On September 13, with no single Russia-related article published in the Washington Post, I thought that the subtitle of this piece will eventually read: What the Washington Post did not write about Russia in September 2009.
It's not that nothing of significance has happened in Russia in the first half of the month. Just three days before, on September 10, the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev published an article, "Russia, forward!", outlining his ambitious agenda for the country's modernization. However, the Post's editors found no reason to even mention Medvedev's publication (following apparently the in-house rule: "About Russia, either bad or nothing").
Then, on September 14, Philip Pan came up with an article accusing Russia in meddling in the presidential election campaign in Ukraine and even in "laying the groundwork for a … serious confrontation with Ukraine." Short on arguments and laced with gratuitous anti-Russian swings, the article was so different from Pan's usually thoughtful and fact-based stuff that one couldn't help but question whether Pan actually wrote it.
In the first Russia-related op-ed of the month, on September 15, Anne Applebaum lamented the decision by GQ magazine to pull back, from its Russian edition, the article "Vladimir Putin's Dark Rise to Power", by Scott Anderson. The article recycled, for the umpteenth time, insinuations that Russian security services were behind a series of bomb explosions in Moscow in 2000. The ever-perceptive Applebaum immediately concluded that the Russian government is now capable of exerting a de facto control not only over Russian, but also over American, media outlets.
(Let's play out Applebaum's logic a bit. Someone submits an article to the Post insinuating, for the umpteenth time, that the Bush administration was fully aware in advance of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 — and the Internet was full of such nonsense in the days preceding the 8th anniversary of 9/11. Naturally, the Post rejects this piece, first, because this is bullshit and, second, because this is old bullshit. Bingo: the U.S. government is exerting a de facto control over the Post.)
The Wikipedia defines the Valdai International Discussion Club as "an international framework for the leading experts from around the world to debate on Russia and its role in the world…The club unites leading foreign experts and journalists who analyze Russia’s politics, economy and culture." That said, will someone please explain me what Jim Hoagland does in the Valdai Club? His article, "Two Faces of Russia", that reports on his this year's Valdai experience, is anything but the analysis of "Russia’s politics, economy and culture."
Hoagland begins his description of a meeting of the Valdai Club participants with Vladimir Putin by quoting the Russian prime-minister: "You all look well fed, well dressed." Everyone in the room — and the rest of the world too – took this line for what it was: a trade-mark Putin acerbic joke. But not Hoagland, who immediately sensed "a spy's gambit", an attempt to "compromise or co-opt [read: recruit for Russian intelligence services] 45 foreign academics, think-tank experts and journalists."
Needless to say, Hoagland was the only one in the room who did not fall victim to Putin's charm and was still capable of clearly seeing "the vengeful, hostile-to-change and sensitive-to-slight part of the Russian personality" represented by Putin. In successfully resisting the recruiting advances of the Russian prime-minister, Hoagland joins none other than the former president Bush, whom, according to Hoagland, Putin tried to recruit too, but "failed, and will never forget or forgive." Kudos to both George W. and Jim!
What else did we learn from Hoagland's "analysis"? Not much. That Putin is "the former KGB colonel" (he was actually lieutenant-colonel) and that "he preserves the option of taking back the top job in three years." That Medvedev is "an attorney" and "may be developing ideas of his own about … 2012." That's about it.
Next year, the organizers of the Valdai Club should consider replacing Hoagland with someone who'd bring analysis of "Russia’s politics, economy and culture" to a level at least slightly higher than that displayed by popular Russophobic websites.
The decision by the Obama administration to scrap the deployment of elements of missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic – first reported by Michael Shear, Ann Scott Tyson and Debbi Wilgoren on September 17 — has brought Russia back to the forefront of the Post's attention. Following-up on the subject the next day, Shear and Scott Tyson pointed out that the decision could potentially facilitate greater U.S.-Russia cooperation on Iran and provide a fertile ground for the ongoing START treaty negotiations.
