Pravda On The Potomac-9 (What The Washington Post Wrote About Russia In September 2009)

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.   

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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9 Responses to Pravda On The Potomac-9 (What The Washington Post Wrote About Russia In September 2009)

  1. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t know the Kennedy/Marx story. Can you tell?
    As for Lenin/WP. Well, I was just stating the obvious: both think similarly — ideology trumps facts and common sense. That said, intellectually of course the WP doesn’t come even close to Iliych.

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Nah! Engels would have found another Marx to sponsor…
    Thanks Alex, that was fun.

  3. Leo, Eugene & Co:
    Eugene made reference to one of Pan’s articles appearing as if someone else had input to it. Off the record, I’ve heard several well placed claims that at some leading American media venues (two in particular), the given author’s submission on a subject like the former Communist bloc can be noticeably edited in the form of additional and/or changed substance.
    Regarding one of Leo’s points, truly free and quality journalism involves independent follow-up that cuts thru any PR/think tank spin. In this sense, it’s not wrong to provide a well founded constructive criticism of high profile journalists like Philip Pan.
    Some of the reporting seems to be based on relying on previous slants. This can be reasonably seen as either following a certain party line and/or a flat out lazy approach.
    Take this article on Ukraine by Pan:
    The plusses –
    – Notes that Yushchenko’s polices have alienated many in Crimea.
    – Acknowledges how Crimea’s Russians and Ukrainians generally get along, while sharing similar views on a number of matters (like NATO expansion and Russia’s Black Sea fleet).
    The minuses that conform with the standard slant:
    – Its accounting of Crimea’s past omits that parts of Crimean territory were affiliated with the Rus state before the Tatars established any control over it. The article also omits the slave trade aspect of that Tatar rule against others in the region (particularly Slavs). Stalin’s mass deportation of the Crimean Tatars is mentioned. This kind of historical overview has been evident in English language mass media. Its omissions nurture the caricature of evil Russians against others seen as more virtuous.
    I appreciate Eugene’s point about how Jim Hoagland suggestively pats himself on the back as a kind of hero journalist left uncorrupted to the Russian government involved Valdai Discussion Club. I especially appreciate Eugene’s suggestive follow-up that others should get such invites over Hoagland.
    I’m glad to see Eugene at the SCF. The next step is for Russian government involved venues like RT and the Valdai Discussion Club to do a better job at propping Western based analytical talents that have shown an ability to shine in a high profile situation, if given the opportunity. Of course, The Washington Posts and New York Times out there can do their share in providing a more substantive and even-handed coverage. Meantime, it seems that the Western mass media preferred Russian journalists are given better opportunities at the more influential of English language outlets.

  4. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Leo, and thanks for your as always great feedback.
    With all due respect, I disagree on Pan. I happen to like him and consider him a very fine reporter, the key word here being reporter, not agitaror. Unfortunately, his piece on Ukraine (and the next I’ll cover for October) is a classic example of reporting turning outright propaganda.
    I agree with you that Pan can’t “deconvolute Russo-Ukrainian relations in just one article.” Did he try? Sure, he just repeated something that some folks from some think tank told him. But the choice of these folks was his, and tellingly enough, every single person had nothing but negative to say about Russia. And this is in the country with high level of positive public sentiments toward Russia (and the country where Putin is actually more popular than any Ukrainian politician).
    As for Mrs. Sikorski’s (I love that!) article, I’m not saying that we know everything about the cases you mentioned. My problem is that every single case of apparent meddling with the media freedom is immediately elevated into personal Putin’s operation. I wonder how he finds time to be so prolific 🙂
    Lack of transparency it is, I agree. Do you expect a lot of transparency in cases where secret services are involved — in any country, for that matter?
    No question, Asmus has his point of view. But then, I’d ask the most central question of our foreign policy in Europe: why in the hell should we defend Eastern Europe? Why can they not defend themselves now that Russia doesn’t represent so formidable military threat as it used to be? Why should we always treat them as crying babies to be consoled? Don’t we have our own, more pressing, security problems?
    Totally, absolutely, 100% agreed on trade. Should the trade volume between RF and the US double or triple, the amount of (at least stupid) criticism will go down, starting with WSJ and followed by WP. NYT will drag their feet for a while, IMHO 🙂

  5. Hi Eugene
    I don’t mind leaving some of the existing status quo in for the purpose of seeing them successfully refuted by newcomers like… In point of fact, some of these newcomers aren’t really so new. Rather, they’re kept out of an upity clique, while doing their thing elsewhere.
    Putting aside that last person you mention, one can have a greater intuitive insight from a distance, when compared to some folks who’re right on the scene.
    Some of the most knowledgeable sports fans are the ones not blessed with having season tickets and/or going to a good number of games.
    Political “science” is a soft science. All the formal schooling on that subject in the world isn’t always enough to offset someone having a greater intuitive insight on that topic.
    There’re some elitny who carry on like travelling, formally educated propagandists. These individuals seem to be regularly shielded from a more challenged criticism.
    The very last point shouldn’t be confused with the character assassination trolling that’s out there.

  6. Hi back Eugene:
    In some circles, I know someone who gets belittled for being truly independent in terms of making earnest criticisms at different sides of the geopolitical spectrum.
    It’s almost as if some prefer an overly partisan advocacy that overlooks the otherwise obvious fault-lines.
    By no means are these observations unique to yours truly.
    The greater censorship is the one not getting discussed.

  7. This frank discussion has further gotten me in the mood for developing some analysis in the same spirit, to serve as a counterweight to what has been evident at a number of leading venues.

  8. Eugene Ivanov says:

    I agree with you on all three points.
    Ukrainian think thanks, NGOs etc. — like everywhere else — are populated by the most educated, who tend being more nationalistic. In Kiev, that almost automatically means anti-Moscow (but perhaps not necessarily anti-Russian). True, Pan’s “sin” is that he simply didn’t dig deep enough. But who in the mass media does?
    There is no point in arguing that the level of transparency and accountability in general — and as far as secret services are concerned in particular — is higher in the US than in Russia. Period.
    I too enjoyed Bandow’s paper and obviously borrowed from it. That said, defending Europe militarily has beed the cornestone of the US foreigh policy since the WWII. So much of everything (and not only money) was invested in this project. It’s not easy for folks here to say: it’s time to stop it. Obama may well have different ideas, but there is no way he’d say this openly.
    Thanks much for the great discussion.
    Best Regards,

  9. Needless to be said but said anyway: the last point is why I regularly check venues like Eugene’s blog.

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