The Washington Post's January 2009 coverage of Russia was impressive: according to my back-of-the-envelope calculation, a total of 27 reports, editorials, and op-eds were published. Hardly any other foreign country was blessed with such attention.
(Naturally, I'm talking only about topics related to political and economic developments in Russia. I'm leaving aside travel book reviews, however politicized, another merciless beating of a Russian female tennis player at the hands of the magnificent Serena Williams, or perpetual marvels at the performance of Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin.)
The Post's January reporting was dominated by Philip Pan's coverage of the gas standoff between Russia and Ukraine. In a span of three weeks, Pan produced a whopping 14 articles about the politically charged conflict, with his first piece appearing in the early hours of January 1.
Pan is a fine journalist, and his reporting is crisp, informative, professional and (almost) unbiased. In the future, however, he might be better served with relying on his own research, rather than on opinions of "guest experts" such as Lilia Shevtsova of Carnegie Moscow Center. In Pan's January 8 report, Shevtsova insinuated that Russia's prime-minister Vladimir Putin was using the gas conflict to "distract" the Russian public from the economic slowdown.
A few staff writers have contributed, too. Joel Garreau took on Igor Panarin on January 3 (I wrote about this piece previously). Walter Pincus highlighted, on January 5, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' renewed optimism about the future of U.S.-Russia cooperation on counterterrorism. Karla Adam reported, on January 22, on Alexander Lebedev's acquisition of London's Evening Standard. Finally, on January 29, Carrie Johnson told a bizarre story of an imprisoned ex-CIA spy, Harold J. Nicholson, who used his son to collect $35,000 in "back payment" from the Russian intelligence services.
Yet, it's not for the original reporting on Russia that the Post has earned its nickname "Pravda on the Potomac." No, it's the hard work of its editors and op-ed contributors that is maintaining the newspaper's image of a mouthpiece of anti-Russian lobby in the United States.
It didn't take long for the Post to publish its first diatribe of the year. On January 2, an editorial under the headline "Mr. Putin's Bailout. As Russia's economy crashes, No. 1 looks out for himself" informed us that the Kremlin's "crisis strategy…is aimed at rescuing one man — Mr. Putin — and banks more on political repression than monetary tools."
The editorial expressed concern with a new constitutional amendment extending the presidential term from four to six years; it interpreted this piece of legislation as Putin's attempt, "in the near future", to "retake the presidential office before Russians fully feel the effects of the country's" worsening economic conditions. The logic of this statement baffles me. I could understand it if Putin pushed for a law allowing him to immediately retire in the Bahamas. By why would he want to change one top office for another to escape the anger of ordinary Russians? Besides, being already in the second month of "the near future", it's worth noticing that Putin is still in the White House, and President Medvedev is still in the Kremlin.
The editorial also criticized — and rightfully so – a government draft law on treason and espionage. Since then, President Medvedev authorized his administration to dramatically rework the draft. But don't expect the Post to tell its readers about this apparently insignificant development.
The Post regained its footage on January 8, when it compared Russia's cutoff of gas deliveries to Ukraine to Russia's invasion of Georgia last August. The editorial went on by saying that the Kremlin's "…real aim [of the cutoff] is to advance Russia's aggressive strategy of using its energy exports to divide Europe and undermine those states it still considers its rightful subjects." Sounds like 2006? It sure does, and I wouldn't blame the newspaper for that: in tough economic times, recycling garbage makes economic sense.
The Post's editors weren't done with Russia until January 20, when they used the tragic death of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova as a reason to spit another dose of anti-Russian venom. This time, they recycled their favorite list of "victims of the Putin regime." Although some names on it look familiar — Viktor Yushchenko, Anna Politkovskaya, and Alexander Litvinenko — the addition to the list of Karina Moskalenko was somewhat surprising, given that her alleged "mercury poisoning in Strasbourg, France, in October" was a petty accident at best. Eh, well, the list of Putin's victims can only grow. Just like kids.
The editorial then made a remarkable confession:
It is possible that Mr. Putin and his security services had nothing to do with any of these murders.
Wow! What is the point then? The point is that if you are to believe the Post, Putin had created a "political climate" in which all these real and unreal "murders" occurred.
(That, I guess, begs a larger question: to what extent is a leader of a country responsible for the violent crimes taking place there? Are we to hold responsible presidents Clinton and Bush for creating a "climate" in which massacres at Columbine and Virginia Tech became possible?)
Russia uber-basher, Anne Applebaum, has added some spice, too, as usual. She began, on January 13, with an op-ed about the gas conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Sharing with the Post's editors a habit of not reading what the newspaper's own journalists report, Applebaum first called "exceptionally hollow" claims that Ukraine "is not paying a fair price" for its gas. She proceeded with a suggestion that "the Russians…wanted the lights to start going out in Bratislava or Brindisi, just to give everyone a scare." She concluded with a call on the European Union to launch a Holy Energy War against "unreliable" Russians.
Applebaum's next exercise in creative Russia writing came on January 27, as she set out to criticize "negative…foreign response to Obama's inauguration." Do you think that Applebaum began with her husband, Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who joked that Barack Obama's grandfather was a cannibal and ate a Polish missionary? Do you think that she disapproved of a Polish parliamentarian, Arthur Gorski, who called President Obama "black crypto-communist" and further complained that Obama's election "is a disaster, it is the end of the white man's civilisation"? Think again. Applebaum got upset because Pravda.ru called Obama's presidency "a sham."
(Applebaum admitted that she had chosen this quote "selectively." And I understand why: in a Freudian slip of the mind, she was subconsciously driven to soulmates.)
Then, there was Robert Amsterdam who, on January 27, wrote an op-ed under the tasteful headline "Partners in Crime. Why Lawlessness Works for Chaves and Putin." Amsterdam has recently visited Venezuela to attend "a congress of student leaders." Being apparently unable to resist the urge to boast about his bravery — but, at the same time, eager to maintain his reputation as a Russia "expert" — Amsterdam came up with an awkward hybrid, in which he attempted to prove that the "shooting of Politkovskaya" in 2006 and "510 violent deaths" in Venezuela in December 2008 alone was conceptually the same thing.
Linking Putin to places of Amsterdam's international travel is an interesting approach. I strongly suspect that should Amsterdam visit Romania, he'll compare Putin to Count Dracula.
The last in line was David Ignatius who, on February 1, presented an account of Putin's speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Sure, Ignatius reminded us that Putin was "an ex-KGB man", but, remarkably enough, he did so only after describing what Putin had to tell to the audience. Let me repeat: Ignatius first described Putin's speech and only after mentioned Putin's KGB background.
A strange man he is, this David Ignatius.