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. Alex says:

    Eugene, thanks – good as always. I am still thinking – was the last comparison a compliment to WaPo or an offense to Lenin? (but it reminded me another particularly useful in professional journalism anecdote about K. Marx – in Kennedy’s “The President and The Press” speech).

  2. Alex says:

    So, it means that WaPo has a future – a room for development :))
    I lost the original link (to,I think, Miller Center), but here is an extract from the pdf (with all spelling/OCR mistakes intact):
    JFK, The President and The Press,1961
    “..You may remember that in 1851 t. he New York Herald Tribune, under the sponsorship and publishing of Horace Greeley, employed as its London correspondent an obscure journalist by the name of Karl
    We are told that foreign correspondent Marx, stone broke, and with a family ill and undernourished, constantly appealed to Greeley and Managing Editor Charles Dana for an increase in his munificent
    salary of $5 per installment, a salary which he and Engels ungratefully labeled as the “lousiest petty bourgeois cheating.”
    But when all his financial appeals were refused, Marx looked around for other means of livelihood and
    fame, eventually terminating his relationship with the Tribune and devoting his talents full time to the cause that would bequeath to the world the seeds of Leninism, Stalinism, revolution and the cold war.
    If only this capitalistic New York newspaper had treated him more kindly; if only Marx had remained a
    foreign correspondent, history might have been different. And I hope all publishers will bear this lesson in mind the next time they receive a poverty-stricken appeal for a small increase in the expense account from an obscure newspaper ..”

  3. Leo says:

    You are too hard on WaPo, way too hard. Most of them are just journalists doing their job, reporting the most obtainable version of truth. Let’s take Philip Pan’s article that you so critisize. Whatever was written was solidly based on the information provided to him. I even believe for an article derived from the input of various Kiev-based think tanks Pan’s piece is quite benign. Because this is what think tanks do, they “sell” issues, real or imaginary. And at this point the sellable issues are related to Russia stirring s**t in Ukraine before the elections, come and save us from the Russian bear. Granted, Russia roots for a friendly government in Ukraine (as any resonable neighbor would) and the degree of involvement is much less than it was in 2004. But in terms of finesse this involvement is still not on a par with western-style meddling. Hence the accusations like those voiced in Pan’s article. Anyhow, we can’t expect Pan to deconvolute Russo-Ukrainian relations in just one article, can we? This would take several selfless PhD students. I suspect if Russia and Ukraine were spouses, even Sigmund Freud would give up counseling them because things are so complex.
    I do agree that Mrs. Sikorski took the issue of the unpublished GQ article too far. But the very fact that such articles surface every now and then has more to do with the lack of transparency of the official investigation into the explosions in Moscow. And piecemeal results that the public received. This is not a unique case, by the way, most of the official investigations of Putin’s era were shrouded in secrecy and posed more questions than provided answers. For example, the gas used at Dubrovka still has not been disclosed. Issues like these lend credibility to alternative theories and also opportunities for Appelbaums of the world to exploit those theories. Yes, FSB blowing up buildings in Moscow is BS. But did FSB and other government agencies provide enough information to convince everybody that it is indeed BS?
    Then again, Donald Asmus held a post in Clinton’s administration. So, what he wrote is entirely logical, based on his vested interest in NATO and Eastern Europe. Is he really wrong about the sentiment of Eastern European elites regarding the abandonment of the missile defence program? One could read some Ea-Eu press and see that he is not. Whether this sentiment defies logic is a different story, but it is what it is. In a related development the titan of titans Joe Biden will travel to Ea-Eu soon to placate their feeling of abandonment. I am anxious to see if everything again reduces to verbal attacks on Russia or there will be substance to this visit.
    Going back to WaPo, it seems like Russia is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. And given the dismal level of trade between the two countries that line is quite safe to follow. Does not hurt anybody’s business on either side.
    Best regards,
    P.S. Looks like there will be a movie about the Russo-Georgian war of 2008. Makes me wonder if the fictional Saaka (no other than Andy Garcia) will also eat his tie.

