Official Washington says it welcomes freedom of thought, but there is a startling absence of diverse opinions especially on key foreign-policy topics, such as Russia’s President Putin. In those cases, shallow “group think” prevails and belligerent “information warfare” rules, as Gilbert Doctorow observes.
By Gilbert Doctorow
The U.S. establishment writers on Russia are one and all “presstitutes” and when you put their writings together, back to back, in 40 pages or so as Johnson’s Russia List has so kindly done in its Christmas Eve issue, the result is an astounding propaganda barrage.
For those of you in the general public who are, likely as not, unfamiliar with this Internet resource, Johnson’s Russia List (www.russialist.org) is an Internet digest published roughly six days a week year round and focused on Russia, now with a separate section on Ukraine.
The JRL is a project domiciled at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University and operated by Richard Johnson who founded it something like 20 years ago. Its banner tells us that it receives partial funding from the George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, partly from the Carnegie Corporation, New York, neither of which may be considered neutral in matters concerning Russia, quite the contrary.
But further funding comes from the voluntary contributions of subscribers, of whom there are perhaps 6,000, mostly American academics and university centers having an interest in Russian affairs. Appearing in JRL is an ambition of a great many wannabe experts and authorities in the field, mostly but not exclusively political scientists and journalists.
As an institution seeking to be fair-handed in purveying news and opinion about Russia, the JRL has been in the cross-hairs of activists on both sides of the highly divisive pro- and anti-Putin camps. About a year ago one of the most outspoken Russia-bashers, liberal economist Anders Aslund, publicly broke with JRL for what he saw as going easy on Putin in its selection of material. Alternative media commentators like Michael Averko have hit out at JRL for the opposite alleged abuse. In Johnson’s defense, one might argue he chooses selon le marchÃ©, i.e., from what is being published.
Undeniably, U.S. and U.K. scholars and pundits are lopsided in their bias against Putin and Russia. Nevertheless, even within the scope of this allowance for what there is to choose from and the presumed desire to run his shop straight down the middle, the Dec. 24 issue of the Johnson’s Russia List was a doozy. The count was 14 articles or transcripts of video events slamming Russia and Putin to zero articles holding any other view.
And among the publishers or hosts of the 14 entries being republished in JRL are not just heavy guns in the media wars but also would-be temples of learning: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the European Council on Foreign Relations, Foreign Policy magazine, the Center for European Policy Analysis, the American Council on Foreign Relations, The Moscow Times, the Kennan Institute, The National Review, Forbes.com and Home Box Office.
Putin’s personality figures large in nearly all of these essays and discussions as the sole explanation for all the turns in Russian foreign and domestic policy. This is entirely in keeping with the ad hominem argumentation that has become the norm in political discussions generally in the U.S.
Joseph Stalin, with his no man, no issue philosophy of governance must be chuckling, wherever he is, over how this view has caught on in what passes today for polite society.
The phenomenon is something I felt acutely this past spring in its McCarthy-ite form when I appeared as one of three participants in the Euronews hosted talk show The Network. The subject of the day was the assassination of Kremlin critic and opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot down within proximity of the Kremlin walls a few days earlier.
We were discussing media coverage of that event and who was to blame for politically motivated crimes in Russia, when a fellow panelist, Elmar Brok, the chairman of the European Parliament’s committee on foreign relations, who was irritated by my insistence that Russian media gave a great many different takes on the news and was anything but monolithic, said in an aside to me that was picked up by the microphones and later went on air: “How much is the Kremlin paying you?”
Not being a hardened politician like Brok, stunned by the way a senior official of the E.U. could stoop to such low-life viciousness, and naively believing that Europe’s most watched news station would not broadcast crude libel, I said nothing in response and the talk moved on.
Having just come back a week ago from Moscow, where my stay was picked up by a Kremlin-funded institution, I now can give a fairly precise answer to MEP Brok’s impertinent and malicious question: for three years of occasional guest appearances as interviewee and panelist on the Cross Talk program of Russia Today, I have been paid three nights in a five-star hotel in downtown Moscow, lavish buffet breakfasts, a tour of the Kremlin and a seat at the banquet dinner celebration of Russia Today’s 10 years on air where Vladimir Putin was the keynote speaker.
For this token of respect by my hosts at RT, I am duly grateful. Yet, I know full well that it is not to be compared with the lavish hospitality bestowed on attendees at the annual Kremlin-organized gatherings of the Valdai Discussion Club to which many senior U.S. academics, Angela Stent, of Georgetown University, to name one, Robert Legvold of Columbia and Tufts, to name another, have been invited regularly notwithstanding the fact that most are hostile, at best agnostic to the “Putin regime” in their public writings and appearances.
Now that I have “come clean” about Kremlin blandishments that have come my way, I turn to my political opponents who have a monopoly on Thursday’s JRL and ask how much they are benefiting in terms of grants, professional promotions and access to the high and mighty in Washington for publicly supporting the propaganda lines of State Department handouts. I wouldn’t dream of accusing them of being on the CIA payroll…
Put another way and avoiding rhetorical questions, I assert plainly that the Establishment writers on Russia are one and all “presstitutes” and when you put their writings together, back to back, in 40 pages or so as JRL has so kindly done in the Christmas Eve issue, the result is an astounding propaganda barrage.
