Russia Votes, 4 March 2012: The Information War

 

 

On this day when Russians go to the polls to elect their President for the coming 6 years, of one thing we can be certain: whatever the plurality that Vladimir Putin may obtain (as projected by the most authoritative polls this past week), Western media will find reason to discredit the process for the sake of repudiating his authority and undercutting Russia’s place in the world. If, most improbably, he fails to win outright in this first round of voting, the howls of delight will echo from Whitehall to Foggy Bottom and in many chancelleries in between…Read on

 

 

 

 

 

                   Russia Votes, 4 March 2012: The Information War

 

                              By Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

 

 

 

Let’s not mince words:  there is an Information War going on between Russia and the US-led ‘international community,’ meaning in particular the U.K. and selective Member States of the European Union. 

 

We have seen it at its hottest in the days following the Russian (and Chinese) veto of the US-backed resolution on Syria in the UN Security Council, which Russia deemed to be one-sided and an invitation to repeat the Libyan scenario of ‘humanitarian intervention’ – the cover for direct Western military intervention in a civil war which ended in the bloody murder of Colonel Gaddafi and in war crimes against his loyalists in Sirt and elsewhere in post-victory reprisals by the victors.

 

Ignoring completely Russian reasoning on observing an even-handed approach in the evolving Syrian civil war, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a campaign of invective against the Kremlin over the UN blockage. The US and Western media picked this line of attack with alacrity, almost as if a switch had been turned. 

 

The previous spike in the Information War was in the first week of December, following Russia’s parliamentary elections when the US Secretary of State berated the Russian government for alleged violations on the say-so of US backed NGOs and supported a demand of the ‘non-systemic’ Opposition in Moscow for re-staging the elections. The European Parliament quickly followed suit, with a similar demand that the Duma elections be annulled.

 

Let’s again call things by their proper names:  cancellation of the elections was being demanded precisely because it might just overturn the applecart of Russian stability over election hanky-panky that may or may not have taken place and which was likely no worse and probably less egregious than any votes in Russia over the past 20 years. Even Russia’s mild-mannered and genteel President Dmitry Medvedev was obliged to change his demeanor and tell the Europeans straight out to mind their own business.

 

These acute altercations in public space have taken place against a background of lower level and two-way bickering that can be traced back with utter precision to the day in February 2007 when then President Vladimir Putin spoke before the Munich Security Conference, where more than a hundred top government officials from around the world were in attendance.  Putin used the occasion to speak sincerely in an attempt to move beyond the wooden language of official gatherings and go for a breakthrough in international relations.  He set out directly Russia’s objections to a US-dominated, monopolar world.  He described at some length Russia’s grievances with how it had been misled over U.S. intentions when President Gorbachev had withdrawn Soviet troops from Eastern Europe, namely over oral commitments not to move NATO to the East. 

 

 

 

In going public with Russia’s complaints and presenting his own alternative vision of organizing the world community, Putin violated the cardinal rule of the post-Cold War world: he offended American complacency and wounded its prestige, things which a vengeful USA can never forgive.

 

Asked to comment on Putin’s speech at the time, American officials insisted that it was unimportant, was intended strictly for Russia’s domestic audience.  This was patent nonsense, a time-filler till Washington could get its arms around the new set of facts.  In a matter of months, the new line from Washington was clear:  all-out Information War.  Putin, who was then still feted as Man of the Year by Time Magazine, whom President George Bush had referred to as his ‘friend,’ now suddenly became in the U.S. media “Tsar Putin,” the authoritarian, the man who had rolled back the Russian democracy launched in the Yeltsin years.

 

In his inimitably colorful language, the film director and political commentator Michael Moore explained that the basic principle of international relations from the American perspective is: “We bark, you jump!” Any dog who sees it differently, and still more, who is so bold or foolish as to try to persuade other dogs in the pack to break with the policies of the pack leader, does so at great risk.

 

In this world almost no state leaders have done as Putin did in 2007 and continues to do today.  Jacques Chirac broke ranks with the U.S. over Iraq, and the thunder bolts were not long in coming.  We saw the Capitol Hill led campaign to boycott French wines and cheese, the shift of a nation from French to ‘Freedom Fries.’ His party’s business constituency, finding its voice in ‘Figaro,’ did not hesitate to call the French President back to reason, and their moment of solidarity with the Russians in the anti-American camp was short-lived.

 

What was/is driving the unique position questioning American world leadership taken by Vladimir Putin in 2007, repeated sotto voce by him ever since, and then highlighted by him again in the ongoing presidential election campaign is partly the rare spunk, guts of a very physical political personality who has no peer on the world stage.  But the situation goes beyond personality and finally rests on economics:  Russia is virtually the only major world power not greatly dependent on the USA for its economic well-being. 

