very superficial way. Over the last several years, Putin and his PR teams have pitched him as everything from big game hunter and conservationist to scuba diver to biker—even nightclub crooner. His political performances portray Putin as the ultimate Russian action man. Like the New York Times op-ed, Putin claims he thinks these publicity stunts up himself to communicate with a particular constituency —even those, like his star turn as a crane in a microlite aircraft leading a migrating flock of endangered birds back home, that have been met with public derision.

Putin has perfected other political performances to appeal to different audiences. He does not like wading into unpredictable crowds out on the stump. He avoids multi-hour speeches from the podium. Instead, he relishes answering a question or sparring with a political opponent in front of a live audience, without notes or a teleprompter. Since 2000, Putin has become a master at communicating with ordinary Russians and a TV studio audience in a marathon Q&A session (the so-called annual “Hotline”); with international experts and journalists in the Valdai Discussion Club (which will take place in Russia next week); and world leaders at meetings like the recent G20 summit in St. Petersburg. These are all highly-orchestrated formats. He is in control of the setting and the message.

Putin has made a number of forays into punditry, publishing several articles in Russian newspapers. In December 1999, he set the scene for his first presidential term in a lengthy treatise, the so-called “Millennium Message.” In this piece, Putin promised to restore the Russian state by reclaiming Russia’s fundamental values and re-energizing its historical traditions. Putin established himself as a classically Russian conservative politician who would not blindly copy Western models. He has stuck to that initial vision throughout his time in office. Putin published no less than seven extensive newspaper articles as part of his 2012 presidential election campaign. These promoted his political platform for the next phase of his presidency, repackaging many of his earlier ideas for a new generation of Russian voters.

Putin has not confined his writings to domestic politics. This is not the first time he has engaged an international or U.S. audience. He has written op-eds before major bilateral summits or international events where he wants to turn a relationship around or stress a particular Russian policy interest. Since he re-took the presidency, in May last year, Putin has been published in De Telegraaf (Netherlands), The Hindu (India), the Wall Street Journal Asia, El Universal (Mexico) and Remin Ribao (China). Nor is this the first time Putin has been in the opinion pages of the New York Times. The last time was many years ago, also because of intervention in a civil war––in Chechnya.

Back in November 1999, as Prime Minister of Russia, Putin wrote an article, “Why We Must Act,” explaining to the United States that Moscow had launched another military campaign in Chechnya to respond to acts of terrorism. In this piece, Putin praised the United States for its own strikes against terrorists. He noted that “when a society’s core interests are besieged by violent elements, responsible leaders must respond.” He called for the “understanding of our friends abroad” for Russia’s action in Chechnya. The general message was conciliatory, if not apologetic.

How times and Vladimir Putin’s tone have changed since then! The 1999 opinion piece was written two years before the devastating terrorist attacks of 9/11 on American soil. The 2013 opinion piece was issued on the very day of the 12th anniversary, and Putin is now arguing forcefully against a U.S. military response in the Syrian civil war.

Putin’s audience for the 2013 article is the same as his intended audience  was in 1999. He is communicating and debating with the U.S. President and White House, Congress and the foreign policy elite, not the American people at large. He is using a very particular (and highly-orchestrated) format—an opinion editorial in the U.S. “paper of record.” His goal is to communicate strong disagreement with an American presidential position on an issue of great importance to Russian national interests. In a 1999 bilateral meeting, President Clinton criticized Russia’s conduct in Chechnya. Putin was determined to crush Chechnya’s rebellion. He set out to refute Clinton’s arguments by highlighting the United States’ own principles and actions in similar circumstances. In his 2013 live address to the nation, President Obama made the case for a U.S. military strike against the Assad regime. Putin is equally determined to stop the United States from intervening. Putin pushed the American president’s case and words right back at him; and he reformulated and packaged many of the arguments made by opponents of a U.S. strike.

Putin’s communication is also aimed at his domestic audience. The Kremlin and Russian media have consistently portrayed the Syrian civil war as a fight for the future of the Middle East with serious consequences for Russia. In all the official Russian commentary, a U.S. strike is viewed as an unmitigated disaster. In Moscow, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, despite his flaws, is proffered as Russia’s last bastion against an extremist-dominated Middle East and complete chaos. Russian TV generally presents Syrian rebels as barbaric Muslim extremists. They are demagogues, not democrats. The rebels are linked to the terrorists who operated in Chechnya and could attack Russia again. The West is seen as backing them, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. If Assad falls, some Russian commentators predict the United States and its allies will move against Iran.

Prior to the Aug. 21 chemical assault on Syrian civilians in the Damascus suburbs, Putin and the Kremlin denied Assad had chemical weapons. They then shifted gears to blame the rebels, not the regime, for using them—an assertion Putin made again in his New York Times article. As Moscow-based researcher Anton Barbashin notes, on all the major Russian TV channels, the United States is depicted as: “trying to play the same number [on Syria] they did with … Libya, sanction one thing in the UN, but do much more. That’s why it is [seen as] critical to stop them from doing anything.” Against this backdrop, even Russian opposition figures have referred to any prospective U.S. military action outside the mandate of the United Nations as American “aggression” against Syria.

Putin’s article communicates all the arguments he and others in Russia have been making for months. This is his treatise on the Syrian question and his frame for the next phase of the crisis––no more spontaneous unilateral U.S. moves, only international diplomacy and a return to highly-orchestrated formats in Geneva and the UN. The Kremlin wants to make sure that President Obama’s turn to Congress is viewed in Russia (and globally) as a victory for commonsense and a blow to America’s geopolitical aims. Ultimately, if Washington now rejects the current approach to the Syrian conflict, Putin is making sure he can lay the blame (as one Russian politician put it): “fully on the conscience of U.S. President Barack Obama.”