Pravda On The Potomac-12 (What The Washington Post Wrote About Russia In December 2009)

The Post's coverage of Russia in December hasn't recovered from its November slump.  The future looks uncertain too, due to the suspicious disappearance of Philip Pan.  On December 8, Pan wrote an article describing the public outrage caused by the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer for Hermitage Capital Management.  However, the next article, on December 12, reporting on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev 's firing of 20 senior prison officials connected to the Magnitsky case was signed by a Nataliya Vasilyeva.  Pan hasn't published anything since. 

Philip Pan is a fine reporter, and his coverage of Russia has been, by and large, thoughtful and fair.  If he's re-assigned (or simply moved on), let's wish him well in his new endeavor.

Mary Beth Sheridan reported on a meeting — on the sidelines of the Copenhagen U.N. climate talk — between Presidents Obama and Medvedev.  Not surprisingly, the main topic of their discussion was the conclusion of negotiations over the  START treaty, whose deadline expired on December 5.  Although it was announced that both sides were "quite close" to reaching an agreement,  some issues remained unresolved, and the signing of the new treaty isn't expected until January/February.

A guest contributor, Megan K. Stack, submitted a story describing attempts by the Moscow city government to fight heavy snowfalls by dispersing  clouds.  Remarkably, writing about a seemingly mundane technical issue, Stack managed to insert a "Soviet dictator Josef Stalin" in the first paragraph of the article and a "Chernobyl" into the second.  Lines "Soviet heyday" and "Soviet era" casually followed.  Honestly, I didn't grasp the connection between Josef Stalin and clouds in Moscow skies, but I must say that should Stack apply for a Post's Russia desk position, she appears to be unquestionably qualified.  

(Regardless of what happened to Pan, his absence had little effect on Post's editorial coverage of Russia.  I'm not surprised, since as I mentioned on numerous occasions, the Post's editors don't read what on-the-ground reporters write.  Paraphrasing Picasso, they paint Russia not as they see it, but as they think of it.) 

A December 17 editorial obituary for the father of Russia's market reforms, Yegor Gaidar, made every effort to portrait him as an enemy, if not victim, of the current regime.  This dubious claim was somewhat softened by David Hoffman who quoted Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as saying that Gaidar's passing was "a heavy loss for Russia, for us all."  Sure enough, neither Hoffman nor the editorial mentioned that both Medvedev and Putin sent personal condolences to Gaidar's family.

Three op-ed articles — by Ivan Krastev, Jackson Diehl, and Ronald Asmus — touched upon different aspects of U.S.-Russia relations.

Krastev seems to belong to a part of Eastern/Central Europe political elites who believe that it's the United States' obligation to endlessly defend them from every imaginable military threat, especially, of course, emanating from Russia.  Naturally, Krastev is concerned about the U.S. ability to deal with "insurgent" Russia, and, as his December 1 op-ed shows, Krastev doesn't like what he sees.  He asserts that "Russians…view Obama's global reformism…as an expression of American weakness.''  Really?  I personally am unaware of any statement by a top Russian official revealing such a sentiment.  I thus strongly suspect that Krastev simply puts in Russians' mouth what he himself thinks about Obama's foreign policy. 

Krastev's prescription to "reset" U.S.-Russia relations is therefore very simple: to show Russia its proper place.

"Obama must first demonstrate [to the Russians] that he does not need them.  He needs a clear victory…against the Taliban in Afghanistan… Obama must show strength for the "reset" policy to succeed."

The idea that Obama must show "strength" to the Russians isn't new: Post's domestic authors write about that all the time.  Krastev's opus is simply an imported version of the same.  Yet I like Krastev's demand for a "clear victory…against the Taliban."  It was recently reported that Bulgaria (where Krastev is from) is boosting its contingent in Afghanistan by 30 extra soldiers, bringing its total number to a whopping 300.  What a powerful contribution towards "clear victory against the Taliban"!  Seems to me that people like Krastev prefer to pay for their "victories" exclusively by American blood and treasure.

