Fish rot from their head, according to a popular Russian saying. I remembered this wisdom when reading Fred Hiatt's February 8 editorial, "A Russia Reality Check." Sitting at this year's Munich Security Conference, Hiatt got terrified by the prospect that the Obama administration's change of the "overall tone on Russia" may result in "a 'grand bargain' that would mollify the Russian bear." Eager to caution the young and naive president of the perils of appeasing Russia, Hiatt quickly summarized the Russian bear's major transgressions:
"Over the past year, Russia has invaded the sovereign state of Georgia…cut off natural gas to parts of Europe…sold weapons to Iran and Venezuela; and otherwise made itself disagreeable."
(I especially liked this last line: "and otherwise made itself disagreeable.")
Even by the relaxed standards of The Washington Post, Hiatt isn't an expert on Russia. Yet by virtue of being the editorial page editor, he's ultimately responsible for setting the "overall tone on Russia." It's therefore Hiatt who should be credited with the creation of a peculiar mix of ignorance and arrogance that had become a trademark of the Post's coverage of Russia.
Taking their cues from the "boss", the rank and file didn't disappoint. Following Hiatt's lead, Charles Krauthammer presented his own "long list of brazen Russian provocations." Nothing new here, but one entry caught my attention:
"(c) Planning to establish a Black Sea naval base in Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia, conquered by Moscow last summer."
What did Krauthammer mean to say? Looks to me like he simply didn't know the difference between Abkhazia and South Ossetia (without going into discussion of whether the term "conquered by Moscow" applies in the latter case, either).
This begs, I guess, a larger question: does anyone at the Post read submissions before publishing them? Apparently not. Describing his interview with Vice President Joe Biden, David Broder wrote this:
"Biden said his impression is that Russia is looking to establish "a long-term economic relationship" with the United States. He attributed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's changed attitude to the fact that "all of a sudden, oil is no longer $190 a barrel," cutting deeply into Russia's foreign earnings. Biden said that there is a desire in both capitals to find a mechanism for continuing bilateral negotiations, but that no specific arrangements will be made until Obama meets with Putin."
Wait a minute! The price of oil never reached $190 a barrel; it peaked at $143 last summer. Besides, President Obama isn't going to meet with Putin; he is going to meet with President Medvedev, in London, in April. To be sure, Biden's propensity for gaffes is well known. But wasn't it a responsibility of Broder — and/or an editor — to correct the mistakes? Well, whatever the case, this is the stuff the Post is feeding its readers.
Jim Hoagland, too, is unhappy with the changing tone of U.S.-Russia relations. His argument against the U.S. talking to "former adversaries" is that in times of economic troubles, this "will be seen or portrayed as a sign of weakness." What apparently keeps Hoagland sleepless at nights is the horrible image of "Obama's extended hand" being slapped by Vladimir Putin's clenched fist.
In contrast to Biden, Hoagland knows that Obama is going to meet with Medvedev, not Putin. His insistence that "Medvedev still takes orders from Putin" (whom Hoagland recently called "a cold-blooded KGB operative who sits atop a system that increasingly condones the physical elimination of its critics") is therefore a conscious attempt to torpedo the Obama-Medvedev dialogue before it even started.
Even compared to Fred Hiatt, Jackson Diehl is not a Russia expert. I was therefore puzzled to learn that the German Marshall Fund sponsored his trip to Moscow for "a few days." This trip has left Diehl with "considerable doubts" that "a new era of cooperation between Washington and Moscow" was possible. I was however impressed with the depth of Diehl's Moscow sources: a human rights activist, a full-time street protester Garry Kasparov, and "a respected military reporter", Pavel Felgenhauer. Respected by whom?
I was also genuinely surprised by the fact that the Marshall Fund went through the pain of sending Diehl to Moscow at all, for everything he's written could be composed by scouting La Russophobe for a couple of hours.
It would appear — somewhat unexpectedly — that the desire of Messrs. Hiatt, Krauthammer, Hoagland, and Diehl to hit the "exit button" in U.S.-Russia relations isn't shared by their neocon pal, Robert Kagan. But Kagan has another point to make. He is troubled by the rumors that the Obama administration was discussing a 10 percent cut in defense spending for the coming fiscal year. Kagan argues — in a piece under the telling deadline, "No Time to Cut Defense" – that "[A] reduction in defense spending …would unnerve American allies… and embolden potential adversaries." Although the role of the primary "potential adversary" is assigned to Iran, Kagan is quick to add:
"[the] Obama administration is right to want to begin negotiations with Russia over missile defense and arms control. But it is a poor opening gambit to announce a cut in American defense spending before negotiations even begin. If Russian leaders believe that the United States is looking for a way out of weapons systems — missile defense in particular — they will negotiate accordingly. They might ask why they should make a deal at all."
As I understand it, for Kagan, with Russia on the world map, it's never time "to cut defense."