From these collected rants by some very well known “authorities,” I have chosen the one piece which presents itself as sort of scholarly. In this it stands apart from the slapstick humor of Richard Haass and Kimberley Marten in the transcript of an HBO airing and from the rehash of analyses of the fatal weaknesses in the Putin regime that constitute the bulk of the writings of other essayists.
Unlike the others, Kirk Bennett’s article would appear to break new ground. In “Russia and the West. The Myth of Russia’s Containment: Has the West always had it in for Russia? Hardly,” we are treated to an historical analysis intended to debunk what the author identifies as a key Kremlin propaganda line. It tries to refute Vladimir Putin’s assertions in several speeches that the West has always been an opponent of Russia, whether out of envy or fear.
This victimization narrative of the Kremlin, in the view of the author, and of the great majority of U.S. international relations experts, is used to whip up patriotic fervor in the broad Russian population and underpin a regime that is undergoing great strain from economic hardships and stagnation, as well as from the international isolation that followed its annexation of Crimea.
The author starts out in paragraph two citing the Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev to show us he is no carpetbagging political scientist, that Russian studies are in his blood. Indeed, as we see through his text to the end, he has read his Russian and European history.
That is his strong point, compared to many of the other loudmouths in the articles republished by Johnson’s Russia List. It is also his weak point: he has read Russian history but he has not researched or written it. This is not an accusation, but a mere statement of the facts.
Bennett is introduced to us as a “former U.S. Foreign Service officer who spent most of his career working on post-Soviet issues.” For an historical overview like the article in question that goes back almost 300 years, he is clearly something of a lightweight.
Bennett’s article appeared originally in The American Interest, the publication founded and run by the key popularizer of neoconservative philosophy, Francis Fukuyama. Bennett otherwise has recently published in the online platform of The American Center for a European Ukraine, which should explain where he is coming from politically and to whom he is reaching out.
In effect, Bennett is just one more American thinker who presumes that he understands Russian history and Russian national interest vastly better than the Russians themselves do. In this regard, my best advice to him and to his followers is to sit down with a couple of books written by Dominic Lieven, a scion of one of the great families in the Russian Baltics who is presently a visiting professor at Yale University and who spent more than 25 years as professor of Russian history at the London School of Economics.
The two books in question are Russia Against Napoleon (2012) and The End of Tsarist Russia (2015). Both present the history of momentous periods from a novel perspective, Russia’s own, based on extensive work in the Russian historical archives. Together they sweep into the dust bin most of the simplistic remarks of Bennett about the nature of Russian-European relations since the Eighteenth Century up to 1917.
For example, Lieven explains at length the competing imperialisms, European and Russian of the Nineteenth Century, which were underpinned not only by Russia’s Panslavism, but by Pan-Germanism and by myths to justify Anglo-Saxon world hegemony, which put the powers at odds and which spread widely the denigration of Russia that survives to our day in the West.
From Lieven’s archival research and detailed attention to the advice the Russian rulers received from their senior advisers, both in 1812-1815 and in 1906-1917, both from generals and civilians, it is clear that the Putin narrative on Russian history which Bennett tries to shoot down had far wider acceptance among serious, well-educated Russians and far more subtlety to it than Bennett can imagine.
But Bennett’s problem is not just his average-level consumer’s as opposed to scholar’s knowledge of Russian history. It extends to current events. Bennett distorts present realities. Yes, he is right that Vladimir Putin from time to time plays the “victimization” card, just as from time to time, more generally, the Russian President invokes nationalism.
The simple fact is that in Russia, just as in most Western countries including the United States, nationalism has broad resonance and popular understanding, playing as it does to the heartstrings, whereas Realpolitik, which is the dominant approach to policy behind Putin’s thinking, is seen as cold and unfeeling by the public, too cerebral, so is held back from the addresses to the nation that Bennett cites.
It would be more appropriate to describe Vladimir Putin’s characterization of Russia’s talking partners on the international stage as “Frenemies.” Anyone paying close attention to his major speeches knows that he is never excited, least of all does he engage in “tirades” over the conduct of this or that country in its relations to Russia because the underlying expectation of Putin is that all countries are in permanent competition for their own advantage and only alignment of interests can ensure genuine meeting of minds and common action. Personalities as such count for almost nothing.
Contrary to the facile generalization of Bennett, Vladimir Putin has always followed a foreign policy that had a plan A, of joining NATO or otherwise entering into a shared security platform with the West, and a default position plan B of going it alone, as we now see today after the sharp confrontation over Ukraine.
It will be interesting to see in the days ahead if David Johnson has the courage of his convictions and publishes my indictment of his latest harvest of anti-Russian invective.
Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of the American Committee for East West Accord. His most recent book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. It is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites. For donations to support the European activities of ACEWA, write to firstname.lastname@example.org
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2015