American PR Firm Helping Putin Bamboozle Hapless Investors in Russia

It’s not difficult to understand what the Russian Kremlin saw in the Ketchum public relations firm.  In fact, the two can probably communicate without even speaking.

Just ask Armstrong Williams.

Back in 2004, acting on behalf of the Bush administration, Ketchum bribed Williams with a nearly a quarter million dollars to praise the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” program on his syndicated TV show and to recruit other black journalists to do the same.  Needless to say, Williams wasn’t to mention the illegal money. When the facts came out, Ketchum promised never to do it again and won millions more in juicy government largesse.

You remember George Bush of course. He’s the fine fellow who invited infamous Chechnya war criminal Vladimir Shamanov to the White House for a photo op and awards ceremony. The one who looked in Vladimir Putin’s eyes, glimpsed his soul, and proclaimed him trustworthy.

That’s the kind of initiative Russian dictator Vladimir Putin likes to see, naturally, so he offered Ketchum a fat contract to sell Russian business to hapless Western investors. The result is a new website called “Modern Russia.”

Here’s a little example of the kind of helpful and reliable “reporting” a potential investor in Putin’s Russia will find on the Modern Russia (MR) website. In a story touting Russia’s most business-friendly city according to the Russian version of Forbes magazine, MR not only fails to tell readers that the World Bank has ranked Russia as a country number 126 out of 183 nations on this planet in terms of attractiveness to foreign investors, it fails to mention that neither Moscow nor St. Petersburg made the Forbes list, which included 30 cities. It therefore fails to tell them that the vast majority of actual business done in Russia is done in those two cities, leaving only meaningless crumbs for the rest. It fails to do so even though another story in Russian Forbes itself (Russian language link) and a commenter on the top-30 article make those very points.

In another characteristic bit of neo-Soviet pseudo-journalism, MR uses a German-language poll report commissioned by the Russian government itself to assert that Russians are full of confidence in Putin’s ability to modernize and improve the country and showering him with their support.

While breaking this story, MR fails to mention that the vast majority of Russians get their news about Putin from broadcast TV he owns and operates. It fails to mention that leading modernizers like William Browder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Sergei Magnitsky have gotten themselves, respectively, exiled, jailed, and murdered for their trouble. And it glosses over the revelation that fully half the population does not trust either the police or the courts.

Reviewing the MR website for the Moscow Times, Carnegie Foundation scholar Nikolai Petrov notes that “the news on the site isn’t very fresh or original” and asks plaintively: “Who needs this site?” He relates that the Kremlin’s press secretary says the comments section of the site is supposed to provide feedback, then bursts this balloon by revealing that the comments are aggressively moderated, squelching any tough criticism before it can ever see the light of day.

What’s odd about all this is not the lies, the misdirections, or the incompetence. We’ve seen all that before from Russia.  The strange thing is that the Kremlin already has an English-language propaganda outfit on the web doing all this stuff. It’s called Russia Today (RT). You remember RT. They’re the ones who advertised themselves using photos of Stalin that praise the great mass murderer’s poetry.

Is the Kremlin admitting that the tens of millions it spent on that project were wasted on a spectacular failure? That Russians themselves can’t effectively generate propaganda of this type, so they need to bring in some American “experts”?

That seems to be the upshot. It’s hard to feel sorry for anyone MR will dupe into putting money into Putin’s Russia based on this siren song. Such investors are helping Putin to crack down on civil rights and liberties and revive  a KGB state to once again terrorize the planet, and they richly deserve to lose their shirts.

But there could be wider consequences. Maybe hapless neophyte simpletons like, say, Barack Obama, will form their impressions of Russia based on this deluge of American-created propaganda and make policy on that basis. If they did, they might be inclined to munch hamburgers with Putin’s puppet Dmitri Medvedev while Putin enacted a new law permitting his KGB to arrest and detain anyone without charges for two weeks.