As I repeatedly noted in this space, the Washington Post's editors prefer to write about Russia only when something nasty happens there. With such an attitude, the Post's editorial board would wait for a couple of weeks every month and, bad "Russian" news lacking, would publish something ridiculous anyway. Take, for example, their February 15 editorial, "France's valentine to Russia" where the board frets about France selling to Russia the helicopter carrier Mistral. Never mind that this wasn't a February news — and never mind that Valentine's Day isn't exactly a Russian holiday — but consistency in editorial policy is a must for the beacon of the world's journalism.
Exceptions are rare, but they do happen. The signing, by Presidents Obama and Medvedev, of the New START Treaty was such an exception. To the credit of the Post, the paper has been tracking the progress of the U.S.-Russia nuclear arms reduction negotiations closely, starting with the March visit to Moscow of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (and not missing Clinton's meeting with Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin). On March 19, Mary Beth Sheridan reported that both sides were "at the finish line" in negotiating the new agreement. The next day's editorial, while making the obligatory note that "Russia needs a deal far more than does the United States, to bolster its withered status as a superpower" — and warning Obama not to link the treaty to the development and deployment of missile defense — sounded cautiously approving of the treaty.
A string of reports soon followed – by Mary Beth Sheridan and Philip Pan on March 25, by Michael Shear on March 26, and by Sheridan and Shear on March 27 – claiming that the long-awaited deal between the White House and the Kremlin had finally been struck. A March 27 editorial blessed the treaty ("with the regime of Vladimir Putin") as "worthy." As the signing of the treaty approached, Walter Pincus reported that the Obama administration planned to send the treaty package to Congress by the end of April.
The actual signing of the treaty by Presidents Obama and Medvedev in Prague was covered by Michael Shear on April 8. The same day, Philip Pan pointed to the lack of fanfare the New START Treaty was met with in Moscow — amidst sound criticism by Russia's hardliners that "Moscow has conceded too much in the deal."
The Post's editorial board chose to ignore the Prague summit, preferring to focus on Russia's $5 billion arms deal with Venezuela. But the next day, it published an op-ed by Graham Allison that was favorable to the treaty.
And yet, the Post feels much more comfortable when covering Russia's disasters. The two suicide attacks in the Moscow subway on March 29 thus provided Philip Pan with ample opportunity to showcase his reporting skills. Pan first reported about the bombing on March 29; then again(with Greg Miller) 0n March 30, speculating that the first strike, at the Lubyanka station, was targeting the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB); then again on the same day, claiming that the "two female suicide bombers shattered Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's claim to have contained a separatist insurgency in Russia's southwest"; then again on March 31, asserting that "some Russians began to challenge [the] government for failing to prevent the suicide bombings" (referring in support of this claim to mostly unnamed "Internet users"). Pan took a brief break by reporting, on March 31, about two suicide bombings in Kizlyar, Dagestan, but then returned to the Moscow bombings, by profiling first one the two female suicide bombers, Dzhanet Abdullayeva, and then, in more detail, Alexander Tikhomirov (a.k.a. Sayid Buryatsky).
Blogging on March 31, the ever thoughtful Anne Applebaum hinted that the terrorist acts in the Moscow subway might have been in fact staged by the Russian security services. Had Applebaum waited a day, she wouldn't have made a fool of herself, as on April 1, Philip Pan reported that the Chechen terrorist leader, Doku Umarov, took responsibility for the blasts.
True to her habit of tracing all events to Adam and Eve, Masha Lipman gave us an abbreviated course of Russia's Chechen policy since the early 1990s. Clearly disapproving of the "heavy-handed" tactics of Russian security forces in the republic, Lipman sounded cautiously sympathetic to President Medvedev's "reasonable calls" for systemic reforms in the North Caucasus.
The terrorist acts in the Moscow subway have not been the only Russian calamity the Post was eager to cover. "The nationwide protest movement" was the second favorite. That's what Philip Pan called a series of small anti-government rallies held in Kaliningrad and some other Russian cities. Pan was corrected by Masha Lipman, who saw the protests as local, unrelated and "not likely to evolve into a national political movement." Lipman is correct: no matter how much Pan and the Post's editors might love the fact that protesters in Kaliningrad demanded resignation of Prime Minister Putin, their grievances were quite specific. Kaliningrad (as well as Vladivostok, the site of anti-government rallies back in late 2008) was hit by increased tariffs on automobile imports, but the truth is that not very many Russians make their living off the trade of used cars.
Philip Pan seems to have become a passionate advocate of "ordinary citizens" of Russia. Hence his detailed coverage of a car accident in which a Mercedes carrying a vice president of Lucoil, Anatoly Barkov, slammed into a smaller car, killing its two female passengers. And Pan's description of the demolition of summer houses in the Rechnik "dacha" complex reaches truly Shakespearean proportions. Listen to Pan:
"The government pressed ahead with plans to clear the area for a park, confident in its time-tested ability to crush the protests of ordinary citizens…When the demolition crews showed up in Rechnik, Alexander Navrodsky vowed to set fire to his house and go down with it in flames…Sergei Bobyshev threatened to unleash his pet leopard on them."
On February 26, Anders Aslund argued that what he called "the Putin model" was dead. Isn't the ability of an ordinary Russian citizen (like Mr. Bobyshev) to have a pet leopard a clear sign that "the Putin model" is alive and well?