'Putin the peacemaker' tries talking to the U.S. public
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin has found many ways and places to browbeat the United States over the years.
Munich was the venue for a 2007 speech in which he changed the tone of Russian foreign policy by railing against U.S. "global supremacy." The May military parade on Red Square has become a yearly platform to warn against U.S. hegemony and his annual news conferences are laced with anti-American bluster.
But the latest choice for an attack, an op-ed article in The New York Times, is an unusual departure for Putin, even though it was not his first column for the newspaper - he wrote one defending his decision to send troops to war in Chechnya in 1999.
Finding a way, as he put it, "to speak directly to the American people" underlines his growing confidence that a Russian proposal to put Syrian chemical arms under international control has enabled him to steal the diplomatic initiative and moral high ground from U.S. President Barack Obama.
He now looks determined to press home the advantage by presenting himself whenever and wherever he can as the man leading global peace efforts in Syria, undermining Obama even in the pages of a leading U.S. newspaper.
The attention the op-ed received in U.S., global and Russian media gave the Kremlin cause for some back-slapping on Thursday.
"The idea came up at a very short notice. The latest edits were done last night," a Kremlin source said, suggesting foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov was one of the instigators and that work on it had continued until late on Wednesday night.
The Kremlin is advised by a New York-based public relations company, Ketchum. Putin also gave the Associated Press, a U.S. news organisation, an interview last week to get his message across to the American public, but sources close to the Kremlin said it was the first such article in the U.S. press since 1999.
The image he presented was of Russia as peacemaker, and the United States as warmonger, turning the tables on Obama after being portrayed in the West as an obstacle to peace for most of the time since the start of Syria's civil war in 2011.
As if on cue, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad backed Putin up by telling a Russian television channel: "Syria is placing its chemical weapons under international control because of Russia. The U.S. threats did not influence the decision."
ACCUSATIONS OF HYPOCRISY
Washington was not impressed.
"I was insulted," said John Boehner, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, saying the column demonstrated "why I have suggested I have doubts about the motives of the Russians and Assad."
Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, mocked Putin for the final line in the column, which said "God created us equal." She pointed out Russia has anti-gay propaganda laws.
"He says that we are all God's children. I think that's good. I hope it applies to gays and lesbians in Russia as well," Pelosi said.
A spokesman for the Pentagon said Putin was wrong to suggest in the piece that Syrian rebels were likely responsible.
"Let me respond with the following on the Putin op-ed: President Putin has invested his credibility in transferring Assad's chemical weapons to international control and ultimately destroying them," said Pentagon spokesman George Little.
"The world will note whether Russia can follow through on that commitment," Little told reporters.
Putin's column was partly a response to Obama's address to the nation on Tuesday in which he said he would study Russia's plan but voiced sceptism about it, following a gas attack Obama blames on Assad's troops and Putin blames on rebel forces.
In Russia, which is Syria's main ally and an important arms supplier, the article featured prominently in news bulletins, largely without comment by state media, but attracted satirical and derogatory remarks as well.
Critics pointed out that Putin's 1999 article in the New York Times took the opposite tack by defending Russian military action in an internal conflict against separatists in Chechnya.
Others noted that Russia had sent troops to Georgia in 2008 without U.S. Security Council approval, although Moscow said it was responding to Georgian military action against Russians inside Georgia's internationally recognised territory.
Some portrayed Putin as hypocritical in warning the United States it must uphold international law because of accusations that Russia's judiciary is weak and bends to the Kremlin's will.
"Life and law mean nothing to him," Garry Kasparov, an opposition leader, wrote on Twitter. Mocking the column, he wrote: "In (the) morning I expect to see a Putin cooking column in Le Monde and Putin football column in El Pais."
Others derided Putin's decision to take up his pen because of Russia's poor record of protecting journalists.
"Oh, Putin has written a column, just like Kashin," opposition leader Alexei Navalny wrote on Twitter, referring to Oleg Kashin, an investigative reporter who was beaten so severely in 2010 that he went into a coma.
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