Pravda On The Potomac-17 (What The Washington Post Wrote About Russia In July 2010)

The coverage of the "Russian spy ring" proved to be a bonanza for the Post's writers: they've produced a whopping 19 articles on the subject in just the first two weeks of July. 

First, Walter Pincus answered the question that kept me awake at night since the end of June, when the story broke:

"Why on earth would the FBI spend years of its time and millions of its dollars on watching "agents" who never came even close to obtaining our national secrets? 

Writing on July 3, Pincus explained that the FBI had been watching "Russian spies" for purely educational purposes, making this many-year-long brilliant secret operation "a case study in counterintelligence." 

The same day,  Maria Glod and Jerry Markon reported on the first court appearance of 3 suspects: Michael Zottoli(a.k.a. Mikhail Kutzik), Patricia Mills(a.k.a. Natalia Pereverzeva), and Mikhail Semenko.  The same day, Jeff Stein made a compliment (completely undeserved, in my opinion) to Angelina Jolie by comparing her to incomparable Anna Chapman

(On July 6, Walter Pincus performed an amazing feat of multi-tasking: while thinking about Russian spies, he wrote a piece about a behind-the-scenes tug of war, in the U.S. Senate, over the ratification of the New START Treaty.  He returned to the treaty ratification issue on July 28, writing together with Mary Beth Sheridan.)

Rumors about a possible "spy swap" (originally reported on July 7 by Walter Pincus and William Branigin) have added fuel to the fire.  On July 8, Pincus and Karen De Young confirmed that the swap negotiations were indeed taking place, and then Pincus profiled Igor Sutyagin, whom Pincus correctly identified as "[a] Russian bargaining chip in spy swap negotiations."  The same day, Markon, Pincus and Branigin covered a Manhattan court procedure during which the alleged spies entered guilty pleas as part of a prisoner exchange.

On July 9, Mary Beth Sheridan and Jerry Markon reported that a jet carrying the 10 expelled agents landed in Vienna.  They also revealed the names of four persons representing the Russian part of the swap: Igor Sutyagin, Alexander Zaporozhsky, Sergei Skripal, and Gennady Vasilenko.  Writing from Moscow and Paris, respectively, Natasha Abbakumova and Andrew Higgins provided some detail on the "choreography" of the exchange that took place on the tarmac of the Vienna International Airport.  They also reminded us of the most famous spy swaps of the past.  Wrapping up a long day, Karen De Young and Walter Pincus marveled at how different the four Russians released by Moscow and the 10 agents released by Washington were. 

On July 10, Mary Beth Sheridan and Andrew Higgins victoriously reported:

"After more than a decade of furtively infiltrating America, members of a Russian spy ring busted by the FBI returned Friday to their masters in Moscow, following a swap on an Austrian tarmac for four Russian prisoners, who were whisked to freedom in Britain or the United States."  (Please, appreciate this elegant counterposing of "returned…to their masters in Moscow" to "whisked to freedom in Britain or in the United States).

(On July 11, the British Mirror described Sutyagin "…stranded in a British hotel – in his prison uniform and penniless…" and "…complaining about his treatment after arriving here."  Whisked to freedom indeed!  I suppose that a couple of guys from the U.S. Embassy in London could at least stop by and take Sutyagin out for dinner. 

The last thing I heard about Sutyagin was that he wanted to return to Russia.  Too much freedom?  Not enough?)

The same day, Karen De Young gave us a behind-the-scenes account of how the spy swap had been arranged. 

At this point, the Post's editorial board had finally chimed in.  The editors expressed their disappointment with the fact that the 10 arrested Russians got away so easily, which might mean that "Russians who are recruited for spying missions in the United States are unlikely to be deterred."  May I remind to the Post's editors that none of the 10 were actually charged with espionage?  May I also remind to them that Rudolf Abel who had indeed been "recruited for spying missions in the United States" got 30 years in prison?  (On the other hand, they might be correct: American judges do have a soft spot for Russians.  What is 30 years compared to life in prison for Walter Kendall Myers, who was accused in spying for Cuba?) 

The spy scandal was over (or so it looked on July 10).  But the Post's authors just couldn't stop (reminding me of Mikhail Zhvanetsky's line: "The dog has already shut up, but the owner kept barking").  On July 11, Annys Shin invited us into dark corridors of the complicated life of the whisked-to-freedom Alexander Zaporozhsky.  The next day, Walter Pincus brought to the daylight  the unlawful activities (such as calling to her dad) of Anna Chapman in her last days before the arrest.  (Throughout the article, Pincus kept calling Mikhail Semenko Mikhail Semenov).  And on July 13, Pincus asked this important question:

"Have we caught all the "illegals" that Russia's security service, the SVR, has planted over the years in the United States?"

