Call me naive, call me over-trustful, even call me delusional. And yet, the Post's coverage of Russia has become better. Hardly more friendlier, but at least less hostile. Partly, this is due to the fact that the giants of the Post's Russia team have stopped writing full-fledged articles bashing the Kremlin and switched to just mentioning it in passing while blasting President Obama's foreign policy. Like Fred Hiatt accusing the president in putting "enormous energy into repairing relations with Russia…and less into ties with allies such India, Mexico or Britain…" Or David Kramer fretting that "[t]he administration seems to have moved toward a "Russia only" approach, neglecting and even abandoning other countries in the region." (Topping Kramer's list of "neglected/abandoned" countries is Georgia). Or venerable Charles Krauthammer, who's horrified when watching "America acquiesce to Russia's re-exerting sway over Eastern Europe, over Ukraine…and over Georgia…(Adds Krauthammer: "This is not just an America in decline. This is an America in retreat…")
And here we have Anne Applebaum who, on April 6, interpreted the Russian state TV broadcasting of Andrzej Wajda's "Katyn" — along with the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's attendance of the commemoration ceremony in the Katyn forest – as a sign that Russia might be starting to get rid of its "Stalinist mentality and a Stalinist interpretation of history." A week later, understandably shaken by the tragic death of the Polish President, Lech Kaczynski, in a plane crash near Katyn — and apparently genuinely surprised by the extent of Russia's sympathy and cooperation — Applebaum conceded that "[c]ountries can change." But a real shock to me personally came on May 18, when describing a rescue operation of a Russian tanker captured by the pirates off the coast of Yemen, Applebaum claimed that a Russian naval destroyer acted "accordingly to international law." Wow! And although the cynic in me whispers that Applebaum was asked to behave by her husband, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, the incorrigible optimist in me believes that smart people can change too. Just like countries.
Jackson Diehl was among a few who refused to give up. On April 27, describing egg-tossing and fisticuffs in Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada (on the occasion of ratification of the new Black Sea naval base treaty with Russia), Diehl told us that Ukraine was "still a democracy" but Russia wasn't (as no eggs or fists were thrown in the Russian Duma on the same occasion). I like Diehl's point and recommend that folks at the Freedom House take a note and replace their bland, largely meaningless, numeric "freedom" ratings with Diehl's eggs of democracy. (Say, seven eggs, a liberal democracy; one egg, a bloody dictatorship.) But even Diehl has rapidly run out of steam, and the only thing he could subsequently muster was to bundle Russia's Dmitry Medvedev with Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei and to call both "adversaries or rivals of the United States."
Robert Kagan extended a helping hand to Diehl , on May 25, by calling the Obama administration's policy of "reset" with Russia hollow. According to Kagan, this policy has only resulted in "a wave of insecurity throughout Eastern and central Europe and the Baltics, where people are starting to fear they can no longer count on the United States to protect them from an expansive Russia." The very same day, the Post offered its space to Kurt Volker, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, who warned that "…attending the 2014 Olympics[in Sochi]…would make all of us complicit in cementing in practice Russia's changing European borders by force." Reading Volker I thought that even from the U.S. ambassador to the Moon, save for NATO, one would expect better knowledge of Europe's contemporary history and geography. First, Volker claimed that Abkhazia was "a territory Russia broke off from Georgia by military force in 2008." Second, he insisted that "…we need to be clear that in today's Europe, the change of borders by force will not be recognized." I wonder if Volker has ever heard of Kosovo. Or he believes that Kosovo is not located in Europe, but, say, in the midland of Tasmania?
Over the period of two months, the Post's board has come up with the only Russia-related editorial, on April 30, which begins with the following:
"One thing the Obama administration's "reset" of relations with Russia hasn't changed is Moscow's imperviousness to accountability for criminal offenses by its government at home and abroad. The regime of Vladimir Putin rivals those of Iran or Syria for murders or acts of terrorism outside its borders, including hits in London, Vienna and Dubai."