The news also had a positive impact on Philip Pan, who returned to his usual fact-based reporting style. On September 18, Pan reported that the U.S.' decision was met with cautious approval in Moscow, but the reaction was more complicated in Poland and the Czech Republic. Teaming up with Wilgoren, Pan next wrote about the new NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen's, call for improved relations between the alliance and Russia, including the possibility of linking their respective missile defense systems. Mary Beth Sheridan and Pan repeated the assertion that President Obama's decision was expected to smooth talks on renegotiating START, but warned that there could be resistance in the U.S. Senate against attempts to link START and U.S. missile defense.
Finally, Walter Pincus reported on a little-noticed meeting with reporters and the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates during which Gates admitted that Moscow was right about complaining: "that the radar that was going into the Czech Republic looked deep into Russia and actually could monitor the launches of their ICBMs as well." Pincus reminded us that:
"Up to that time, it was generally believed that the radar would be directed only at Iran. No government official had publicly acknowledged that the radar, which had a 360-degree capability, would be able to see as far as the Caucasus Mountains inside Russia."
(Meaning that the Russians always had a point criticizing the location of the radar).
The Post's editorial board was quick to react to the new development. An editorial, on September 18, did not directly question the validity of the Obama administration's novel missile defense approach, but the Post editors took issue with the fact that:
"By replacing a planned radar system in the Czech Republic with another in the Caucasus and by ending a commitment to place 10 long-range missile interceptors in Poland, President Obama satisfies the unjustified demands of Russia's leaders, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. Moscow implausibly claimed to feel threatened by those systems; in reality, Russia objects to any significant U.S. deployment in NATO countries that once belonged to the Soviet bloc."
The editorial was obviously meant to provide a list of talking points upon which the Post's regulars could elaborate. And the usual suspects haven't disappointed.
David Kramer (the tireless fighter against the "grand bargain" concept) accused the administration in "capitulation to Russian pressure", "placating Russia", and "[w]orse, rewarding bad Russian behavior." Unfortunately, usually attentive to details Kramer didn't elaborate which bad Russian behavior he had in mind in this particular context.
German Marshall Fund's Ronald Asmus while acknowledging that "[t]he defense architecture the administration proposes may make more strategic sense", is very unhappy that Obama's decision "has created a crisis of confidence in Washington's relations with Central and Eastern Europe." According to Asmus, some leaders of the Central and East European countries "are no longer certain NATO is capable of coming to their rescue if there were a crisis involving Russia." (I love this euphemistic "a crisis involving Russia").
Anna Applebaum was so kind as to let us peek into her bedroom: by informing us that at the time when Obama tried to reach the Polish prime-minister by phone (the latter refused to take the call), Applebaum's husband, Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, "was asleep."
Finally, Jim Hoagland treated us to yet another piece of his "analysis." This time, based on his conversations with unnamed Russian military "analysts" (a "tart-tongued Russian defense analyst" and "an authoritative Russian military man") , Hoagland accused president Medvedev in cheating on his commitments to nuclear arms control:
"The Russians happily pocketed the prestige of being back on equal footing with the United States in nuclear affairs. But they seem to place a low priority on the actual results that will come out of the talks."
On September 30, Pan reported (and followed-up the next day with an extended version of the same) on the release of the much-anticipated Tagliavini Report covering the last year's military conflict in South Ossetia.
Last August, it took the Post only a few hours to react to Russia's confronting Georgia's brazen attack on sleeping Tskhinvali — by calling to stop Russia from preventing the massacre, by the Georgian troops, of innocent civilians. This time around, the Post's editorial board took its time — a full three days — to deliver its "verdict" on the Tagliavini Report. Given that a 1,000-page document gave every involved party something to hang on, it's hardly surprising that the Post called the report "to be particularly disappointing to Mr. Putin and his apologists" — invoking the memory of the Post editors' soul mate, the legendary Bolshevik Vladimir Lenin, who once mused that by picking up appropriate quotes from the Bible, one can compose a convincing anti-religious rant.
Moving from the "analysis" business to a prediction one, the editorial concludes that "another war [in Georgia] will soon follow." As I wrote before, this is something that the Post has been craving for the whole month of August.