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By taking the public relations offensive, the Russians have time and again been two steps ahead. U.S. and Western officials, not to mention the Kiev government, are left scrambling to debunk the rumors and fear-mongering. As a result they are frequently playing catchup for hearts and minds in the east.

How do you understand the phrase in a bold-type font? Does it mean that they take them (the public relations) as an offensive thing, they perceive the public relations as an offense to them?

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

This is a modification of the idiom

taking the offensive

which is related to

going on the offensive.

It means that the Russians' PR team is pre-emptively "attacking" (which is this case means communicating their position with media outlets) to force any opposing viewpoint into a defensive posture, which the quote you provided explains plainly as being "left scrambling to debunk the rumors and fear-mongering."

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In this context it means they are proactively using public relations to forward their position.

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