20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles that are focused upon the operation of the propaganda machine within the system of power constructed by Vladimir Putin. In the first installment, IMR experts analyzed “domestic” propaganda, aimed at sustaining the popularity of the regime and its leader among Russian voters. Part two of the series studies "foreign" propaganda—that is, building a positive image of the Kremlin abroad. Despite the destruction of the USSR, many Soviet style mechanisms of propaganda have been recently reengaged. Still, new methods of propaganda have also been developed.


The Kremlin lacks new ideas and, therefore, its propaganda machine engages the Soviet style clichés to create images of the "foreign enemy".


Some may find it surprising, but it is not only “imperialist propaganda that sticks its tentacles into <…> our country” [1]. Since Vladimir Putin took office, the Kremlin has been increasingly engaged in expanding its formidable “information” and public relations activities throughout the world. The Heritage Foundation (2012) estimates that in 2010 alone, the Russian government allocated $1.4 billion for international propaganda.


Soviet Legacy

The Heritage Foundation experts believe that Russia’s current vision of “soft power” has remained practically unchanged since the Soviet period and consists of, above all else, the idea of strengthening Russia’s international influence while weakening the influence of the United States. Quite a few experts and analysts suggest that in many respects Russian propaganda is based on the principles of anti-Westernism and anti-Americanism.

For example, in her book Lonely Power: Why Russia Has Failed to Become the West and the West is Weary of Russia, Lilia Shevtsova suggests that Russian official propaganda has not changed significantly since the Soviet era. Old ideas still dominate Russia’s politics: “Americans cannot be trusted, Americans are guilty; Americans are hypocritical; and the Americans are a threat!” [2]. As Lev Gudkov pointed out, creating a feeling of external threat is an effective means to consolidate society: "The specter of an enemy is an extremely powerful means for creating internal cohesiveness and, solidarity with the authorities. As soon as this image of the enemy gets formed <…> there emerges a powerful mechanism for consolidation on the basis of the principle “us vs. them” and America becomes the main villain."

In Putin’s Russia, it took quite a few years to develop a relatively broad “soft power” strategy to fight the “villain” and create a favorable image for itself in the international arena. Indeed, elements of this strategy are still being developed.

“Creating a positive perception of Russia abroad” has been identified as one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities according to “The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation,” approved by Vladimir Putin on June 28, 2000. In addition, the Concept emphasized the importance of “developing Russia’s own means of influencing public opinion abroad.” In 2004, speaking at the meeting of Russian ambassadors and permanent representatives of the Russian Federation, Putin declared that there existed “deliberate campaigns to discredit” Russia and emphasized the importance of creating a positive image for the country.


Propaganda Tools

In 2005, a significant step was taken to advance the President’s policy when it was decided to launch an informational TV channel Russia Today (RT). According to the ambitious plans of RT’s founders, the new media project was to compete with prominent international channels, such as CNN International and BBC World. Mikhail Seslavinsky, head of the Russian Federal Agency for Print and Mass Media, pointed out that the main objective of the new channel is to create a positive image of Russia abroad. Today, RT, which broadcasts in English, Spanish, and Arabic, serves as the Kremlin’s main weapon of soft power.


RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan (right) is one of the most valuable assets of the Kremlin's propaganda toolkit (on the photo she appears with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev).


Interestingly, at the initial stage, the idea that the channel should serve as a propaganda tool in which the Kremlin would participate was ostensibly rejected. Despite those claims, however, the Kremlin assigned monitors to the project: Alexey Gromov, Assistant to the President; Mikhail Lesin, Advisor to the President; Russian Information Agency (RIA) Novosti, the founder of RT. Moreover, funds from the state budget were allocated to support the new channel. At first, Russia Today received $30 million. In the following years, the government’s support of RT grew and RT expanded its reach. In 2007, RT’s budget grew to $90 million, in 2008—$150 million, and in 2012—to more than $200 million.

In the words of RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, “[w]e fully support our country’s foreign policy.” In many respects, RT’s “support” consists of creating a rather idealistic picture of Putin’s Russia, in contrast to an America drowning in poverty and crime, facing continuous class struggle, and ruled by ruthless corporations. Not surprisingly, in the best tradition of propaganda, the focus puts a particular spin on the events it covers. For example, although RT informed the audience about the protests in Russia, it created the impression that nothing serious was happening. Everything was under control of the authorities, who have their hand on the pulse of the citizens’ needs and, as usual, out of concern for ordinary citizens, reacted sensitively to public discontent by “liberaliz[ing] the political system and strengthen[ing] the democratic process.”

