The Russian president's recent Western media blitz is aimed at winning over an audience of one: Donald Trump.
- By Matthew BodnerMatthew Bodner is a journalist with The Moscow Times.
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t stay on the defensive for very long.
When NBC News anchor Megyn Kelly pushed Putin to address allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election during a one-on-one interview that aired this past Sunday, he quickly fired back. “I don’t want to offend anyone,” Putin said, “but the United States, everywhere, all over the world, is actively interfering in electoral campaigns in other countries. Is this really news to you?”
Kelly pointed out that this response felt like a justification. But Putin held his course. It wasn’t a justification, he explained, but a statement of fact. “Each action invites an appropriate counteraction,” he said. Not that that means Russia did it. “Even if we wanted to,” he added, “it wouldn’t make any sense for us to interfere.”
The entire episode was vintage Putin: slightly condescending, often arrogant, and blatantly unapologetic. He seemed entirely unconcerned with convincing Western audiences of his innocence, repeatedly falling back on jokes and anecdotes that fell flat in translation (he compared anti-Russian sentiment in the United States to anti-Semitism, for instance, during a panel moderated by Kelly at the recent St. Petersburg International Economic Forum).
A charm offensive it wasn’t. Nor was it received as such. In one Bloomberg column, for instance, the Russian president was accused of mansplaining; other coverage called Putin “combative.” “You can sense that the Kremlin’s public relations team didn’t invest much effort and creative thinking in making Putin’s message attractive or understandable to the Western audience,” said Alexander Gabuev, a foreign-policy expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center and former deputy editor of news magazine Kommersant-Vlast, in an interview with Foreign Policy.
But Putin also wasn’t trying to win over the West, analysts said. The Kelly interview was just the latest in a Kremlin media blitz aimed at an audience of one: Donald Trump.
Despite all the pro-Moscow talk during the campaign, U.S.-Russian relations under the new American president are arguably worse than under Barack Obama, when Washington and its European allies imposed sanctions on Moscow for the 2014 annexation of Crimea. On nearly every count, Russia has been disappointed: Sanctions are holding and show no real signs of being lifted. The two have yet to find common cause in Syria. In spite of dire predictions, Trump has done little to please Putin.
Although the two sides have worked to establish regular channels of communications — diplomatic visits, phone calls, and working groups have been established — efforts to pursue a reset in relations have fallen apart amid the growing investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties taking place in Washington. And so, the Kremlin has turned to using the Western press to convey messages of support to Trump — often via previously rare appearances from the Russian president himself.
“Trump clearly enjoys public gestures of support and can be easily manipulated through this simple technique,” Vladimir Frolov, a Russian foreign-policy analyst, said in an interview.
In 2016, Putin only gave two sit-down interviews to foreign reporters. He has already given five interviews in the past four weeks, with another major interview to come. In each, he echoes Trump’s own defenses against allegations of collusion with Russia. When Trump accuses the Western media of hysteria and bias, Putin swoops in to back him up when no one else will.
This media onslaught began on May 10, less than 24 hours after news broke that Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey.
As Putin walked out of a locker room in Sochi to play in an annual hockey match, he ran into his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, and CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer. It was all meant to look casual and coincidental, but the prospect of the Russian president spontaneously chatting with a Western reporter is unlikely indeed; Putin’s image is carefully cultivated domestically, and random encounters with Western reporters are almost unheard of.
The brief chat with CBS was Putin’s first with a major international news organization in 2017. Palmer stuck Putin with an obvious question: How will the firing of Comey influence U.S.-Russian relations? “There will be no effect,” Putin said before complaining that the question was “strange.”
“Don’t be angry with me,” Putin told Palmer. “We have nothing to do with that.”
Trump was acting in full accordance with the U.S. Constitution, the Russian president said, and then excused himself. “You see, I’m going to play hockey with the hockey fans,” he said. “I invite you to do the same.” (Putin’s team won the match 17-6, with the Russian president scoring six goals with five assists.)
