Is it possible that Putin wrote the New York Times op-ed himself?

September 13, 2013

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Yuri Kochetkov/REUTERS)

A spokesman for Ketchum, the public relations firm that helped place Russian President Vladimir Putin's op-ed in Thursday's New York Times, tells Buzzfeed's Rosie Gray that Putin wrote it himself.

On its face, that obviously sounds pretty implausible. Putin is very busy running one of the world's largest countries. Even if he did have spare time to craft carefully worded op-eds, his English is good but not that good. And even one of the world's more narcissistic heads of state is unlikely to take a step this high-stakes without bringing in the Kremlin communications/propaganda staff he surely keeps on hand for precisely such occasions. In any case, the claim that he wrote it also sounds like exactly the sort of thing that a professional PR shop -- one that does a whole lot of business with the Russian government -- is paid to say.

Of course we can't know for sure who crafted the op-ed. My immediate reaction was certainly to think: No way would Putin write it; this is an act of public diplomacy and official messaging, and surely he left it to his professionals.

Except. Except for one paragraph at the very end that seemed so at odds with the op-ed's diplomatic and political mission -- so likely to irritate Americans rather than persuade them -- that it almost makes me wonder. Here it is:

My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.

“Americans aren’t special” is a terrible way to persuade Americans to hear you out. But this idea of "American exceptionalism" is a sore point for Putin, exactly the sort of thing he’d struggle to resist poking at.

“American exceptionalism” is a complicated idea, but it basically boils down a combination of simple nationalism and a belief that the United States can and should play a special role in shaping the world. The one other country that has most closely shared this view of itself was the Soviet Union, which believed that it had developed the ultimate national ideology and that it had a responsibility to spread this system around the world. If that sounds familiar it's because the United States believed the same thing, which created a little bit of tension.

Putin’s Russia has obviously lost the ability to play the role of a superpower, but he still cultivates a sense of nationalism and national greatness. The country has never fully reconciled the great power it once was with the humbler one it is today, which is part of why the United States' continued insistence on its own "exceptionalism" so rankles Putin -- it's a reminder of who won the great ideological struggle of the second half of the 20th century. But Putin still cultivates nationalism at home -- partly to keep power, sure, but one also suspects he earnestly believes in it -- and that can sometimes take the form of nursing Russian pride hurt by perceived American bullying. This jab at “American exceptionalism” is a great illustration of that. It's all national id of exactly the sort that an official Kremlin communications officer would know to hold back, but that Putin himself might have a hard time resisting.

Of course, that's a circumstantial case, and it's not much against the many good reasons to doubt Putin wrote the article himself. Perhaps, though, it suggests he might have been somehow involved, maybe looking over a draft or telling a team of ghost writers that they'd better be sure to include something on American exceptionalism. I'll believe Putin really wrote this thing himself when I see the NYTimes.com article comments field filled with snippy defenses from Volodya52.

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