It's not only Krastev who cannot get a good night's sleep because of a "reset"; Diehl too suffers from a "reset" insomnia.  He's unhappy that too much of the Obama administration's "diplomatic energy" went into the "reset", yet nothing has been gotten in return from Russia on Iran (which, according to Diehl, was "the main object of that reset").  Now Diehl presents Obama with a choice:

"If…Russia will respond to Tehran's intransigence [on nuclear issue] by supporting significant sanctions in the U.N. Security Council early next year, Obama's diplomatic strategy will have an indisputable success to parade. If it does not, it may be the Obama doctrine that gets a reset."

Make no mistake: it's not that Diehl can't wait until Obama succeeds on Iran; it's that he can't wait until Obama fails.  Tying "reset" to Russia's reaction to a prospective U.N. sanction resolution, Diehl is attempting to torpedo any improvement in U.S.-Russia relations.  And if this inflicts political damage on the president in midterm-election year, so much better. 

Asmus' piece reminded me of a popular Russian dish okroshka (a liquid version of pizza):  it includes just a bit of everything Asmus hates about Russia.  First, in passing, he trashed President Medvedev's draft treaty on European security ("we are on different planets when it comes to thinking about Europe's future").   He then turned to his golden years as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton administration and told a story how, in 1999, he taught Western "values" to a deputy foreign minister of Russia — in vain, of course.  Asmus then hopped to blaming Russia for the deterioration of its relations with the West:

"[W]e should…recognize that Russia's failure to align with the West may be less about our lack of will or imagination in embracing Moscow and more about Russia's own choice not to take advantage of the partnerships we offered."

Something (lack of space?) has prevented Asmus from naming precisely the "partnerships" (in plural!) that were offered to Russia by the West.

Asmus is OK with the "reset" ("President Obama is right to try to "reset" relations with Moscow.  Dealing with a revisionist Russia requires engagement").  What helps to pump adrenaline in his blood is Russia's "spheres of influence."  (The concentration of this hormone in Asmus's bloodstream went through the roof at the outbreak of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 and never receded).  Having remembered, all of sudden, the international rule of law, Asmus decided to remind "revisionist Russia" that "borders in Europe cannot be changed through force." 

Commenting on Asmus' piece, a reader "ggreenbaum" observed (12/26/2009, 8:51:27 AM):

"I personally think it is rather modest of Russia to count spheres of influence in semi-hostile countries on its border. After all, Obama is telling us that we have vital interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 8,000 miles from our borders…"

Nicely said.

Finally, on December 29, Anne Applebaum treated us to a precious New Year gift.  She dusted off her crystal ball and made predictions for the "decade to come."  You're gonna love the results of this magic exercise: Applebaum's crystal ball told her that "authoritarian regimes are in trouble."  Here is one example:

"…the newly opened gas pipeline between Turkmenistan and China…could — maybe, possibly — spell the beginning of the end of Eurasian domination by Gazprom and Russia."

I'd leave it to energy experts to decide whether a single pipeline could — maybe, possibly — undermine Gazprom's market position.  But it's so heartening to see Applebaum clutching at her crystal ball and whispering: I wish, I wish, I wish.

Happy New Year! 

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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4 Responses to Pravda On The Potomac-12 (What The Washington Post Wrote About Russia In December 2009)

