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. Leo says:

    Eugene,
    Happy New Year and best of blogging in 2010!
    I wouldn’t fully agree with you on Krastev’s analysis, I believe it does have some merit. He argues his points reasonably well, without fitting facts to theory. After all, the imbroglio that the US finds itself in is of its own making. Thus, Obama’s attempts to reach out to others could be construed as a sign of weakness, of which Russian officials rightly keep mum. Further, it is primarily Russia’s own actions that prompt others to label Russia an insecure declining power. Krastev did not do any trend extrapolation here (unlike Joe Biden in WSJ). Surprisingly though, the concluding paragraph of Krastev’s piece (the one you cite) reads to me like an example of neocon-like petulance (as also noted in the comments section). Very out of sync with the rest of the article.
    Now to Asmus, he is certainly stuck in “the end of history” paradigm of the Bush Sr. and Clinton era. However, Russia’s (or rather its leaders’) actions give him material for making his statements. Is he really wrong about the failure of Russia’s officialdom to fully respect the sovereignty of its neighbors? Was it really wise of Medvedev to claim a “sphere of privileged interest” in the first place? Better say nothing but work hard to build this “sphere”. Walk the walk, just don’t talk the talk. When the US used to refer to Latin America as its “backyard”, did it win any friends?
    Lastly, thanks to this blog I am now convinced that Anne Appelbaum-Sikorski is no Marie Curie-Sklodowska of journalism. However, I would be cautious dismissing her op-eds in hindsight, as you did in one of your previous posts. It is quite possible that certain events of 2006 pointed her to Vova-4eva type of scenarios (hence quoting Aslund), which could sound plausible at the time. I am sure you have authored papers in the past. Theories are developed and conclusions are based on the information available “there and then”, wouldn’t you agree?
    With best regards,
    Leo

  2. Leo says:

    Eugene,
    You are correct, Krastev did not present any evidence Russian officials referring to Obama as weakling. However, if one assumes (as Krastev does) that old-school power play type thinking is prevalent in the Kremlin, then Obama (and the US) should be considered weak by the ruling elite of Russia. Of course, all this is pure speculation, but it is partly fed by the lack of debate or transparency within that same ruling elite. I also disagree that Obama is trying to reach out to non-allied or even adversarial countries out of weakness. But hardly a strong hand Obama has been dealt.
    As for Asmus’ piece, things seem to me somewhat more subtle than you present them. He appears to be a strong believer of “the rest” joining “the west” in eternal happiness (also called liberal internationalism). Based on this premise of his the expansion of the “Euro-Atlantic Community” is actually good for Russia (and the world at large) as more democratic neighbors will help Russia itself move toward a more democratic way of governance. Nothing in Asmus’ idyllic picture suggests the containment of Russia, because Russia, when ready, is free to join these same institutions that Russia’s neighbors aspire to join. Anyhow, it seems to me now that both of us are trying to put words into Asmus’ mouth. You think he preaches containment, to me he is a devout “atlantist” believing in the universal western values.
    Re: Aslund/Appelbaum pieces it seems like I mistook the addressee of your passage, it was Aslund, not Appelbaum. My bad… But why such op-eds show up? It is not necessarily “about Russia bad or nothing” doctrine, but has more to do with the murky water of Russian politics. Decisions behind closed doors, lack of credible information from the top and sieged fortress mentality of some members of the ruling class. So, speculations about crouching Zubkov or hidden Ivanov can hold water in some circles because there is no evidence available “in the open” to prove or disprove these speculations.
    Best regards,
    Leo

  3. Leo says:

    Eugene,
    Well, it looks to me that we are both realists. Taking things as they are rather than spewing bile if things are not what they should be. But I don’t think you compare apples to apples when bringing up examples of non-transparency in the US.
    How significant is the filling of the largely ceremonial post of VP? Or who in the administration is sidelined and when and why? Or how the “reset” with the economically unimportant (to the US) Russia came about? Afganistan is a more important issue, but it is still a foreign policy issue. To sum up, the matters you cite hardly affect the lives of Americans in any profound way. But there is a lot of public and congressional debate on issues of significance to the populace, which I don’t need to name here.
    Now let’s go back to this “Zubkov for president” opus of the fall of 2007, that’s when water was really murky. It was something like 6 months before the presidential elections and everyone was completely in the dark. As to whether there would be elections or constitutional change since Putin was still looking for his place in the ranks. If there were elections to be held, who were the candidates and who was the “leading candidate” (to be politically correct). Fast forwarding to the present day Russia, there is a military reform under way that was formulated behind closed doors without public or expert debate. Same applies to the MVD reform that is being pondered. So, the situation when the Russian nation is unclear about these fundamental domestic issues is very different from the occasional opacity of Obama’s decision-making.
    Against this background A.A. with a little help from A.A. authored their piece of 09/18/2007 based (not surprisingly) on pure speculation. With the amount of informaion coming out of the Kremlin at the time they could have written just about anything, wouldn’t you agree?
    Best regards,
    Leo

  4. Leo says:

    Eugene,
    I would disagree on the two AAs as well as Asmus. Yes, they have written “crappy” op-eds. Yes, they are indoctrinated people. But I would not go as far as to generalize and state that all of them have an agenda of some kind. Different frame of reference, yes. But, since you have been following WaPo publications for a number of years you may have a better view of whether agendas are indeed present.
    I would still maintain that even though some information flows out of the Kremlin, it is not loud enough and specific enough. Russia’s leadership cannot expect foreign journalists to go an extra mile to dig information working in its (leadership’s) favor. This may be unfair, but that is the hand Russia has been dealt (and it is not something new, BTW).
    Why Putin is not taken at his word? Because his word has not been properly institutionalized or constitutionalized. Western-style democracy is (or rather likes to be) all about procedures, institutions (no matter how comic or theatric), and checks and balances. So, because there is nothing that would force Putin to be a man of his word, the western punditry could safely assume that he would not be one.
    Best regards,
    Leo

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