As if the images of a "resurgent" Russia with nukes weren't scary enough, Michelle Van Cleave brings up another sexy subject: Russian spies (oh yes!). In contrast to some other Post authors, Van Cleave knows what she's talking about: in 2003-2006, she served as head of U.S. counterintelligence. Now, Van Cleave wants fellow Americans to know:
"…that the United States is a spy's paradise…Today, most of the world's governments (even friendly ones) and roughly 35 suspected terrorist organizations run intelligence operations against the United States. The Russians, for example, still have as many spies here as they did at the height of the Cold War."
Please, note this "the Russians, for example." It's a hallmark of the Post's coverage of Russia: to mention Russia as an "example" of everything negative facing the United States. (Hoagland: "Russia provides the clearest example" [of President Obama's naivete in foreign policy]).
And here comes Anne Applebaum, who's upset with the growing protectionism around the world. Do you think that she has in mind the "Buy American" provision in President Obama's stimulus package? Well, read this:
"New tariffs are already in force, for example in Russia, where especially high ones have destroyed the previously thriving used-car import business (and thus inspired used-car salesmen to stage unusually violent protests)."
I strongly suspect that the only reason Applebaum invoked Russia in this particular context was her desire to point to an anti-government demonstration in Vladivostok. And I'd love to understand Applebaum's distinction between "usually" and "unusually" violent protests.
Regardless of what she's writing about, Applebaum never misses a chance to say something nasty about Russia and Russian people. In her February 24 piece about human rights in China, Applebaum hails Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton's, decision to attend a church in Beijing. Then, she adds:
"In Russia, a country that is ambivalent about its repressive past, all prominent visiting Americans should make a point of visiting a memorial to the victims of Stalin."
I wonder what place(s) "all prominent visiting Americans" should visit in Poland (Applebaum's home country), a hub of flourishing anti-Semitism in Europe. I also wonder how "all prominent Americans" should react to the claim by Polish Foreign Minister (and Applebaum's husband), Radoslaw Sikorski, that the African ancestors of President Obama were "cannibals."
"The precondition for such a policy is cooperation with Russia and Pakistan. With respect to Russia, it requires a clear definition of priorities, especially a choice between partnership or adversarial conduct insofar as it depends on us."
Insofar as it depends on us. Truly bright people like Kissinger never age.
The rest of the Post's Russia coverage was provided by Philip Pan, Walter Pincus, and Sarah Schafer writing about Kyrgyzstan's decision to close the Manas Air Base and perpetuating a common belief, in the U.S., that this move had been the result of Russia's heavy lobbying. To the Post's credit, Baktybek Abdrisaev, Kyrgyzstan's former ambassador to the United States, was given an opportunity to tell Americans to look in the mirror, when searching for a guilty party.
Craig Whitlock covered the 45th Munich Security Conference and Biden's famous "the reset button" speech. Sarah Schafer called attention to the uncertain future of the estimated 12 million foreign workers in Russia as they increasingly lose their jobs amid the worsening economic crisis. Walter Pincus wrote that, according to congressional and administration sources, the United States is more than two years ahead of the schedule set under the 2002 Moscow Treaty in reducing the number of nuclear warheads operationally deployed on strategic missiles and bombers. He also reported on the congressional testimony of Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence, in which Blair discussed Russia's worsening demographic situation and the consequences it might have for the country's future military readiness. Karen DeYoung covered the important visit to Moscow of Undersecretary of State William Burns.
As he settles in Russia, Philip Pan has become already accustomed to a great Russian tradition: to create obstacles in order to then heroically overcome them. That's my interpretation of his February 9 article, "Stepping Out From Putin's Shadow." Having apparently placed too much faith into insinuations, by his "elder comrades" on the editorial board, that "Medvedev still takes orders from Putin", Pan is now surprised to see signs that:
"With a series of careful moves and subtle statements, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has begun to shed his image as the obedient sidekick of his powerful predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin."
Writing, on February 20, on the jury acquittal of three men charged with the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, Pan, unfortunately, repeated the popular nonsensical claim that Putin "disparaged Politkovskaya's work as 'utterly insignificant."
I wish that in the future, Pan would pay more attention to the quality of his quotations. And, as a token of my appreciation of Pan's undeniable journalistic skills, I want to present him with a free gift: the precise quote of what Putin had indeed said about Politkovskaya (according to the transcript of his joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in Dresden, on October 10, 2006):
" First of all, I would like to say that no matter who committed this crime and no matter what the motives behind it, it was a horribly cruel crime and it cannot go unpunished. […] This journalist was indeed a fierce critic of the current authorities in Russia. But, […], I think, her impact on Russian political life was only very slight. She was well known in the media community, in human rights circles and in the West, but her influence on political life within Russia was very minimal. The murder of someone like her, the brutal murder of a woman and mother, was in itself an act directed against our country and against the Russian authorities."
The brutal murder of a woman and mother, was in itself an act directed against our country. Which part of this sentence do you not understand, Philip?