On the other hand, protests in the UK and the United States received significantly greater coverage, which is quite consistent with the tactics chosen by official Russia: “What right do you have to criticize us? Look at what is happening in your country!” (See the recent article “Kremlin Diplomacy, Soviet-Style: Putin’s Russia Revives ‘Look Who’s Talking’ Routine” by Vladimir Kara-Murza.) This tactic, to a large extent, defines the direction of RT’s work and its reaction to external irritants.

According to the ambitious plans of RT’s founders, their project was to compete with CNN International and BBC World. The main objective of the new channel is to create a positive image of Russia abroad.

RT has a hard time dealing with criticism of its anti-Americanism. In one particular example, NPR commented on RT’s “extremely confrontational stance when it comes to US ." In reaction, RT responded that "[w]hile RT is delighted to be recognized by NPR, their choice of expert used to profile the channel raises some questions about NPR’s own stake in the media war.” In the words of Edward Lucas, International Section Editor of The Economist: "I think one of Russia Today's big strengths is the West is in a mess, there is no doubt about it. They love any sign of protest and systemic weakness in the West is great for them. The core of Russia Today is anti-Westernism <...> you get these kind of silly stories about pets that can talk and just ludicrous sort of feel good stories, while turning a complete blind eye to the, I would say, rather more serious problems such as lack of democracy, rule of law, collapsing infrastructure and the rest of it in Russia itself.

In general, a “shiny updated version of Soviet propaganda” is built on the basis of contrasting effects. For example, a recent article on the “Voice of America” website describes RT’s views in the following way: “Turkey bad—Syria good; <…> shale gas bad—Gazprom good; <…> U.S. bad—USSR good.” RT’s choice of experts and analysts who are invited to share their opinions with the channel’s audience is not haphazard. These are mostly individuals critical (or hostile) to the US official agenda (e.g., Lyndon LaRouche, Julian Assange, Lawrence Freeman, Lawrence Korb).

In 2012, Vladimir Putin ordered that “full support” be given to the budget requests of the All-Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), Russia Today, and Rossiyskaya Gazeta. It is expected that in 2013 approximately $355 million will be allocated to RT. As Novaya Gazeta points out, “… on the external front, inside the enemy trenches, it is television, not radio, aimed at a foreign audience that is important.” (With Putin’s approval, the budget of “Voice of Russia” has been cut.)

With the President’s support and an allocation of $156 million in funds in 2013, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, has become another key player in the information structure. In Russia, Rossiyskaya Gazeta plays a crucial role in the government information propagation. Abroad, it is a powerful tool “strengthening the image of the Russian Federation” (Federal Agency for Print and Mass Media, 2012). Since 2007, as part of the project Russia Beyond the Headlines (RBTH), Rossiyskaya Gazeta has published monthly supplements in 21 leading foreign publications.


Russia Beyond the Headlines aims at creating and maintaining the "correct" image of Russia in different parts of the world.


According to recent studies, some 42% of the readers of the foreign newspapers in which the supplements are published, look through RBTH paying particular attention to such sections as politics and economics. In many respects, the content of Rossiyskaya Gazeta reflects Russia’s official agenda. For example, a year ago, the supplement to the largest German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, featured an article about Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In the words of Ulrich Schmid of the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the article is reminiscent of the Russian media’s “journalistic execution” of Russia’s number one political prisoner. In the article, Khodorkovsky is painted in the darkest colors as a Komsomol apparatchik, cynical businessman, and an interpreter of the Bible.


Foreign Agents

Key components of the Kremlin propaganda machine are the global PR-agencies that started to work with Russia in the Putin era. Since 2006 one of the leading PR-agencies in the world—Ketchum—was employed to build a better reputation for Russia. In addition, Russia signed an agreement with Ketchum’s sister-company—GPlus Europe—which was to address the same problems in the European market as did Ketchum in the United States.


In 2007, Time Magazine choice was brought about by the efficient work of Ketchum PR specialists.


According to the Financial Times, in 2006, the PR-agencies faced a uniquely complex challenge—to win approval of Russia’s work in the G8 at a time when the international community became increasingly concerned with Russia’s repression of democracy and its oil and gas policy.