  1. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Leo, and Happy New Year to you too! With comments like yours, the quality of my blogging must go up.
    I personally don’t think that Obama’s outreach attempts signify his weakness. The Bush administration’s foreign policy was too aggressive and too outstretched. By reducing both, Obama returned it to “normalcy”, to common sense. I don’t equate this to weakness. There is reason to believe that the Kremlin views Obama’s foreign policy in the same fashion — at least according to PUBLIC statements by Medvedev and Putin. If Krastev has evidence to the contrary, let him present it. Otherwise, I assert again that he’s putting his own words to the Kremlin’s mouth — to make his neocon claim.
    (Are there people in Moscow who believe that Obama is weak? You bet. But they don’t define Russia’s policy toward the US).
    I agree with you that Medvedev could and should have used better words. Better yet, he shouldn’t have said anything at all. (On the other hand, no one in the West is cursing Chubais for his “liberal empire” suggestion). That said, you don’t really think that Asmus’ concern is about protecting the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbors, do you? Asmus is after “containing” Russia, not “imrpoving” its behavior.
    Re: Applebaum/Aslund. I’m not sure I understand your criticism. Applebaum’s article quoting Aslund appeared on September 18, 2007, and I blogged about it the same day:
    Interestingly, in her article Applebaum doesn’t “quote” Aslund (there is no any link to his writing), he “refers” to him by giving a link to his personal page. Apparently, they communicated in person, and I’d leave it to them to point to any piece of evidence indicating that Zubkov was going to become Russia’s president — as Applebaum (using Aslund as a source) implied in her 9/18/2007 article.
    My very best personal regards,

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks for your comment. I feel we’re pretty close in our views, and there is no need to measure the thickness of the hair we’re trying to split.
    However, I’d like to take on the issue of “murky water of Russian politics.” Totally agree with your definition. True, Russian PUBLIC politics lacks the transparency we’re used to see in the West. Yet I’d argue that you’re going too far asking for transparency when it comes to making important GOVERNMENT decisions.
    Why differences between Putin and Medvedev on the matters of national securuty should become public? Do we have the same transparency in the US? Hardly. Has anyone explained us the difference in language between Obama, Biden, and HRC re: Russia? Nope. Has anyone made “transparent” the details of the WH’s deliberation on Afghanistan? Nope. Has anyone confirmed/denied rumors that Jim Jones was sidelined in making important political decisions? Nope.
    Sure, the story about Zubkov’s potential presidency looks like “public” matter. Why then there are so many speculations here that Obama wanted HRC as his VP, but this was blocked by his wife Michelle? Has any one confirmed or denied that? Why not? Presidential elections are supposed to be “transparent.”
    I can go on and on, but you get my point.
    It looks like you read my “The tale of two presidents” piece. There, I suggested a simple “algorythm” of looking at “murky” Russian politics: taking Putin’s words at their face value. I keep insisting that — compared to other “sources” — his words provide the best predictor of many things in Russia. And they’re “transparent” enough. For some reasons, however, people like Applebaum, Aslund and Co. look elsewhere and then complain about lack of transparency.
    Best Regards,

  3. Eugene Ivanov says:

    This was obviously not my intention (nor is my point of view) to say that Russian politics is transparent in the “Western” sense of this term. It is not. By far margin.
    My point was however is that the Russian leadership is entitled to the same degree of discretion and “privacy” when making policy decisions as their counterparts elsewhere in the world enjoy. Private conversation between Putin and Medvedev shouldn’t become public only because some folks are uncapable of understanding what’s going on in Russia.
    As for the fall of 2007, 99.99% people in Russia knew that there going to be presidential election in March 2008 with Putin endorsing a “successor.” Why? Because long in advance Putin stated: 1. There won’t be changes in the Constitution; 2. He won’t stand for the third term; 3. He’ll endorse a “successor” around December 2007. That was exactly what happened.
    Now, if AA and AA prefer not to listen to Putin but to their “internal voices”, that’s their right. But this isn’t a reason to talk about opaqueness of Russian politics. And let’s be adults: those two write crap not because they miss some information. They do so because they have an agenda.
    Best Regards,

  4. Eugene Ivanov says:

    The last paragraph of your comment is a masterpiece. You’re also right on point with regards to the amount and quality of information coming out of the Kremlin. However, it seems that Russian people don’t mind, and the leadership sees no reason to change anything for the benefit of foreign journalists.
    Things may have started to change a bit under Medvedev. The key word here is “a bit”: one mm at a time.
    Best Regards,

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