COLUMN-What made Vladimir Putin's 'call' to Elton John so believable

(Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist and author. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Sept 17 (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin did not call Elton John and suggested they meet to discuss LGBT rights in Russia, but a lot of people believed that he did. On Monday, John wrote a post on Instagram saying that he had received the phone call. On Tuesday, the post went viral, penetrating even the Russian pro-government print media. By close of business, Putin’s spokesman denied that the call had ever taken place. On Wednesday, an experienced Russian prankster, nicknamed Vovan, released a recording of the conversation in which he impersonated Putin and his partner, nicknamed Lexus, impersonated the Russian president’s press secretary.

It says something about the state of Russian media that neither the opposition journalists nor the pro-government ones thought to call the Kremlin press office for corroboration before publishing: Both sides know that social networks are usually a more reliable source than the Kremlin. But it is even more remarkable that both sides (and a number of foreign media outlets) believed that Putin personally called the singer. Why would they so easily believe something that seems so improbable? Try imagining the way the world looks from Moscow, and it will all make sense.

Just two years ago this month Putin scored the biggest foreign-policy victory of his career: He hijacked Syria. President Barack Obama had just failed to get congressional support for intervention there. Swooping in when the American president stumbled, Putin suddenly positioned himself as the arbiter of war, peace, and chemical weapons. He published an op-ed in the New York Times that was the single best example of Soviet propaganda techniques since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Appealing to international institutions and calling out American exceptionalism, Putin used American ideals and American terminology to put America in its place. He was on top of the world.

Now, two years later, Putin is an international pariah. His country is subjected to economic and diplomatic sanctions and is facing the pressure of lowered oil prices. The economy is in a death spiral, Putin’s cronies cannot travel abroad, and Putin himself has been shunned and shamed by Western leaders. All this has happened because of two things: the war in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s antigay campaign.

Last month, the Kremlin announced that Putin will attend the United Nations General Assembly; he will address it on September 28. Putin has not graced the UN personally in a decade, but he is in fact returning to the site of his foreign-relations triumph of September 2013: it was in the Security Council session then that Russia took control of the Syrian issue. Now he wants, once again, to talk about Syria. This means that he needs to push Ukraine and gay rights off the agenda. For the last few weeks, a de facto ceasefire has taken hold in eastern Ukraine (where many de jure ceasefires have failed) - and the Western media have noticed. But how was he to communicate that Russia could be more reasonable on the LGBT issue?

Enter Elton John. The singer attended a political conference in Kiev last week, met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and talked LGBT rights with him. He seemed to be positioning himself as a sort of global LGBT ambassador. Over the weekend, John told the BBC that he would like to meet with the Russian president and discuss the issue with him as well.

In the Kremlin, John’s proposal could be taken literally. The Russian leadership believes in a worldwide gay conspiracy, even a backroom global gay government that is trying to take over the world. Back in December 2013, when the Russian parliament was discussing the protests in Ukraine, the chairman of the foreign relations committee, Alexei Pushkov (who will be accompanying Putin to the UN), warned that if Ukraine moves toward the West, it will become part of “the sphere of influence of gay culture” - as directly opposed to the Russian sphere of influence. Reporting on John’s speech in Kiev last week, Russia’s highest-circulation daily stated that John “invited Ukraine to join the gay community.” So the same newspaper could imagine that if Putin had, indeed, picked up the phone to call John, he would have secured a direct line to the gay rulers of the world - and he could communicate to them that he was a reasonable man who shouldn’t be criticized quite so harshly.

If John would get that message to the gay power establishment, then Putin could have his reset and the conversation in New York would focus on Syria. After a few weeks of obfuscating what it’s doing in Syria, Russia is saying that it is trying to protect what remains of the Syrian state, because if it fails then things will get even worse. The metamessage here is, Russia is reasonable and rational while the West, with its sanctions, is hysterical and unfair.

Why is Putin coming to the UN, and why is he working so hard to re-frame the conversation? The sanctions have made an impact on Russia and its politicians, and Putin may be hoping that they will be lifted or relaxed. But more likely, re-establishing himself as an equal partner in a conversation with the United States is an end in itself. He needs it for his domestic audience, which has not seen a demonstration of Russia’s international stature in a while. He also needs it for himself: while he doesn’t care what the West thinks of Russian politics, he personally does not enjoy being shunned. This is the man who worked tirelessly, personally to host a big party in Sochi (and then almost nobody came): he likes to hang out with the big guys and throw his weight around.

Really, he should have called John. (Masha Gessen)