Ketchum’s first contract was signed with the Russian bank Evrofinance Mosnarbank for consulting and communication services during the period of Russia’s G8 Presidency. Ketchum’s services were to include: arranging interviews with members of the media, media coverage of the G8 Summit, supporting Russia’s press-center at the summit, preparing press-releases, and arranging meetings with leading international relations experts. In addition, Ketchum was to advance the key themes of Russia’s G8 Presidency: energy security, fighting infectious diseases, and education. The initial amount paid for Ketchum’s services during the period April to December 2006 was estimated to be $2 million. (U.S. Department of Justice)

Close work with Ketchum continued after that. For example, in 2007, Russia signed an $845,000 contract with Ketchum Inc. and The Washington Group for the period January 2007 to February 28, 2007. The PR agencies’ major tasks included assisting Russia’s representatives in establishing and expanding relations with the governments and the media from WTO countries (particularly those who are G8 members). They were to present Russia as a country with a favorable investment climate and capable of influencing WTO positively upon its accession. In the same year, a $1.2 million contract between Ketchum and Gazprom Export was signed to help the Russian company to “communicate with the media.”

All the Kremlin's ideas share a common way of expressing its approach—if everything is properly explained to foreigners, Russia’s reputation will start improving dramatically.

In 2007, Ketchum lobbied Time Magazine to select Putin as its Person of the Year. A year later, the conflict in Georgia took priority and brought new challenges. Ketchum and other influential supporters of Russia, were tasked with winning support for the Russian version of how the war in Georgia began and Russia’s decision to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

According to The New Times, for two years the total amount of contract payments to Ketchum and The Washington Group reached about $8 million. The Kommersant newspaper, relying on “different sources,” estimates that the total for all contracts was between 4 and 10 million dollars. According to the most recent information, in the first six moths of 2012, Russia paid $359,000 for Ketchum's services.

In his book The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, Angus Roxburgh, British journalist and a consultant for Ketchum in Russia, writes about Ketchum’s work with the representatives from Russia. According to Roxburgh, Ketchum frequently encountered difficulty dealing with Russian officials. As the author points out, the problems occurred because the Russians did not have a clear understanding of how the foreign mass media operates; in their view, the journalists had to "write whatever the newspaper owners or government tell them to write" [3]. Another challenge was the lack of openness and trust. There often emerged situations, where Ketchum, without having clear instructions, was requested to draft an article for one of the ministers and, after the article was finished, they completely rewrote it.


At this year Valdai Club meeting Russian and foreign policy experts discussed problems of the Russian economy development. But President Vladimir Putin, who also participated in the discussion, was not eager to take their advice.


Ketchum’s services were supposed to prepare an “exciting” narrative that would “help the [Russian] government tell its story of economic growth and opportunity for its citizens.” In another attempt to secure greater sympathy from influential foreigners, Russia, in 2004, created the Valdai International Discussion Club, which arranges exclusive meetings among Russian and international experts in history, politics, and international relations.

Annual meetings of the Valdai Club organized by RIA Novosti are attended by the leading foreign journalists, scholars, and analysts who specialize in Russia. At the meeting, they spend considerable time with Russian politicians and political scientists. The main goal of the meetings is to strengthen support for the Russian regime and Vladimir Putin; it is believed that this goal can be advanced if foreign guests have an opportunity to talk in person with Russian politicians and get information directly from the source.

Lilia Shevtsova calls the Valdai Club “another example of the Kremlin’s policy of co-optation” [2]. For example, at the Valdai Club conference in 2008, it was critical for the Russian government to put an end to to its international isolation that resulted from the Caucasus war and its recognition of South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s independence. According to Roxburgh, the Kremlin had to do much more than just “retouch its image;” it was necessary to secure at least some degree of support from the foreign guests, and, to use Roxburgh’s words, the participants “did not let them down” [3]. Alexander Rahr, a well-known German political scientist (and, more recently, a senior advisor on Russian matters for Wintershall Holding) surmised, after listening to Putin’s and Medvedev’s emotional addresses to the Club’s gathering, that 80% of the participants supported Russia’s position.

Since 2004, Russia arranges exclusive meetings among Russian and international experts in history, politics, and international relations through the activities of Valdai International Discussion Club. Still, some analysts consider it as the institute of "blatant propaganda."

