On September 28, Vladimir Putin addressed the United Nations General Assembly for the first time in 10 years. The Russian president’s visit drew close attention from around the world and provoked intense media interest. The results of the trip, however, were quite modest. Imrussia.org editor-in-chief Olga Khvostunova examines the underlying reasons for Putin’s visit to New York.

 

Vladimir Putin last spoke at the UN in 2005. His speech, which focused on the need for joint efforts to fight terrorism, lasted less than five minutes. In 2015, Putin’s speech lasted about 20 minutes, and this time he accused the West of causing the Middle East crisis. Photo: Mikhail Mettsel / TASS

 

In today’s extremely media-driven world, the success of almost any event is determined by the delicate balance of two factors: objective quality and the accompanying publicity. A great deal of research has been conducted on the Kremlin’s propaganda toolbox, and many authors agree that the Kremlin’s spin doctors have mastered the art of managing narratives and creating agendas aimed at distracting the public’s attention away from reality and away from the objective quality of the Russian government’s policies.

Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to New York, where he addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations, serves as a good example of this approach. In the spring, hardly anyone could have imagined that Putin would have a meeting with Barack Obama. In fact, both parties expressed an aversion toward speaking face-to-face. And yet, in September, for the first time in over a year, they met. What changed?

It seems that this summer the Kremlin decided to alter its tactics in its relationship with the West. The plan of escalating tensions was put on hold. The reasons for this, regardless of what state Russian media say, are quite obvious: Western sanctions, low oil prices, and the country’s economic recession have left the Kremlin with insufficient room for maneuvering, undermined the comfortable living standard of the elites, and increased the risks for the regime. It was not possible, however, for the Kremlin simply to exit the situation quietly—especially after its annexation of Crimea and sponsorship of the war in the Donbass, as well as the overall chill in its relationship with the West. Besides, given Moscow’s tough anti-Western rhetoric, such a drastic shift in attitudes would look weak. And for the Kremlin’s spin doctors, public image is everything.

But again, why would Putin meet with the U.S. president? It is the United States that the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has been targeting most. The paradox is that, in accordance with old Soviet habit, the Russian government considers America to be its only real competitor on the international stage. The humiliation that many members of the elite (and most average Russians, for that matter) felt after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the fact that they never really acknowledged their defeat in the Cold War, has caused these feelings to transform into resentment toward and envy of the rival who was too fast to cross the former superpower off of its list of priorities. The anti-Western revanchist policy initiated by Putin and the elites has only led the country into the trap of post-Crimea isolation, however. It became clear that it is difficult to maintain the image of a superpower rising from its knees if the world’s key players slam the door of their elite club on you.

Under these circumstances, a simple request for a meeting with Obama would have been unthinkable for the Kremlin. The 70th UN General Assembly came in handy, giving Putin, who snubbed the event for the last 10 years, a unique opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. First, he could achieve a so-called “diplomatic breakthrough,” meaning to formally put an end to Russia’s isolation by offering a new agenda—in this case, assistance in resolving the Syria crisis and fighting the terrorists of the Islamic State. Second, and more importantly, Putin could score a meeting with the leader of the United States, the only country that matters for the Kremlin and the only country that it sees as a legitimate geopolitical rival.

The issue of how to implement these tactics was a mere technicality. The escalation of the European refugee crisis created a useful context for the Kremlin to pitch a new narrative. As hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Libya, and other countries poured into Europe, a continent already weakened by internal problems and disagreements, Putin seized the opportunity to announce his plan to create a new international coalition to fight terrorism and extremism. The Kremlin’s message was quite transparent: yes, the West is to blame in this crisis, but Russia is still willing to lend a helping hand—after all, we have always been peacemakers.

Judging by the increased attention from analysts and the media toward Russia, and by the shift in the world agenda, it seems that Putin has won this round of the media war with the West. The Kremlin’s PR experts know their domain well, adhering to Brendan Behan’s principle that “there is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.”

The next step of the Kremlin’s campaign involved engaging the media, which started receiving news about the Russian military buildup in Syria. Journalists and pundits passionately discussed the new narrative, voicing various ideas about what Putin’s secret plan in Syria might be. Having been in power for 15 years, Putin has developed a reputation as one of the most unpredictable world leaders, and in this case capitalizing on this image brought him great returns. The agenda offered by the Kremlin was picked up and blown out of proportion by the media. The Russian government’s spin doctors didn’t even have to make much of an effort: the public’s attention was quickly diverted from the Ukraine crisis.

Another part of the campaign was Putin’s interview with Charlie Rose on the primetime news show 60 Minutes. The Russian president was his usual self, giving provocative statements as if borrowed from a textbook on neuro-linguistic programming. The best example was the following: “In my opinion, provision of military support to illegal structures runs counter to the principles of modern international law and the United Nations Charter. We have been providing assistance to legitimate government entities only.” This was said by the man who, as many reports have shown, supported the military conflict in eastern Ukraine and sponsored pro-Kremlin separatists in the region. Essentially, it is a provocation aimed at paralyzing the interlocutor while he or she gasps for air, outraged by such a bald-faced lie. Putin tried to make sarcastic jokes as well, but in general he gave the impression of a cynical but pragmatic politician who can be dealt with. The interview might have served as an additional signal to the White House to supplement the work Russian diplomats had already been doing behind the scenes to organize a meeting with Obama.

It’s hard to say which component of the Kremlin’s campaign made the difference, but it’s doubtful that any part of it influenced Obama’s decision to hold a one-on-one meeting with Putin. The decision was most likely based on pragmatic reasons: the U.S. strategy in the Middle East is failing, and Russia has accumulated sufficient political capital and expertise in the region to be helpful in resolving the crisis. In other words, despite all the United States’ differences with Russia, the White House was ready to cooperate with the Kremlin when it came to fighting Islamic State.

If the real reason for Putin’s trip to New York was in fact to meet with Obama, it also explains why the Russian president’s speech at the General Assembly—which many observers expected to be a sensation of sorts—turned out so flat. (One can disregard the claims of the pro-Kremlin propagandists who called the speech a “triumph.”) The speech exuded the necessary level of anti-Western rhetoric, as expected, but nothing sensational or even new was said.

Putin met with Obama later that day behind closed doors. Though the meeting lasted longer than scheduled, little is known about what was discussed. It is known that the conversation was “very constructive” and “very frank,” but the two presidents did not agree on what role Syrian President Bashar Assad should have in the coalition’s fight against ISIS. The U.S. view is that Assad needs to leave, while Russia insists that he be an integral part of the coalition. As of now, the only result of the meeting was the decision to continue dialogue on the issue and for the Pentagon to open a channel of communication with Russia to coordinate airstrikes in Syria.

Despite the meeting’s modest results, the Kremlin’s spin doctors may be proud of the work. Judging by the increased attention from analysts and the media toward Russia, and by the shift in the world agenda, it seems that Putin has won this round of the media war with the West. The Kremlin’s PR experts know their domain well, adhering to Brendan Behan’s principle that “there is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.”

The Kremlin’s main problem, however, is its superficiality and obsession with appearances. In focusing on its public image, the Kremlin allocates enormous resources toward publicity instead of actual results. It is self-evident that a regime based on appearances has no future; the only question is how long it will last. Perhaps if the media participated less in the Kremlin’s manipulations, the process would be sped up.

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