  4. Hi Alex!
    Pardon my oversight of you.

  5. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Mike and welcome back! Always read your comments as a treat.
    Yes, this is the article I mentioned in my response to Leo. Doesn’t look to me as a piece of quality reporting.
    I suspect that quite naturally, Pan is being prepared to cover the upcoming presidential election in Ukraine, and his articles are sort of “warming up.” And if this is a beginning…
    As a matter of fact, I wasn’t serious when suggesting to expel Hoagland from Valdai Club. The fact that Russian leaders meet with Western journalists expressing unfriendly views is a good sign. What upsets me in this particular Hoagland’s article is that you really don’t need to go to Russia and meet with Putin/Medvedev to write such an “analytical piece.” Kim Ziegfeld does a better job without leaving NYC 🙂
    Best Regards,

  6. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Mike,
    As an old friend of mine used to say: one doesn’t have to be a fish to study marine biology…
    I completely agree with you on the value of an outsider’s point of view (and I easily admit that I myself never took part in meetings between Obama and Kissinger :). But there must be an honest attempt at understanding the issue.
    For this reason alone, I insist that Hoagland wasted his seat at the meeting with Putin. What did we learn from Hoagland? That Putin was a KGB man and Medvedev was not? How perceptive!
    Hoagland then goes to the meeting with Medvedev and of all imaginable questions, he asked what Medvedev thought about having “the same blood” with Putin.
    Was it worth of all the money someone had to pay for shipping Hoagland to Russia? He could write the same piece without leaving his office.
    This isn’t an issue of outsiders vs insiders. This is an issue of having an agenda.
    Best Regards,

  7. Eugene Ivanov says:

    “The greater censorship is the one not getting discussed.”

  8. Leo says:

    Yes, truly free and quality journalism should be expected to cut through spin, but that is in the ideal world. In the real world (based on the observations of my uninformed self) certain things can motivate reporters to do it, such as:
    – when the alternative viewpoint is well represented by journalists, scholars, talking heads (pundits?) in the particular region or country of interest (if it is some terra incognita, then the facts on the ground don’t suffice) and also in the newspaper’s homecountry;
    – these pundits can be considered sufficiently independent and representative;
    – that whatever the journalist is writing can be challenged by a comparable outlet (not cheating unless get caught) and readers can be lost (newspaper is a business enterprise, after all).
    Does this apply to the Ukrainian situation? Not so sure. So, I would not go as far as claim that WaPo practices sensorship or self-sensorship. Using your terminology it is more of “laziness”, I believe, when a particular piece is considered “good enough”. Anyhow, I am not as acquainted with the inner workings of the American media as perhaps you are, but the above is my outsider’s view.
    I was being sarcastic regarding Eugene’s critique of Pan’s piece, there is absolutely nothing wrong with constructive criticism. Regarding Pan’s recent article, let’s hear what the Man of the blog has to say first.
    While I agree that the choice of Pan’s sources in Kiev is one-sided, it would be hard for me (if I were Philip Pan) to present a balanced view. Because I am not sure that indigenous Russia-friendly views are well-heard in Ukraine. The positive view of Russia that the majority of Ukrainians hold does not seem to be well represented in the think tanks, NGOs and political parties. Again, I am not as informed as you may be and I don’t want to speculate.
    Yes, if James Bonds of the world had their way, common folk would be kept in the dark in any country. But luckily they are supposed to follow executive orders. So, their transparency depends on their accountability before the legislative branch. And in turn the accountability of legislatures to respective constituencies. Can we really say that these accountabilities are similar in, for example, Russia and the United States? No, the degrees of accountability are very different. And for this reason we (and more importantly victims’ families) know orders of magniture more about 9/11 than we do about acts of terror in Russia.
    Regarding the security of Ea-Eu, being crybabies brings these countries tangible benefits, even 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Investment, military infrastructure, hardware, training are among the freebies or cheapos. From this point of view, worse is better for some of them as far as relations with Russia go, never mind Russia’s enfeebled economic state and limited capabilities. But in the end they will have to fend for themselves considering the strained American economy and less ideology-driven administration in the White House. There was a detailed article on this in The National Interest:
    So, the short answer is no, there is no rationale to spend US taxpayers’ money in far-flung places capable of taking care of themselves. Hopefully, it will sink in with the new generation of the American ruling class.
    Best regards,

  9. Gentlemen
    What Eugene says in paragraph two in his last set of comments relates in part to the value/effectiveness of foreign NGOs.
    In reply to Leo’s last set of comments, in the US, there’s this long running show 60 Minutes, which is known for investigating coverups.
    True investigative journalism will not have a difficult time in highlighting what’s inaccurate with much of the mass media coverage on the former Communist bloc.

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