The Valdai Club is often considered as the institute of “blatant propaganda.” Commenting on his participation in the Valdai Club conference, Andrew Kuchins, Director of the Russia and Eurasia Programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: "My head is spinning after a week in Russia as a guest of the Valdai Club, one of the most effective Kremlin PR projects. I came away with the impression that the Kremlin boss is like the Wizard of Oz, who is revered and feared, but who actually is improvising desperately, pulling various levers in the vague hope that his efforts will be effective" [2].

The participants at a recent Valdai gathering held in October 2012 felt that the conference was “boring” and that no serious questions were discussed. The meeting turned out to revolve around Putin’s lectures on the economic situation in Russia. When the political analysts attempted to present a variety of scenarios for Russia’s development, Putin said that “the state has been developing in a proper way" and no discussion followed.” Rahr suggested that despite the efforts, the majority of participants left with a “negative feeling about their visit since, compared to the West, all is not well with democracy and individual liberty in Russia.”


"Soft Power" Russia Style

Russia continues to pursue new avenues to expand its influence abroad. Early this year, the media reported that the Kremlin had purchased RTVi channel, “the only large independent international channel broadcasting in Russian,” owned by Vladimir Gusinsky. Before the name of the new owner became public, the state-owned media-holding Zvezda was identified as one of the potential buyers. It turned out, however, that the new owner would be Ruslan Sokolov, former general director of the Zvezda channel. Sokolov claimed that he had not sought the Kremlin’s approval for this purchase and “had not even thought about doing it.” As the new owner of the channel stated quite a few times, “ [the purchase] was purely a business project.” for him.


After Ruslan Sokolov (right) bought RTVi from Vladimir Gusinsky, he said that he did it to "improve" the channel's work. Head of Rossotrudnichestvo Konstantin Kosachev (left) says that he doesn't understand why Russia's international reputation is deteriorating.


However, many questions about this being a “purely business project” arose when the RTVi journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza was fired and deprived of his accreditation. Many commentators are of the opinion that RTVi could become another Kremlin media project à la RT. This seems especially likely given Sokolov’s statement: “I am always willing to be helpful to the authorities and the state.” The authorities can only welcome Sokolov’s eagerness to help.

Another Kremlin tool for advancing Russia’s “soft power” initiatives, one that has become more noticeably active, is the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Cultural Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo). It was established by presidential decree in 2008. Currently, Rossotrudnichestvo operates in 76 countries maintaining 50 centers of science and culture. Konstantin Kosachev, head of the agency, expects to expand the presence of Rossotrudnichestvo to 104 countries and 140-150 centers by 2020. Among the main activities of Rossotrudnichestvo are strengthening ties to Russians living abroad, organizing visits of young leaders from foreign countries to Russia, and spreading Russian language and culture. The latter activity is conducted in collaboration with the Russkiy Mir Foundation and the International Association of Teachers of Russian Language and Literature.

When the RTVi journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza was fired and deprived of his accreditation, many questions about Ruslan Sokolov's purchase of RTVi being a "purely business project" arose. Especially, since Sokolov is a former general director of the Zvezda channel run by the Ministry of Defense.

At the September meeting of Rossotrudnichestvo’s representatives abroad, Prime-Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated that “insufficient investment” into Russian projects results in “damage in terms of image and reputation.” Kosachev, in his turn, complained that, “Russia’s reputation and image in the world is, alas, significantly worse than the reality in our country. There is a sort of presumption of Russia’s guilt.” In Kosachev’s opinion, it is essential to develop a concept of “soft power,” which should be based on three key principles: equal partnership, security, and willingness to respect the sovereignty of other countries.

Kosachev also believes that there is an inconsistency in the propaganda efforts pursued by Russian organizations and the media. This situation, however, is likely to change: an analytical document, “Russia’s 'Soft Power' in the New Millennium: The Existing Potential and Perspectives for Development” (2012) points out that “among Rossotrudnichestvo’s key objectives is the coordination of international propaganda efforts.”


Image Is Everything

The September meeting of Rossotrudnichestvo representatives to foreign countries considered the following: search for a new PR-agency; return to the Soviet propaganda structure; extensive utilization of social media, and more. Kommersant reports that, “all these seemingly different ideas share a common way of expressing their approach—if everything is properly explained to foreigners, Russia’s reputation will start improving dramatically.” In Kosachev’s view, it is strange that the international audience cannot rid itself of the “myths about Russia which still persist in the world,” even though Russia started explaining to this audience what the truth is—in their own language—as early as in the mid-2000s.


