By Graham Dumas
Earlier this month, Alex Ovechkin posted on Instagram that he was creating a pro-Putin political movement called Putin’s Team. A recent story in Russian business daily Vedomosti, however, asserts based on two unnamed sources “close to the Kremlin” that the campaign was devised by a major Russian PR firm, IMA Consulting, and then approved by the Kremlin after the fact. IMA denied outright any connection to the movement.
The story contradicts Ovechkin’s own statements, as well as those of other members of Putin’s Team.
Личные награды и призы – все это здорово, но в хоккее, как и в любом деле, для победы важнее команда. Только команда способна переломить ход игры, сделать невозможное. В последнее время в западной прессе я встречаю сочетание Putin’s team, то есть команда Путина. И знаете, мне очень понравилось это определение. Лично я готов быть частью такой команды. Я никогда не скрывал своего отношения к нашему Президенту, всегда открыто его поддерживая. Я уверен, что нас, поддерживающих Владимира Путина, много! Так давайте объединимся и покажем всем сильную и сплоченную Россию! Сегодня я хочу объявить о том, что создаю общественное движение под названием Putin Team. Быть частью такой команды – для меня гордость, это похоже на ощущение, когда ты надеваешь майку сборной России, зная, что за тебя болеет вся страна. #putinteam
A post shared by Alexander Ovechkin (@aleksandrovechkinofficial) on
As translated by The Washington Post:
Personal achievements and medals – all of this is great, but in hockey, like with everything, to win it’s important to have a team. Only a team is capable of changing the course of a game, achieve the impossible. Lately, in the Western Press, I’m noticing a comparison to Putin’s team. And you know, I really liked that comparison. Personally, I’m ready to be a member of that team. I never hid my relationship with our president. I always openly supported him.
I’m certain that there are many of us that support Vladimir Putin. Let’s unite and show everyone a strong and united Russia. Today, I want to announce a social movement in the name of the Putin Team. Be a part of this team — to me it’s a privilege, it’s like the feeling of when you put on the jersey of the Russian [national] team, knowing that the whole country is rooting for you.
IMA Consulting is closely connected to the upcoming Russian elections. Another Vedomosti article from October 13, 2017, noted that IMA won the Russian Central Election Commission’s tender to run the media campaign to get out the vote in 2018.
The October 2017 story was cited and repeated by the Kremlin-run outlet Russia Today, which also noted that the informational campaign would include “a number of novel steps targeting the younger generation and internet users.”
A team of wildly popular Russian athletes, including Russian parliamentarian and former Red Wings legend Slava Fetisov and ex-New Jersey Devil Ilya Kovalchuk, who tout their support for Putin far and wide, could be considered just such a step.
Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, who is attempting to run against Putin in the 2018 election despite a dubious recent felony conviction that would make him ineligible to hold office, addresses Putin’s Team in a recent YouTube video (with English subtitles).
In his video, which focuses on the wealth of the team members and how they are all located outside Russia, Navalny portrays Ovechkin and Kovalchuk essentially as Kremlin tools used to strengthen domestic support for yet another Putin term.
In exchange for their support, per Navalny, the star athletes would be guaranteed free rein in a “colonial” Russia created by Putin, where they could obtain whatever they wanted, be it money or even political power.
Navalny’s argument supports the notion that Putin’s Team is a Kremlin-sponsored project, rather than the brainchild of Russia’s current favorite professional hockey player.
Indeed, one of the unnamed sources in Vedomosti said outright that IMA Consulting would be closely involved with any measures thought up by the Kremlin related to the upcoming elections. The purpose of Putin’s Team, according to the source was simply “famous people for Putin,” similar to other pro-Putin PR campaigns in previous election cycles.
IMA’s website states that “it’s no secret that IMA Consulting has a wealth of experience in political campaigns.” Among the campaigns listed on IMA’s site is the 2006 G-8 Summit in Putin’s home town of Saint-Petersburg, which Putin considered a crowning achievement of his first eight years in office.
IMA also organized the 2010 conference of the Dynamo Sporting Society, the quintennial event at which the Society’s board is elected. Ovechkin’s mother, Tatyana Ovechkina, has been a member of Dynamo since she was a teenager, and has served on the board since well before 2010.
Ovechkin’s connections to Dynamo are nearly as strong. He played for the team before coming to the Capitals, as well as during the most recent NHL lockout. Over the summer, Ovechkin tried to get Putin to support the financially struggling hockey club.
Nevertheless, Vedomosti’s account is still highly speculative. Russian media reports relying on unnamed sources, even a respected, supposedly independent paper like Vedomosti, should be taken with large quantities of salt.
Having recently been stripped of his Russian citizenship after running stories critical of certain Russian oligarchs, Vedomosti’s sole owner, Demyan Kudryavtsev, may have a stake in discrediting any truly organic support for Putin.
Ovechkin himself claimed that the Putin Team was “not about political stuff” at all, but rather support for his home country. He told The Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan, “I care about what happening in Russia because that’s my home and that’s where I’m from.”
In a November 3 interview with Russian newspaper Kommersant, Slava Fetisov echoed Ovechkin’s statement and reinforced that Ovechkin was the movement’s creator.
Putin’s Team, according to Fetisov, is an “attempt … to change the stereotype that has formed throughout the world. It’s an everyday thing, I don’t consider it to be political. It’s the act of an unaffiliated citizen.”
At the time of the interview, Fetisov had not yet joined Putin’s Team, and was reserved about whether he might do so. Fetisov, as noted, is a member of Russia’s Federation Council, the upper house of its parliament, from the Putin-aligned United Russia party.
Ovechkin’s agent had no comment on the Vedomosti article.
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