His second interview came three weeks later, while visiting Paris to meet French President Emmanuel Macron. In an interview with Le Figaro, he parroted Trump by brushing off allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election as an attempt by “those who lost the U.S. elections to improve their standing by accusing Russia of interfering.”
Last week, he was interviewed once by Bloomberg and twice by NBC’s Kelly in St. Petersburg.
In each interview, Putin has taken the opportunity to express public support for Trump. He has pledged to share with the U.S. Congress notes of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s meeting with Trump in the Oval Office to demonstrate that there was no information shared inappropriately; he has accused Democrats of using allegations against Russian hackers as cover for their own shortcomings; and he has attacked the U.S. media for being biased.
The media campaign will culminate in a four-night grand finale in mid-June, when American network Showtime will air filmmaker Oliver Stone’s The Putin Interviews, which were filmed earlier this year. The Stone interviews are likely to be telling. In a preview released June 1, Stone and Putin are seen chatting about U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden as the Russian president casually drives a car. Putin tells Stone that he doesn’t approve of Snowden leaking classified information, asserting that the former spook should have quietly resigned if he disagreed with what the security services were up to.
“The message to Trump is the same here: ‘I am of the same blood as you. I cannot stand leaks and leakers,’” Frolov argued. “It’s an invitation to bond, an invitation to a mutual love fest at the upcoming G-20 summit.”
Although the Kremlin’s media blitz is primarily aimed at wooing Trump, analysts point out that the campaign serves other important audiences: primarily Western leaders and Russia’s own domestic constituency. Putin is showing leaders like Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that their efforts to isolate and alter his behavior are futile, that he will persevere.
“After the election of Trump in the U.S. and a change of leadership in many key European countries, there is a sense that a new window of opportunity has emerged,” Gabuev argued. “Putin wants to show that he’s not isolated, that he can travel and be received in Western capitals, and that he can deliver his message freely.”
This plays well with both the Russian people and political elite. Putin’s combative appearances in the Western media bolster his image at home of being a strong and independent leader. They also boost the illusion that Putin is tolerant of tough questioning from the media, even though he hasn’t done a major interview with independent Russian newspapers in years.
“The only way for him to appear challenged is to talk to Western journalists,” Gabuev said.
The Kremlin’s focus on Trump as the primary target of its foreign messaging does signal something of a change in approach. In the past, Moscow has gone to great efforts to try to sell the Western public on its way of thinking. This was, after all, the purpose of launching RT, the lavishly funded international propaganda outlet, in 2005.
In the past two years, the Russian government has attempted foreign messaging more directly. A noteworthy example was the Defense Ministry’s English-language debut on social media in October 2015, shortly after Putin sent his air force to intervene in the Syrian civil war. For the first time ever, the Russian military was running English-language Twitter and Facebook accounts, giving daily updates of its aerial campaign in Syria.
The Foreign Ministry, too, has become more aggressive in pushing Russian talking points abroad. But these efforts have not shown signs of convincing Western publics or policymakers of Russia’s good intentions. Ultimately, they served more to bolster the two ministries’ standing at home. And Putin’s current media blitz suggests Russia has stopped trying.
“In reality, Putin stopped calibrating his message for Western audiences in 2008 after the war in Georgia,” Gabuev said, which marked a profound split between Russia and the West after a period of warming under President George W. Bush. Since then, Putin has increasingly focused on promoting his own narrative at home without trying to make it convincing abroad. But none of this truly matters, argued Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian foreign and security policy at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, since people will interpret the messages according to their own bias.
“Public outings like this are essentially clouds to which we ascribe shapes,” Galeotti said. The appearances only matter when orchestrated to promote a compelling wider narrative, and the Kremlin simply isn’t doing that. “I can’t help thinking, based on all his public appearances in the past couple of years, that Putin’s heart is no longer in it.”
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