The Kremlin’s Former PR Adviser Talks

January 13, 2014
Photo: Izvestia

Why does the image of the Russian state, despite the tens of millions of dollars invested in PR, leave much to be desired? This is what The New Times asked Angus Roxburgh, who served several years in Ketchum PR-agency, that advises the Kremlin

In 2013, just one year after the “premiere”, a new edition of your book, The Strongman; Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, was out, and you added a major chapter and wrote a new conclusion. Why was it necessary? What was so special that happened in Russian political life over that period?

In the 2012 edition, I wrote that the West’s ability to influence Russian domestic policies is limited, and therefore it is better not to interfere. However, just a few months later, I could not resist and broke my own rule: I published an open letter to Dmitri Peskov, suggesting that he should take advantage of his appointment (after May 6, 2012. – The New Times) for the position of the presidential spokesman to seek abolition of all kinds of political censorship, especially on TV. As expected, Peskov got furious. Here is the lesson: the more we, in the West, are trying to lecture the Kremlin, the less it is inclined to listen to us.

What I’m talking about in the new chapter is that change (in Russia) will certainly come, but from within the power structures, and not from the street leaders like Navalny, and certainly not from the West. In Russian politics, it has always happened like this. Western pressure is dictated by good intentions, but it is usually counterproductive. For example, I fully support those who demand that people responsible for Magnitsky death are brought to justice. However, the American “Magnitsky Act”, in my opinion, does not make sense. Its sole purpose was to jab at the Kremlin, that in turn couldn’t come up with a better answer than to prohibit adoption of Russian children by Americans, while Magnitsky killers remain at large. Of course, the West should criticize human rights violations (not forgetting, however, about its own shortcomings ), but sanctions, penalties and lecturing are invariably counterproductive.

In 2003 in his address to the Parliament, President Putin called European integration the “historic choice” for Russia. Ten years later, the presidential language changed to exactly the opposite: the liberal values ​​of Europe are “sexless and barren,” and Russia is a stronghold of forces opposed to “the dark (European) chaos.”

It’s possible that Putin was in fact more liberal ten years ago. Western politicians, who had to deal with him, argued that, despite some authoritarian habits that already started to manifest themselves (shutting down media critical of him, the case of Khodorkovsky), Putin still considered Russia part of the West, or at least, considered the West an ally, sharing his core values ​​. And many times he would make gestures that, in his view, should have prompted the West to accept Russia as an equal partner. But Western leaders were not really in a hurry to do that. Kremlin’s autocracy was becoming increasingly alarming for the West, intensified critical attitude toward Russia and prompted measures that Putin considered anti-Russian (NATO expansion, flirting with Ukraine and Georgia, deployment of missile defense systems in Eastern Europe). As a result, Putin felt rejected, began looking for a way to protect himself and opted for a strategy of self-isolation. The result was a vicious circle: the more outraged the West was getting by Putin’s actions, the more it offended Putin who acted even more sharply. Instead of trying to find a common ground with the West and the Russian intellectual elite, he seems to have concluded that he should rely on conservative forces, that is, the church, the security services and not too politically sophisticated masses who do not care about Western values ​​.

And does it not surprise you?

Not at all. This constant Western moralization and lecturing irritates most Russian citizens. Of course, they would see a different picture if the Russian media were presenting the situation the way it really is. That’s why I dared to suggest to Peskov to ensure freedom of television. Okay, I admit it: I shouldn’t have tried to teach him… But I just hope that someday people will come to the Kremlin who understand that one of the necessary pre-conditions of democracy is a free press, not constrained by any censorship. State media should not exist in a democratic society.

It seems to me that what follows from your book is that no PR-technologies and any budgetary allocations will ever alter the country’s image abroad, if the reality in that country does not change. Do they understand that in the Kremlin?

Initially, the Kremlin hoped that Ketchum would pay newspapers for positive articles about Russia. We told them that was not the way it’s done in the West. They also wanted us to put pressure on journalists, encouraging them to “improve an interview” or “properly” cover officials’ speeches. But I do not know of any case when anyone in Ketchum would try to do something like that. We all understood that Western journalists would simply show us the door. And rightly so! We prepared reports for our Russian customers on strategies going forward, where we strongly emphasized that the crackdown on human rights would have a devastating impact on the perception of Russia. And if the Ketchum bosses, accustomed to stroking their customers’ ego, tried to avoid criticism against them, I insisted that it was meaningless to try to hide the truth about what people think about the actions of the Russian authorities. And gradually our reports and recommendations have become quite frank and tough. By the way, Peskov did not mind that. On the contrary, he seemed to welcome that approach. To his credit, I think he understood that it would help to know the complete, unvarnished truth about what people in the West say about the Russian government. Perhaps in this way they were finding out what their embassies abroad wouldn’t dare to report…

In the title of your book there is the word “Strongman”, or “authoritative man”. In many dictionaries it is considered synonymous with the word “dictator.” Would you agree with such translation in this case?