(Could it be that the Post's editors mentioned Dubai by mistake? And that what they really had in mind was the January 19th killing, by Mossad agents, of a senior Hamas commander in a Dubai hotel room?)
This Shakespearean-grade prelude was a mere introduction to a mundane initiative, by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), to revoke U.S. visas for a bunch of Russia's police, court, and prison officials involved in the death of Sergey Magnitsky. Hardly anyone in Moscow blinked at Sen. Cardin's move, and the only thing that makes the editorial marginally interesting is its title: "Keeping criminal Russian diplomats out the U.S." Diplomats? I suspect that even Post's editors know the difference between prison officials and diplomats, and this leads me to my perennial question: does anyone at the Post read their articles before publishing them?
For the on-the-ground coverage of Russia, there were enough "disasters" to report. On April 10, Peter Finn reported on the tragedy near Smolensk, killing the Polish President Kaczynski and almost a hundred top Polish officials. Edward Cody covered a Mass celebrated in their memory in Krakow.
Philip Pan produced a series of reports on the events in Kyrgyzstan writing about the subject on April 10, April 11, April 12, April 14, and April 16. (Walter Pincus added to the subject on April 23, criticizing the U.S. government for its cozy relations with the deposed president of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev). In parallel, Pan dealt with a disaster of a different kind: Russia's suspension of adoptions of Russian children by U.S. families in the aftermath of Artyom Savelyev's case: on April 15 and April 16 (with Donna St. George). On May 6, Pan profiled Russia's ombudsman for children, Pavel Astakhov. Finally, describing what the Post's board undoubtedly considered "the disaster of the month", Pan reported on the Black Sea Fleet deal between Russia and Ukraine and asserted that the "extension of Russia base's lease may challenge U.S. goals in [the] region."
A number of articles were devoted to different aspects of U.S.-Russia relations. On April 9, Michael Shear and Glenn Kessler wrote about a conversation between Presidents Obama and Medvedev in which Medvedev pledged to support a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran. Mary Beth Sheridan reported, the same day, that the U.S. and Russian governments reached an agreement to dispose large amounts of plutonium from their nuclear weapons. She continued, on April 19, by describing the difficulties the Obama administration is facing when pursuing its nuclear disarmament agenda, including future talks seeking deeper reduction in the U.S. and Russian arsenals following START. On April 20, Walter Pincus reminded us about the uncertain future of the New START treaty in the Senate. Later, on May 18, he stressed the importance of the "fine print" included into the 170-page treaty protocol (in addition to the 17-page treaty itself) along with 174 pages of annexes. (On the editorial page, on April 11, David E. Hoffman argued that "[d]espite new START, the U.S. and Russia still have too many nuclear weapons.") On May 21, Colum Lynch and Glenn Kessler reported that the Obama administration lifted sanctions against four Russian companies accused in illicit weapons trade with Iran.
Two people made their debut as the Post editorial page's contributors: a Julia Ioffe and Russia's most famous inmate (Inmate-in-Chief, so to speak), Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Julia Ioffe, a self-appointed "Russian repat", does seem to have the major qualities of a successful Post's columnist: a bordering megalomania arrogance and a blatant ignorance of basic facts. Just read this excerpt from her April 25 opus tastefully titled "A Russian American's uneasy return to Moscow":
"I…have been born here, speak the language, and have Russian family and friends, but I no longer have Russian citizenship. Instead, I am back as a representative of the American press…I am, in other words, a traitor. "
Traitor? Why not "an enemy of the people"? In fact, busy with their everyday lives, constantly meeting "repats" from all over the world, sending kids to study and live abroad and having them back, the last thing that an ordinary Muscovite would be concerned with is the color of Ms. Ioffe's passport. And what she might think about their country as well.
The topic Khodorkovsky chose for his Post appearance can't help but raise eyebrows: corruption (which he calls "the world's biggest threat"). A man who used to openly brag about how skillfully he bribed the members of the Russian Duma is now concerned that "corruption is going to stop the development of humanity." No more, no less: the development of humanity. Well, I guess, people can change. Just like countries and some Post's columnists.