Op-Ed

Lessons in Communication from Vladimir Putin

Fiona Hill

Russian President Vladimir Putin has done it again, grabbing American and international attention with his New York Times op-ed cautioning the United States against the use of force in Syria, and scolding America for considering itself exceptional. Putin’s piece has been met with surprise and outrage in the U.S., but its basic message has resonated with groups opposed to a unilateral U.S. strike against regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Putin has put himself right where he wants to be, at the top of the headlines on Syria, and writing the script for where the United States will have to take the crisis next: Back to the United Nations.

President Putin has claimed penmanship of the opinion piece—putting himself (not his PR team) firmly on the record. This is a risky move if the message backfires. Putin could have had Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, or Russia’s Ambassador in the United States, Sergey Kislyak, author this provocative communiqué. But the message would not have been so strong, and Putin is particularly proud of two skills he honed back in his days as a KGB operative: “working with” or “communicating with people,” and “working with information.” In the KGB, Putin learned how to identify, recruit and run agents, and how to acquire the patience to cultivate sources. He also learned how to collect, synthesize and utilize information. These skills were key to Putin’s career. As the leader of Russia, he has scaled them up to deal with everyone who comes his way.

Working with people is sometimes carried out in a very superficial way. Over the last several years, Putin and his PR teams have pitched him as everything from big game hunter and conservationist to scuba diver to biker—even nightclub crooner. His political performances portray Putin as the ultimate Russian action man. Like the New York Times op-ed, Putin claims he thinks these publicity stunts up himself to communicate with a particular constituency —even those, like his star turn as a crane in a microlite aircraft leading a migrating flock of endangered birds back home, that have been met with public derision.

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