A “Strong Hand” or “authoritarian ruler” would perhaps be more accurate. I was very annoyed by those Western commentators who portray the situation as if the current Russia is practically no different from the USSR. It certainly is different! People have access to news and viewpoints from different sources, and it means that Putin will never be able to become a full-fledged dictator. Although, admittedly, he was able to tighten the screws surprisingly tight. Obviously, there are people within the system, who would be glad to liberalize it. However, as was evident from the timid attempts by Medvedev, they did not have enough strength to set the tone or even to create a liberal faction within the country’s leadership. At least, until now.

If you knew from the beginning, how the Kremlin policies would evolve, would you accept the offer to become their PR consultant?

I must admit that I knew which direction things would go. But I had an illusion that I could influence things somehow. And yet I was able to make my point clear: it’s not about how your message is presented, it’s about your policies. For me, it was obvious that some big gesture, such as the release of Khodorkovsky, would make a strong impression on the West, similar to what happened when Gorbachev returned Sakharov from exile. I advised them to do so. But, of course, my advice could not really influence decisions. And in the end it was the continued crackdown that convinced me that to “improve the image of Russia abroad” was not in fact one of the Kremlin’s priorities…

P.S. When the text of the interview was ready for publication, it was reported that Vladimir Putin had decided to pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. “Probably, Putin has already read my interview”, joked Angus Roxburgh.


Countries Russia spoiled relations with in 2013

1. The United States, over the decision to grant temporary asylum to Edward Snowden:

On June 23, Edward Snowden, a 28-year-old former CIA officer who leaked information about the intelligence gathering by the American National Security Agency (NSA), including about total control over the Internet. Washington demanded the extradition of the fugitive, but on August 1, Russian authorities granted him a “temporary asylum.” Frustrated by Moscow’s decision, President Barack Obama cancelled a bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin in early September in Moscow. However, at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg on September 5-6, Putin and Obama had a chance to talk for about half an hour during the plenary session. Nevertheless, the experts concluded that relations between Russia and the U.S. are at the lowest point since the end of the Cold War. These fears were reinforced by the news from Washington that came on December 18. It was officially announced that President Obama, the first lady and Vice President Joseph Biden would not come to Sochi for the opening of the Winter Olympics.

2. The Netherlands, over the Arctic Sunrise case:

On October 15, Onno Elderenbosch, a 60-year-old deputy ambassador of the Netherlands was beaten in his Moscow apartment. In diplomatic circles this attack was regarded as a “symmetrical response” by the Russian special services to the detention of Dmitry Borodin, the Minister-Counselor of the Embassy of the Russian Federation, arrested in The Hague on October 5. The “Embassy War” finally spoiled relations between Moscow and Amsterdam, which deteriorated after the Netherlands filed a lawsuit in the International Maritime Tribunal (the Hamburg Tribunal) claiming unlawful actions by the Russian authorities that on September 19 had detained Arctic Sunrise icebreaker with the Greenpeace activists on board in the Pechora Sea. The icebreaker sails under the Dutch flag, and is assigned to the port of Amsterdam. Tensions softened in November after the Dutch royal couple visited Moscow. But not for too long. On November 22, the Hamburg Tribunal demanded from Russia to free Arctic Sunrise, but Moscow refused to comply with the verdict, saying it did not recognize the jurisdiction of the Tribunal in this case.

3. Saudi Arabia over the war in Syria:

On June 27, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich accused Saudi Arabia of financing international terrorists in Syria. The statement was made in response to the statement of the head of the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al- Faisal, who accused Russia of “unlimited military support of massacres in Syria.” The Syrian issue was raised once again at the informal meeting of the heads of the Saudi National Security Council Prince Bandar bin Sultan and Vladimir Putin in early August in Moscow. According to leaks, the Saudi guest explicitly offered Moscow to abandon support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In return Riyadh was ready to work with Russia to develop a strategy for oil production that will forever ensure Russia from sharp fluctuations in oil prices on the world market. Moreover, the Saudi promised that even if Assad regime is brought down, Russia would keep its naval base in Tartus. Otherwise, the war in Syria will not end, and for Russia will be difficult to ensure safety at the Olympic Games in Sochi, given that many Chechens fight Assad forces in Syria.

Moscow’s intransigence, and most importantly the decision by the U.S. and the EU to abstain from military operation in Syria, disappointed Riyadh: on October 18, Saudi Arabia refused its non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council, claiming that this body “is not able to end wars and to resolve conflicts. “