Pravda On The Potomac-1 (What The Washington Post Wrote About Russia In January 2009)

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. 

Pan's last article on the subject was on January 20; the same day, he reported on double murder, in Moscow, of a human rights lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, and a journalist, Anastasia Baburova.

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 next day, the Post — as if running out of ideas — suddenly assaulted French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, for showing "weakness in handling Russia" and "kowtowing to Moscow." La voila!  

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 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.   

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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8 Responses to Pravda On The Potomac-1 (What The Washington Post Wrote About Russia In January 2009)

  1. Alex(Igor) says:

    A good one, Eugene. I especially liked your ” tough economic times, recycling garbage makes economic sense.” and Polish Foreign Minister saying that Obama has Pole-hungry cannibals in his line – I missed this one in November.

  2. W. Shedd says:

    Good opinion piece, some interesting points.
    I don’t think equating the murder of a journalist in a nation’s capital equates to the murder by teenagers in schools, however.
    Like it or not, journalists are part of a political system, and their execution style murder on public streets is likely to attract and require political attention. Such attention is strangely lacking in Russia, and the reasoning provided by Medvedev (and Putin before him) is bizarre.
    For the record, US presidents do address murders such as the Columbine tragedy directly. Clinton more than once tied it to his efforts on gun control. Most western leaders would do the same.
    However, in Russia a president making comments about graphically public murders is strangely considered to be manipulating or politicizing the issue. This would seem to speak to some fragility of the legal system in Russia, if a few words of regret or (heaven forbid) a declaration against murder and organized crime might steer authorities in their investigations!
    The murder rate in Russia stands at 4 times higher than the deplorable murder rate in the US. And yet, Russia would like to be considered as an equal with the EU, just as civilized, just as cultured, just as wealthy. How can this truly be, unless political leaders in Russia, beginning with the President, don’t consider unimpuned murder of journalists on the streets to be worthy of their attention!

  3. Excellent post, Eugene.
    I should point out that the vast majority of Russia’s homicide rate is due to drunken squabbles between middle-aged men in their apartments or similar. The age of the average murder victim is the mid-40’s there, whereas it’s in the mid-20’s in the US.
    The streets of a typical city are more dangerous than average for Western Europe, but probably safer than in a typical American city.
    “Russia would like to be considered as an equal with the EU, just as civilized, just as cultured, just as wealthy.”
    I’d imagine this is just a (IMO valid) assumption. At least the latter part, most Russians like to think they’ve already accomplished the first two. 🙂

  4. Alex says:

    Congratulations, Eugene – you’ve got the followers (or plagiarists)
    Pravda on the Potomac
    by James Kirchick
    Russian propaganda descends on Washington.
    Post Date Wednesday, February 18, 2009
    Unexceptional anti-Russian flux with few extraordinary statements (but some useful hard facts about past investments).
    What surprised me most is that it is dated “18 Feb 2009” – watch and clocks on all my computers show “15 Feb 2009″… Am I behind the times or that Kirchick is all in the future?

  5. Re: Referenced New Republic Article and Above Post
    The presentation of Kadyrov’s relationship with the Kremlin is (comparatively speaking) selective nitpicking, given some of the folks courted by official Washington. The repackaged KLA being among them. There’re some stark realities in Chechnya and Kosovo. A point that the Kremlin and Capital Hill will note relative to how they carry on in such areas.
    As for the references to Russian PR and media, The referenced New Republic article makes a series of misrepresentative comments.
    Uncovering the Slanted Coverage of Russia
    A Closer Look at Improving Russia’s Image
    Great to see Eugene’s piece at Russia: Other Points of View – a venue which can nevertheless stand to be a bit more open in offering other perfectly viable points of view – that are getting muted at the high profile venues – in favor of folks thinking like the author of the mentioned New Republic article.

  6. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks very much for your comments. I always appreciate your input.

  7. Eugene Ivanov says:

    “How often is Paul Goble’s CIA background highlighted?”
    Apparently, as often as the CIA background of Geowge W. H. Bush…
    I agree with you, Mike: all the talk about imminent Russia’s “collapse” are a quintessential example of wishful thinking.
    Recently, Russia has been attractive place to be in for purely economic reasons. It’s not fo no reason, that Russia is now the second largest immigrant country in the world.

  8. Thanks Mike,
    Always a pleasure to read your comments — just like your pieces.
    Will I surprise you by saying that I don’t like the KGB guys? I don’t think so. But this is a fact of the contemporary Russian history that at a certain point of it — coinciding with Putin’s attempts to restore some limited order in the country — KGB turned out to be one of a very few sources of skilled, open-minded, educated and, yes, comparatively speaking, uncorrupted guys.
    As for your CIA/KGB “hungup”… What can I say? Leaving in a glass house, don’t throw the stones around…

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