As Erast Galimov, general director of Izvestia Publishing House, asserts, Russia's image is only a reflection of reality, which can be amended. But as Chinese experience has demonstrated, major investments into strategic projects, such as the Olympic Games in Beijing or 24-hour television channels broadcasting abroad, will not bring the desired results if the efforts are inconsistent with domestic realities.


Under current conditions in Russia, is it possible to build a positive image of the country by strengthening the attacking capacity of the propaganda machine? Erast Galumov, Director General of the Izvestia publishing house, once suggested that, “image is not reality, but, rather, its reflection, which can be made positive.” Following this line of argument, one may conclude that the participants in the recent meeting of Rossotrudnichestvo are correct: what needs to be done now is to accelerate efforts to advance propaganda and this will help to improve the country’s reputation substantially.

China has followed a similar path. In just the period 2009 to 2010 it invested $8.9 billion projecting soft power abroad in many different ways: 24-hour channels aimed at international audiences were launched; Confucius Institutes were opened in different parts of the world; the Olympic Games and EXPO that were held in 2008 and 2010 respectively. However, as Harvard Professor Joseph Nye has noted, all these efforts did not pay off: there is still a negative perception of China in many countries. To a significant extent, this problem is a result of the obvious inconsistency between attractive soft power projects and the China’s political policies and conduct. Similar inconsistency could be found in the Soviet Union, where substantial investments—approximately $3.5-4 billion according to CIA estimates—were made to conduct propaganda [4]. The effectiveness of those efforts, however, was limited due to the fact that numerous countries found many aspects of Soviet policy and behavior unacceptable.

Despite the existence of (sometimes) modern rhetoric, this mentality unavoidably revives old images, which, while attractive for certain groups in Russia, are distasteful for many audiences abroad.

It is important to recognize that propaganda aimed at international audiences is typically less effective than propaganda intended for “internal consumption” [5]. The main problem lies in the lack of understanding of international audiences. In the Soviet period, this issue was addressed through the branches of the Communist Party abroad [5, 6]. In the majority of cases, however, propaganda aimed at countries with open societies had little effectiveness. Soviet propagandists were guided by, and tried to utilize, the methods of manipulation that worked in their own country with its static social structure in the international arena [7].

Although the propagandists of the Putin era have at their disposal new tools and strategies in their attempts to strengthen international influence and to change attitudes toward Russia, the old Soviet mentality is still at the core of Russian propaganda. Despite the existence of (sometimes) modern rhetoric, this mentality unavoidably revives old images, which, while attractive for certain groups in Russia, are distasteful for many audiences abroad. Moreover, information aimed at an external (international) audience is typically viewed in the context of the state’s policies. Despite the efforts of official Russia to project the image of a modern state supporting the principles of democracy and the rule of law, reliability as a business-partner, etc., the “reflection of reality,” about which Galumov writes, is perceived as untruthful and even awkward.

While at Stanford, Michael McFaul, the current U.S. Ambassador to Russia, stated that perhaps the key recommendation to improve Russia’s image in the West would be “not to arrest Garry Kasparov, and to allow Mikhail Kasyanov to participate in the presidential vote." Certainly, McFaul’s list could be expanded by adding other names. But, more importantly, the actions of Russian authorities that regularly cause enormous damage to the country’s image abroad, should also change. If the Russian regime does not “look within for the answer,” tens of billions of dollars could be spent again for the newest propaganda tools, but no positive achievements will be made.



1. Il’ichev, L. F., Snastin, V.I., &  Evdokimov, V.I. (1961). Partiynaya propaganda I sovremennost’ [The party propaganda and the contemporary world].  Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo politicheskoy literatury.

2. Shevtsova, L. (2010). Lonely power: Why Russia has failed to become the West and the West is weary of Russia. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

3. Roxburgh, A. (2011). The strongman: Vladimir Putin and the struggle for Russia. I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.

4. Staar, R. F. (1991). Foreign policies of the Soviet Union. Hoover Institution Press.

5. Ellul, J. (1973). Propaganda: The formation of men’s attitudes. Knopf  Doubleday Publishing Group.

6. Kerr, S. (1992). British Cold War defectors: The versatile, durable toys of propagandists.  In R. J. Aldrich (Ed.), British intelligence, strategy and the Cold War, 1945-51. (pp. 110-141). Taylor & Francis.

7. Nagorski, Z. (1971). Soviet international propaganda: Its role, effectiveness, and future. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Vol. 398. Propaganda in International Affairs.