 

It is easy to imagine, for example, that the Chinese leadership views American world domination in very similar terms to the Kremlin.  But Beijing, given its great need for good relations with the Washington to keep its economy humming, has every reason to keep its views to itself except on rare occasions when other vital interests are broached, such as American arms sales to Taiwan or American meddling in the politics of the South China Sea countries.

 

In a mirror image of the Russian situation, the lack of economic constraint due to negligible bilateral trade and absence of common strategic interests explains the free hand with which American leaders slap the Russians in public.  Having just assisted Russia into the WTO, largely for selfish reasons surrounding protection of intellectual property, the United States is now busily preparing legislation named for Magnitsky, the ‘cause celebre’ Russian lawyer who did battle with the Kremlin and died in prison. The proposed law proscribing travel to the U.S. for a yet to be determined list of Russian officials said to be implicated in the case, will have the effect of placing American business at a great disadvantage to other nations. The Senate could not care less about the fall-out for business.

 

As I mentioned a moment ago, the ongoing presidential campaign has provided Prime Minister Putin with an occasion to set out his political beliefs.  He in fact decided to promote his platform and to set himself apart from the four other candidates for the office by not participating in televised debates and instead issuing a series of seven articles dealing with all major issues in Russian state life, from social justice to the relations between the citizen and the government at all levels, from the economic program to….foreign relations. These articles have a conversational tone and present lists of problems to be addressed in each of the heading areas matched with lists of executive and legislative and private initiatives which candidate Putin intends to promote if he is elected to resolve the tasks both immediately and over the course of the coming six years. Each article was placed in a different newspaper of national importance, and each received rather detailed reportage on the state television channel Vesti.

 

The final, 14-page article is entitled “Russia and a Changing World.”   I contend that like the others in the series it has a calm and ‘presidential tone’ which is precisely intended to set candidate Putin apart from the others as the person with a global vision, an ambition for his country and not just for himself and/or for his party.  The paper sets out an overall philosophy (interest-based Realpolitik)  for conducting foreign policy, with objectives of non-interference and a universalistic rather than selective security for the community of nations. It goes into detailed treatment of various priority regions around the world for Russian diplomacy, including, of course, Europe, China and the Asia-Pacific Region, and the United States. It would be entirely appropriate to say that this manifesto is in a direct line to the underlying ideas of Putin’s speech to the Munich Conference in 2007 with respect to America’s overbearing management of international affairs.

 

In light of this fact, it comes as no surprise that Western media have taken the bait.  The ‘Financial Times’ chose to call the article a ‘tirade against US.’  The review article in ‘The Moscow Times’ the day after, on 28 February, is entitled ‘Putin Bristles at West…” and highlights the ‘anti-American calls by Putin.”  Referring to the article nearly a week later, editor-in-chief Sylvie Kauffmann of ‘Le Monde’ speaks of a ‘diatribe.’

 

 All of this is hyperbole. In the case of Kauffmann, I suspect she never read the full article and the distortion comes from ignorance rather than malice. My reason for this deduction is the transcript of the event on Friday, 2 March, which gave rise to her article ‘In Putin’s Dacha’ yesterday, namely the dinner reception with Vladimir Putin at his country estate in Novo Ogarevo, 30 km from the Kremlin, together with the editors-in-chief of five other leading world-level daily newspapers – ‘The Times’ of London, ‘Handelsblatt,’ ‘ La Repubblica,’ the Japanese ‘Asahi Shimbun’ and the Canadian ‘Globe and Mail.’  For those with an interest to go to the source document, in either English or Russian, I suggest visiting Putin’s website:  premier.gov.ru/events/news/1823.  

 

The dazzling event, centered around an opulent dinner served on gilted dishes by liveried men-in-attendance and followed by a friendly ice hockey match in which the guests were free to take part, was clearly intended as a Russian PR effort ahead of the elections and as hoped-for sympathetic reporting to offset the news of post electoral demonstrations against Putin anticipated in Moscow already on Monday morning.

 

Reading through the 38 page transcript of the meeting with the 6 editors-in-chief produces a sad impression. They come across as having interests going not one centimeter beyond what their most ignorant reader might have come up with. Sylvie Kauffmann of ‘Le Monde,’ for example, used her 5 minutes in the limelight to badger Putin on why Russia did not force Assad to release the wounded French journalist still being held hostage. It took Putin to explain that the lady journalist was actually being held not by Syrian state forces but by the rebels, who were refusing to hand her over to a waiting Russian helicopter crew.

