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Putin's Perverse Fear of Soft Power

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Vladimir Putin's preoccupation with shadowy political manoeuvring betrays a self-defeating unwillingness to engage in an open debate with the public.

Earlier this week Putin, Russia's prime minister and leading presidential candidate, released his latest pre-election article in the daily newspaper Moskovskie Novosti. The piece was his seventh since the start of the year in which he has written a total of over 35,000 words.

Outlining his vision for Russia's foreign policy Putin took the opportunity to attack the West for its use 'soft power', particularly 'pseudo-NGOs' that he claimed "manipulate the public and... conduct direct interference in the domestic policy of sovereign countries."

Few people familiar with Putin's record will find these attacks surprising. During his previous term as president he used the British "spy-rock" scandal as a pretext for signing executive orders that gave wide-ranging powers to the Justice Ministry and the Federal Registration Service over the setting up and running of NGOs in Russia.

His continued hostility to these organisations has been evident since the start of his latest presidential campaign. Indeed following the initial protests after the Duma elections in December he accused Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, of sending 'signals' to activists in Russia who began "active work with the support of the U.S. Department of State".

It is a charge that Michael McFaul, the new US ambassador to Russia, is all too familiar with. McFaul, a specialist in Slavic studies and fluent Russian speaker, arrived in Moscow in January to give additional momentum to the flagging "reset" policy of relations between the two countries.

However, he has come under attack from corners of the media and the political establishment for his academic work on Ukraine's Orange Revolution. His accusers suggested that the appointment was intimately linked to protests against electoral fraud in the Russian capital that attracted tens of thousands of participants.

After the ambassador met with opposition figures Russia's state-owned TV station Channel One ran the report under the caption "US embassy: Receiving instructions from the new ambassador". In parliament Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a political firebrand and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), called for all opposition politicians who attended the meeting at the US Embassy to give up their mandates.

Even the outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev warned the ambassador that "he needs to realize that he is working in the Russian Federation, not in the United States of America".

Yet instead of participating in a diplomatic tit-for-tat exchange McFaul has taken to social networks and Russian TV to publicly question accusations made against him. He challenged Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of English language station Russia Today, on Twitter over claims that he had sent the prominent anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny to study at Yale stating:

"@M_Simonyan when we met at White House you asked me tell you when RT ran something untrue. On RT today, @McFaul sent @Navalny to Yale. Lie"

Following their exchange he accepted an interview request from the channel, during which he reasserted the Obama administration's commitment to the "reset". He has even set up a Russian-language blog on the popular Russian site Livejournal in which he outlines policy achievements as well as his broader activities as ambassador.

Putin's lengthy articles may signal an attempt to place himself and his political platform under greater public scrutiny but they remain part of a one-sided conversation. If, as many contend, the arguments being made by both sides on the streets of Moscow are just an extension of those being had around dinner tables across the country this "external threat" narrative could yet fall flat.

By publicly engaging with government, opposition, supporters and critics McFaul is helping to demonstrate the folly of the prime minister's perverse fear of "soft power". Rather than shadowboxing mythical western puppet masters he would be well advised to start engaging with the debate before it moves past him altogether.