NY Times picks up promising new columnist: Putin as vintage George Will!

Vladimir Putin trolls the U.S., with a bit of help from a major P.R. firm

By Alex Pareene
September 12, 2013 7:17PM (UTC)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a big pike he caught while fishing during a mini-break in the Siberian Tyva region, Russia. (AP/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)

Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, wrote an editorial for the New York Times politely asking us not to bomb Syria and also just trolling the hell out of Barack Obama and this entire country. Putin argues for caution, diplomacy and the sanctity of international law as represented by the United Nations, and he argues for all of these things not because he cares about them but because he knows that Barack Obama is on the record as caring about them. Judged by the usual standards of American newspaper opinion columns, this is a good one.  Just as disingenuous and aggravating as George Will at peak form.

Putin is not just mocking the liberal internationalists, either. This paragraph could've come directly from an Op-Ed by a prominent American conservative foreign policy "expert":


No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.

Yes, here's Vladimir Putin expressing insincere concern for the safety of Israel, just because he knows that will bug people. (More Putin zingers: "The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not." Mm hmm.) The guy is clearly enjoying his ability to just repeatedly poke America with sticks.

What I'd imagine is especially obnoxious, from the point of view of the White House and its allies, is that Putin is just not wrong about a lot of this stuff, even if he is being entirely opportunistic. He's right that many of the rebels are mercenaries from other countries, including the sorts of fighters we classify as terrorists; he's right that a military strike could merely spread the conflict and lead to more innocent lives being lost; he's right that "rogue states" seek nuclear weapons in part because having those weapons helps to insulate them from American military intervention; and he's basically right that American exceptionalism as a moral judgment as opposed to one of pure power is basically hokum. (Putin would know about exceptionalism's mythic value, as an ultra-nationalist leader who frequently celebrates the inherent superiority of the Russian people.)

So how did this column end up at the Times? Did Maureen Dowd call him up and say she didn't have any good ideas this week, like she does with Aaron Sorkin sometimes? The column ended up at the Times, it turns out, because of good old-fashioned utterly amoral American capitalism.


The Op-Ed was "placed" at the Times, according to Rosie Gray, by a public relations firm called Ketchum. Ketchum is part of the "Diversified Agency Services" division of a massive multinational corporation called Omnicom, which will someday probably invent Skynet. Ketchum is the Russian government's go-to P.R. firm, responsible for planting Op-Eds favorable to the Russian government in United States outlets like the Huffington Post and CNBC. These Op-Eds often appear, as this one did in the Times, without any indication that they were sourced from a P.R. firm. (Though when Putin's writing the column you do sort of know whose interests the column reflects.)

If you can remember all the way back to the Bush administration, you may remember a curious fact: Ketchum was the P.R. firm the Bush administration kept using in scandalous ways, like when Ketchum arranged for pundit Armstrong Williams to be paid taxpayer dollars to shill for No Child Left Behind, and when Ketchum produced fake news stories, designed to be played as real news stories on local news broadcasts, promoting No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug benefit program. The GAO called Ketchum's work "covert propaganda." (The Obama administration later hired the firm to promote its electronic medial records push.)

Ketchum is just really good at what it does, in other words -- good enough to repeatedly win contracts from the U.S. and Russian governments -- and what it does is promote anyone or anything by any means, no matter the law or "ethics" or the morality of performing work-for-hire for a journalist-murdering authoritarian currently materially supporting a ruthless strongman.


Of course everyone scoffs at the Putin column -- he's a murderous strongman pretending to care about international law! -- but no one bats an eye when Henry Kissinger gets published. Because he is still a respected statesman.

Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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New York Times Russia Syria Vladimir Putin War