Vladimir Putin's op-ed piece in The New York Times has certainly turned a lot of heads this morning, but this isn't the first time Putin has found work as an opinion writer in American papers. Putin has previously bylined prominent articles in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal. Foreign Policy, and even the The Times itself, going all the way back to 1999, when he was still Prime Minister of Russia and not yet a three-time president.
Despite his impressive titles, Putin did get some help with his essay work, mostly from the American-based PR firm, Ketchum, which helps Putin craft his international message. Headquartered in New York, Ketchum operates all over the globe and counts the Russian government among its biggest clients. As ProPublica reported last year, the firm has earned millions of dollars promoting and strategizing on behalf of Russia (and its giant energy consortium, Gazprom), by mostly by placing favorable opinion pieces in prominent media outlets. BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray confirmed earlier that Ketchum was indeed responsible for getting today's op-ed into The Times.
As The Times's own Public Editor explains, world leaders rarely publish directly on the paper's op-ed page, because they have plenty of other ways to get their message across. But when your message is aimed directly at American citizens, there's hardly a better way. It's not bad for Times readership, either.
Plenty of American opinion writers already have lambasted Putin's column, but if you're looking for another contradictory argument, you can look no further than Putin himself. In today's piece, the Russian president cautioned against a U.S. attack on Syria and called for a diplomatic solution to the conflict to protect regional stability and innocent lives (while also working in a few jabs at "American exceptionalism.") Yet, in his 1999 essay in The Times, Putin defended the idea of military intervention to protect the citizens of Chechnya and Dagestan from the own threats of violence. Back then, he wrote:
Sadly, decisive armed intervention was the only way to prevent further casualties both within and far outside the borders of Chechnya, further suffering by so many people enslaved by terrorists.
Today, he argues that "force has proved ineffective and pointless" and the American intervention "will result in more innocent victims and escalation."
"No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect."
But 14 years ago, he believed that Russia had the ability to carefully target strikes.
American officials tell us that ordinary citizens are suffering, that our military tactics may increase that suffering. The very opposite is true. Our commanders have clear instructions to avoid casualties among the general population ...
In 2013, he also calls for America to use restraint and let the international community do its job:
"We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement."
That's a slightly different take than the one he gave last year, writing in Foreign Policy that Russia must have a strong and robust military because "Russia cannot rely on diplomatic and economic methods alone to resolve conflicts." In that case, as in Chechnya, the language of force seemed to work just fine.
In other words, peace comes from strength when that strength belongs to Russia. Otherwise, it's up to the United Nations Security Council. Putin and his PR people aren't just good at getting his message heard, they also know how to shape the message to suit the needs of the moment.