The War Putin Lost – OpEd


Putin and his PR team have parted company. The Ketchum-Kremlin breakup leaves many wondering who it was that initiated the divorce. Putin and the American PR agency were partners for the past 9 years. Ketchum was originally retained to polish Putin’s international image in preparation for the 2006 G8 summit in St. Petersburg.

But I wonder why this marriage ever took place at all. At that time Putin’s international reputation didn’t need just a cosmetic job. Major surgery was in order.

Former Kremlin big shot Boris Berezovsky’s concerted media assaults on Putin were in high gear. His objective was regime change. The oligarch’s henchman Alexander Litvinenko was uttering allegations that Putin had been behind apartment building explosions, the Nord-Ost theater hostage siege, training of al-Qaeda terrorists, the Beslan school hostage tragedy, and he even accused Putin of pedophilia.

A significant non-military war was being waged against Putin.

This was a case where serious countermeasures were urgently needed, not just a simple PR whitewash. If Ketchum people ever really understood the magnitude of the situation, they had a moral obligation to tell Putin they were the wrong partner for the job.

During Ketchum’s tenure things just went downhill. There were the Politkovskaya and Litvinenko murder accusations, allegations of using gas as a political weapon, and of starting a war with Georgia. There was an avalanche of negative stories before and during the Sochi Olympics, culminating in the disastrous characterization of Putin’s role in the emerging Ukrainian crisis. These were media assaults that had no apparent factual basis, but there was no effective Kremlin counteraction.
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By the end of Ketchum’s association with Putin, the president had become widely regarded internationally as a tyrant who would stop at nothing. Hillary Clinton compared him to Hitler. Putin has become an international outcast. Even the G8, over which the whole Ketchum debacle started, threw Putin out of the organization. Putin lost the battle for credibility and respect.

Putin’s confidence in Ketchum was clearly misplaced. I have personal knowledge that alternative proposals were made to the Kremlin well before Sochi to remediate Putin’s international image and counteract the efforts of his international political enemies. Had he then kicked out Ketchum and accepted these proposals for effective countermeasures, Putin could well have avoided all the humiliation of the Sochi-related media attacks, and could have thwarted the NATO-US-EU scapegoating of himself for the virtual collapse of the Ukrainian state and the outbreak of civil war.

Now, principally over Ukraine, the non-military war against Putin has escalated to the point where knowledgeable experts believe Russia and the U.S. are in jeopardy of being sucked into a hot war, perhaps a nuclear one. Gorbachev has spoken out about the risk. Noted American scholar of Russian history Stephen F. Cohen has voiced similar concerns.

Currently Russia has proved itself to be totally devoid of an effective capability for dealing with the kind of non-military war that is still being waged against it. Putin faces not just a simple campaign of denigration. All along his attackers have used a highly sophisticated methodology.

Much reputational damage has been done since the serious remedial proposals were dismissed by the Kremlin before Sochi. But it is not too late to initiate a turnaround. The job now would be more complex, but yet doable. What other sensible choice could Putin make? The alternative could be cataclysmic for Russia and the world.

William Dunkerley

William Dunkerley is a media business analyst and consultant based in New Britain, Connecticut, USA. He works extensively with media organizations in Russia and other post-communist countries, and has advised government leaders on strategies for building press freedom and a healthy media sector. He is a Senior Fellow at the American University in Moscow.

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