Pincus' answer to this question was no.  And, boy, wasn't he right on the money again?  For, on July 13 (what else can one expect from the 13th day of the month anyway?), Jerry Markon reported on the arrest in Seattle of the "12th Russian spy", a Mikhail Karetnikov, who was promptly deported to Russia the same day.  I've already covered this bizarre attempt at a spy sequel and have nothing else to say. 

Finally, on July 15, "special correspondent" Julia Ioffe told us that among people pardoned by President Medvedev(along with whisked to freedom Sutyagin, Zaporozhsky, Vasilenko, and Skripal), were "obscure petty criminals [and] corrupt local officials."  So?  What was so "special" in this observation?

In my previous "Pravda on the Potomac" report, I suggested that David Ignatius should write about Russia more often.  Apparently the spy story excited Ignatius (a successful suspense writer himself) to such extent that he came up with two July op-eds.  On July 4, Ignatius called the Ring "a pleasant summer distraction" and pointed out that the real intelligence treat of the 21st century might be cyber-espionage "…[when] our adversaries can steal in a few seconds what it took an old-fashioned spy network years to collect."  On July 16, Ignatius called for converting the "fledging partnership" between Presidents Obama and Medvedev into a "genuine alliance" between the United States and Russia, even "as their spies continue scavenging for secrets."

Returning to "non-spy" coverage of Russia might taste like switching from Russian caviar to fat-, cholesterol-, sodium-, protein-, and flavor-free potato chips.  And yet, there was life outside the realm of clandestine operations too.  In particular, the Post carefully followed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's tour of former Soviet-bloc countries: Ukraine (on July 3), where Clinton spoke in "support for democratic freedoms"; Poland (on July 4), where she addressed "an international meeting of democracies"; and Georgia (on July 5) where Secretary of State reiterated the Obama administration's opposition to what Clinton called "the invasion and occupation of Georgia."   

(Previewing Clinton's visit to the Caucasus, Ronald Asmus served us, on July 3, to a bowl of eclectic ideas on "how to prevent another war in the Southern Caucasus."  Accusing Russia in desire "to break Tbilisi's will to align with the West" in the first place, Asmus nevertheless suggested that "Washington must try to engage Moscow on the North Caucasus" while admitting having "…little leverage in influencing Russia's policies there."  Go figure.)

Clinton's trip was cautiously praised by a July 7 editorial that called the tour "[a] diplomacy of reassurance" while criticizing the administration for the lack of "a consistent policy" in the post-Soviet space.  (The editorial mistakenly identified the husband of the Post's own columnist Anne Applebaum, Radek Sikorski, as Defense Minister of Poland.  Mr. Radek is in fact Foreign Minister.  Not a big deal, of course, but this leads me again to my perennial question: does anyone at the Post read their articles before publishing them?)

Anne Applebaum was among those who actually listened to Clinton's speech at "an international meeting of democracies" in Krakow, Poland.  Wholeheartedly agreeing with Clinton's concern that democracy around the world is in trouble, Applebaum points out that:

"Countries as disparate as Russia, Venezuela and Iran have become adept at using the rhetoric of "democracy" — along with faked elections, phony political parties, even state-controlled "civil society" organizations — to deflect pressure for change."

Fred Hiatt is also troubled that in many parts of the world, "freedom and democracy are in retreat."  He warns us, on July 5, that:

"Three assertive powers — China (Hiatt's substitute for Applebaum's Venezuela), Russia and Iran — not only resist democratization but actively seek to disseminate their model of authoritarian rule in their spheres of influence." 

Hiatt returned to action in two weeks by examining, in his words, "the connection between reset and democracy" ("Can reset push Russia toward democracy?", as the headline of his column put it).  Hiatt isn't very optimistic in this respect, suspecting that "the…reset gives Russia's dictators time, space and resources to further consolidate their power."  The question I have for Hiatt is this: why do Russia's "dictators" need reset to consolidate their power in the first place?  What was preventing them from consolidating power under the previous U.S. administration? 

Remarkably enough, Hiatt's views were confronted by Samuel Charap, a fellow at the Center for American Progress.  First, Charap disagrees that Russia is a "dictatorship."  Second, he doesn't seems to believe that "reset" — or any "government-to-government engagement" with Russia, for that matter — "implies any endorsement of the Kremlin's limits on domestic freedoms." 

The addition of Mr. Charap to the roster of the Post's Russia watchers is a welcomed sign.  Sure, as a bona fide Post's columnist, he must include a "KGB" soundbite in the very first paragraph of his article (if even in the context of "the KGB's domestic successor", the FSB).  Sure, following the Post's trade-mark paternalistic tradition toward Russia, he must be convinced that it's the United States' obligation to "…lead Russia toward a more open political system."  (Otherwise, what would these stupid Russians do?)  And yet, Charaps' belief that "Russia's political transformation is still unfolding" and that "politics, however warped, still exists in Russia, and that civil society, however marginalized, still plays a role in public life" is a refreshing break from the ignorant vulgarity of Hiatt & Co.