 

In effect, at a meeting that was convened to review Putin’s 7th pre-electoral policy paper on international relations, the first half was taken up solely by malicious questions at the level of: why are we sitting here when you should be talking instead to the Opposition?  Or what really did Medvedev do wrong that you felt you had to bump him and take the nomination for president yourself?  In a word, the editors came mainly to trade in stale anti-Kremlin speculation that goes back months if not years or to lecture Putin on democracy. They were looking for something quotable, racy, centered on the idea that Putin intends to be president for life.

 

The second half of the dinner meeting did indeed move on to international relations. But from the nature of the questions, we can assume that only one of the 6 editors had bothered to read Putin’s paper, notwithstanding the many hours of idle time on their flights in to Moscow. That sole exception was the editor of Asahi Shimbun who noticed that Putin had not mentioned Japan at all in his survey of Russian diplomatic priorities and wondered if this wasn’t an oversight. He alone used the encounter to put on the table the issue of territorial claims and the still unsigned peace treaty between the countries, i.e. something of substance.  His colleagues only posed empty questions like what Putin thinks of the Merkel-Sarkozy solution to the Euro crisis, and the like, which the Prime Minister correctly identified as being misaddressed.

 

Not one of the 4 Europeans and Canadian editors had done his homework, even so slight as perusing 14 pages, not to mention the other 135 pages of Putin’s thinking about all the challenges facing the Russian state in the coming presidential term and his specific and reasoned solutions to them all.

 

The article ‘Dans la datcha de Poutine’ in ‘Le Monde’ which I cited above may be said to be moderate in tone if too taken up with the new Opposition and too ignorant about the powers-that-be.  The much longer article which appeared yesterday in ‘The Globe and Mail’ of Toronto is emblematic of the laziness and smugness of senior editors of Western newspapers of record, who are wittingly or unwittingly tools of Washington’s Information War against Russia.

 

‘The Globe and Mail’s editor-in-chief, former reporter and foreign correspondent John Stackhouse may have been more motivated than his colleagues to publish his account quickly and at length because he does play ice hockey and joined the friendly match which the Putin team put on for the visitors. He stayed on for the shrimp and crab and draft beer reception after the game.

 

Notwithstanding what pleasure he may have taken from the food and drink and hobnobbing with Russia’s present and future leadership, John Stackhouse has given the reading public a viper’s account of Mr Putin and his ‘regime.’  The title of his article alone says it all: ‘Vladimir Putin: A 21st Century czar.”  The article deals almost exclusively in hackneyed portrayal of Russia, and he might as well be describing Brezhnev as Putin. It is all lurid, sensationalist, pandering to the expectations of an anti-Russian readership.

 

It is worth noting that in Mr Putin’s campaign article on international relations he acknowledges that Soft Power is not a domain where the Russian government has much savvy or much success. Indeed the public image of Russia in the world media remains poor and the country is losing the Information War against the United States.

 

Whatever the plurality that Vladimir Putin may obtain (as projected by the most authoritative polls this past week), Western media will find reason to discredit the process for the sake of repudiating his authority and undercutting Russia’s place in the world. If, most improbably, he fails to win outright in this first round of voting, the howls of delight will echo from Whitehall to Foggy Bottom and in many chancelleries in between.

 

My best advice to officials in Moscow is to stop expending valuable time and effort wooing Western journalists or their editors-in-chief with charm offensives.  For the moment, the 4th Estate is a lost cause to them.  Instead they should continue to do what Vladimir Putin did very well in the past: to cultivate government leaders and prominent businessmen abroad, the next Schroeders and Berlusconi’s,  people who can identify opportunities for promoting mutual interest.  And they should move into a subset of Soft Power, namely Public Diplomacy, reaching over the heads of the media to ordinary people by facilitating their visiting Russia and seeing for themselves what Putin’s Russia looks and feels like.  For that purpose, the best possible mechanism would be for Russia unilaterally to shelve visa requirements and police registration requirements for American and EU nationals. 

This idea may have seemed exotic if not quixotic when I urged it one year ago, but in light of the action by Georgia’s President Saakashvili last week scrapping visa requirements for Russian visitors, it is a compelling recommendation for the incoming presidential administration  

 

Post Script:

For a lively discussion of the issues raised in the foregoing essay, readers are directed to a panel discussion of the electoral results on the ‘Cross Talk’ show of Moscow-based Russia Today television:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvLk74s8i2Y&list=UUpwvZwUam-URkxB7g4USKpg&index=2&feature=plcp

 

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2012

 

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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book,Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. An e-book edition will be issued shortly.