The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

John McCain’s self-defeating Pravda op-ed can only help Putin

(Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Senator John McCain, a frequent critic of the Kremlin, responded to Russian President Vladimir Putin's New York Times op-ed with his own, on the news site The Republican Senator criticized Putin and said Russians deserved better. But if McCain meant his article as a tit-for-tat response to Putin's column, then he may have missed the point of both the Russian leader's op-ed and of public diplomacy in general.

McCain has taken some heat for maybe publishing his op-ed in the wrong Pravda. He may have meant to run his column in the century-old Soviet Communist Party mouthpiece, now mostly marginalized. But instead he published in, a much newer news site that does not have much of a readership or history. In McCain's defense, though, he is high-profile enough that his column would surely draw an audience regardless of where it ran. Publishing in the Russian media is a symbolic gesture and satisfies that just fine.

More to the point is the vast tonal difference between Putin's and McCain's columns. The Russian president's New York Times column was not an appeal to Americans to oppose their government outright, nor was it an argument that President Obama is bad and that Putin knows better. That was McCain's approach; Putin, rather, made an effort to speak to Americans in their own vernacular, appealing very narrowly to an ongoing U.S. debate over whether or not to strike Syria. With the exception of one strange paragraph deriding "American exceptionalism," Putin focused on gently calling attention to points and ideas that were already common features of the U.S. debate over Syria. His goal, it seems, was to put his thumb on the preexisting American debate, one that was already tipping in his direction. And he held back from lecturing Americans or telling them what to do.

Putin's op-ed, in other words, was an act of savvy if cynical public diplomacy. It was an effort to ever-so-slightly tilt American domestic politics in a direction that would be favorable to Russian foreign policy. His points received a lot of discussion. And while he didn't do too well with his insistence that Syrian rebels were behind the Aug. 21 chemical attack and that American exceptionalism is bad, he was otherwise generally effective, in large part because his primary points were already features of the U.S. conversation. It was a big, splashy column with a relatively modest set of goals.

McCain seems to have taken a very different approach. He appeared to have three goals with his op-ed, all of them pretty difficult and quite likely to backfire.

First, he asked Russians en masse to adopt his harshly critical view of Russia: that the country is economically weak and internationally isolated, that "its riches will not last" and that Russia's "global reputation" is poor. Pause for a moment and imagine how you'd feel if you read an opinion column by a Russian legislator, in which he spoke directly to you and told you that your country is not very respected or successful, that it's doing poorly and destined for worse. Now imagine that, like many Russians, you've felt condescended to and lectured by snooty Americans for your entire life. Would you be more or less predisposed to hearing him out?

That brings us to the second of McCain's apparent goals: that Russians should blame their problems on Putin, whom McCain accuses of "destroying" Russia's standing in the world. "President Putin doesn't believe in these values because he doesn't believe in you," he wrote. This is a particularly tough sell to Russians, many of whom might be tempted to see an American hand in the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union, the 1998 financial crisis and the problems that have ensued.

McCain's big conclusion, the third of this three points, is that Putin doesn't care about Russians or know how to solve their problems. But you know who does: Senator John McCain. "I am not anti-Russian. I am pro-Russian, more pro-Russian than the regime that misrules you today," he writes. Pro-tip: When you have to clarify that you don't categorically oppose the entire nation that you're speaking to, you've already lost.

Think back to that hypothetical Russian legislator from two paragraphs ago, the one arguing that the the United States doesn't deserve international respect. How would you feel if he ended his column by claiming that he knew best for Americans, even better than the U.S. president? That Americans should tune out their president and listen to the op-ed-writing Russian lawmaker instead? What if that legislator had previously advocated deploying troops along the American border? You would probably not find yourself feeling super persuaded. If anything, you might feel like reflexively defending your president, who is at least a fellow national, even if you agreed with some of the Russian lawmaker's criticisms. A Kremlin spokesperson seemed to see this opportunity in McCain's op-ed, telling reporters, "As far as the question of what Russians deserve is concerned, they are able to answer this question on their own."

To be fair, there is another plausible reading of McCain's op-ed, one that gives the senator and his communications staff a lot more credit. Perhaps they understand all of this perfectly well and did not mean the column as an act of public diplomacy toward Russians but as a domestic U.S. political play, intended to demonstrate McCain's engagement on Russian issues and his stance toward Putin.