As I mentioned in my previous report, a June 26 editorial criticized the installation of Josef Stalin's bronze bust at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, VA.  Then on July 16, Michael Gerson published a column on exactly the same topic.  Did he read the June editorial?  Could it be that he himself wrote it and then forgot?  Anyway, as I noted on quite a few occasions already, the logic of the Post's coverage of Russia evades me. 

Finally, we've witnessed a lively discussion on the New Start Treaty.  It was initiated by Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and a leading Republican presidential candidate for 2012.  On July 6, Romney called the treaty President Obama's "worst foreign policy mistake yet."  To tell the truth, in his criticism, Romney wasn't too original as he pointed to the same two alleged shortcomings of the treaty as all its opponents love to refer to: that the treaty "impedes missile defense" and that it forbids ("explicitly forbids", in Romney's words) the United States from converting intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos into missile defense sites.

The very next day, Romney was rebuffed (refudiated as his pal and rival Sarah Palin would have put it) by John Kerry, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  I suspect there is not much love between the two.  Otherwise, it's hard to explain the unusually harsh tone of the usually measured Kerry.  Having addressed Romney's two critical points, Kerry concluded:

"I have nothing against Massachusetts politicians running for president  (You bet, given Kerry's biography).  But the world's most important elected office carries responsibilities, including the duty to check your facts even if you're in a footrace to the right against Sarah Palin. More than that, you need to understand that when it comes to nuclear danger, the nation's security is more important than scoring cheap political points."

The same day, the Post published an op-ed by Steven Pifer and Strobe Talbott, who provided an even more detailed point-by-point criticism of Romney's arguments.  The fact that polite and diplomatic Pifer and Talbott didn't go further than calling Romney's assertions "groundless and misleading" was the only positive thing that the former governor could have drawn from their article. 

Another piece of support of the New Start came from a somewhat unexpected source: in an op-ed by Robert Kagan.  Kagan argues that the Treaty is too modest, perhaps, even too inconsequential "to merit partisan bickering."  Admitting that while "[t]he treaty has its problems…[the] New Start is not so badly flawed as to warrant rejection."

A July 26 editorial kind of summarized the debate.  Calling the treaty "a modest achievement for arms control" and sounding concerned that its ratification is becoming more election issue than anything else, the Post argues that "…ratification of START is something that could, and should, get done this year."

Amen. 

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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5 Responses to Pravda On The Potomac-17 (What The Washington Post Wrote About Russia In July 2010)

  1. Mark says:

    Beautiful takedown, Eugene. If there remains anyone capable of reading English who thinks the Russians “returned to their masters” were actually spies on any kind of serious level, they would have to be thick as a Vermont pine.
    This was the typical tempest in a teapot that results when journalists grow weary of reporting on the stately minuet of bafflegab that is political discourse, and yearn for a good old-fashioned scandal. Russian spies was an irresistible storyline, and many can be forgiven for generating so much drivel on it simply because they didn’t want to get scooped by everyone else. However, the media outlet that could now claim it had ignored the story because it was nonsense would look wise indeed.

  2. Alex says:

    Thanks, Eugene. Exhaustive report – a lot of work, I imagine. Kudos to Pincus (and you:)- I somehow missed his “case study in counterintelligence.” And I was laughing at “Ioffe is a special correspondent. ” too – a WP double-talk?

  3. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Mike,
    Thanks for the comments. No home delivery for me: I’m “green” enough to prefer on-line versions of newspapers.
    Sure, “Georgia’s territorial sovereignty” is a serious subject. My only problem with the way this topic is discussed in the US is the trend to start the history from August 2008. Everyone conveniently forgets that “Georgia’s territorial sovereignty” has been a fiction since 1992.
    Best,
    Eugene

  4. Alex says:

    🙂
    Cheers

  5. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Mike,
    I totally agree. By the way, Saakashvili always insists that the “problem” could be solved only in negotiations between Russia and Georgia. You bet! What can he tell to Ossetians and Abkhazis? Besides, who of his buddies in the US really knows what the “problem” is about? But just about everyone heard about “neo-imperialistic” Russia.
    By no means, am I saying that Georgians were nicely treated in 1992. (I happen to have a close friend, a Georgian, who barely escaped being killed by Abkhazis in 1992). But my point again is that the question of “Georgia’s territorial sovereignty” should trace its roots to AT LEAST 1992 (and better yet, to early 20s).
    As to using non-military means to fight aggression, this reminds me a line from one of Daniil Kharms’ plays (translation is mine): “Let’s fight the Magician. You with words, me with swords.” (Давай сразимся, Чудодей, ты словом, я рукой!)
    Best,
    Eugene

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