Case against informational appeasement of Putin’s Russia

BBG Watch Commentary

Edward Lucas

Edward Lucas

An important article by Edward Lucas published by the Washington, DC-based Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), “Rethinking Russia: The Paradox of Paranoia,” makes a strong case against appeasement of Russian leaders by the United States and other Western nations. As part of containing Russia’s bullying of its neighbors, Lucas proposes that the West tries to constrain Putin’s propaganda through “information warfare” rather than through costly military spending. He also mentions the importance of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which — as he points out — the current Kremlin leadership sees as a threat.

In explaining Moscow’s obsession with external threats, Edward Lucas, CEPA’s Non-Resident Fellow and an International Editor for The Economist, the London-based newsweekly, concludes that “Russia’s strategic culture is profoundly paranoid and likely to remain so.” In his article he lists numerous examples of President Vladimir Putin and his political allies behaving in “in ways that threaten or subvert other countries and obstruct Western diplomacy” in response to self-imangined or self-created threats. Lukas argues that “[T]he right response to this is not to appease Russia, but to contain it and to mitigate the effects of its actions.”

An expert on energy security, Mr. Lucas has covered Central and Eastern European affairs since 1986. His latest book, The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West, warns that Western powers have become “divided, weak and dangerously complacent” in the face of a resurgent and revisionist Russia. In his CEPA article, he observes that the main threat from the current Russian political leadership is not military and therefore is not best addressed by beefing up military spending. He advocates instead “maintaining the integrity of legal, political, media and financial institutions that are being, or could be, subverted by Kremlin money and other pressure.”

One of his proposed solutions to the problem of Russia’s threat to her neighbors and the West, which he sees as being amplified by the Kremlin’s promotion of anti-American and anti-Western paranoia and propaganda, is a vigorous Western response through public diplomacy and “information warfare.” He does not go into details how the U.S. taxpayer-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has provided alternative news and analysis to counter Kremlin propaganda. But he notes that in addition to Western-supported pro-democracy NGOs in Russia, President Putin and his political allies see Radio Liberty broadcasts as a threat to the Russian state:

“Anything that could be construed as Western support for separatism (such as the modest Tatar, Chechen, Avar and other vernacular services of Radio Liberty) is readily seen as part of a plot to break up Russia.”

Edward Lucas does not mention in his article that the Obama Administration budget request for FY2013 proposed the elimination of Radio Liberty’s Avar, Chechen, and Circassian services. He also does not mention that opposition in Congress and lack of congressional budget action have prevented some of these and other proposed broadcasting cuts to Russia, China, Tibet and other countries without free media.

We simply don’t know whether the Administration made a determined effort at the highest levels at the White House and the State Department to suggest some of these cuts to appease Russia or whether it was an initiative of a group of lower-level officials in charge of RFE/RL supported by some board members and senior executives of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the independent federal agency which oversees U.S. international broadcasting.

Regardless of who was behind this move and how the decision was reached, Edward Lukas would see these broadcasting cuts as exactly the wrong kind of response to Kremlin’s anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric.

One criticism of Lucas’ article we have is that it tends to focus to much on the power of the current Russian governing oligarchy and its formidable propaganda machine and not enough on the promise of the pro-democratic opposition to the Kremlin. While it is true that the opposition continues to be weak and, above all, lacks mass media access, especially nationwide TV networks which are controlled by the government, important political leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, Grigory Yavlinsky and others reacted promptly and strongly to a recent attempt by the American management to change the traditional role of Radio Liberty in Russia.

New Sexy Image of Radio LibertyLast September, the then RFE/RL President Steven Korn dismissed dozens of experienced Radio Liberty journalists and hired Masha Gessen who, despite having written a book in English critical of Putin, declared herself to be in favor of more “normal journalism.” She described it as “[S]omething that’s not polemical, like opposition media, and something that’s not controlled by the Kremlin.” Soon thereafter, reports on social issues and soft features became more dominant and images of attractive women in skimpy costumes started to appear on the redesigned Russian Service website, which promptly lost many of its former visitors without gaining many new ones.

Human rights activists, including Lyudmila Alexeeva, the legendary head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, also condemned these changes as undermining the reputation and effectiveness of Radio Liberty, but their concerns were dismissed by the then American management of the station. Still, these reactions from human rights activists and opposition politicians to the Radio Liberty crisis show that Mr. Lukas’ description of Russian political culture may be somewhat overly pessimistic and focused too much on the ruling elite. At the same time, they confirm his thesis that opposing the Kremlin in the information arena is critical.

The promotion of “soft journalism” was not only limited to Radio Liberty’s Russian Service but also affected services broadcasting to Central Asia. Experienced human rights reporters were fired from Kazakh, Turkmen and other services. Videos with suggestive sexual content designed to attract a young online audience were placed on the Radio Liberty Kazakh Service website. They were later removed.

Steven Korn, who claims that all experienced reporters resigned voluntarily and that the mission of Radio Liberty has not been compromised but needed to adjust to political and media changes in Russia, was himself recently replaced by a distinguished journalist, former RFE/RL president and former NPR executive Kevin Klose. It remains to be seen how Klose, who is widely respected among RFE/RL former and current staffers for his knowledge of Russia and managerial skills, will deal with political and human rights programs that were cancelled and journalist who were dismissed.

It is still not entirely clear whether the firings of journalists at Radio Liberty were politically motivated and ordered from Washington by the Broadcasting Board of Governors or resulted from poor supervision and decisions made by RFE/RL managers who acted largely on their own, or a combination of both factors. These actions, however, were perceived by democratic Russian leaders like Gorbachev as Washington’s appeasement of the Kremlin. The Broadcasting Board of Governors eventually changed its position and backed away from the Korn/Gessen changes after it became abundantly obvious that they turned the entire democratic opposition movement into enemies of the refashioned Radio Liberty.

But the situation is not helped by the fact that some former, current, and possibly future members of the bipartisan BBG Board work for private companies that have business interests in Russia, including media interests. They would, of course, deny that they would allow themselves to be influenced by any need to protect their companies’ profits in Russia, but this certainly raises a threat of direct or indirect subversion by the Kremlin of the kind that Edward Lucas describes in his article with regard to some former European politicians and energy sector executives.

Outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent comments that the BBG is largely “defunct” and is “abdicating” the “broadcasting” and “ideological” arenas may suggest that at least she, although an ex officio BBG member, was not in favor of broadcasting and informational appeasement of any kind. We know that most other BBG members are not either. Secretary Clinton had said earlier that the U.S. is losing the information war. It is less clear, however, how in the case of Russia her statements on international broadcasting square with President Obama’s push for a “reset” of relations with the Kremlin, which she tried to implement but apparently with much less enthusiasm for it than her boss, or so it seems.

While not focusing specifically on Radio Liberty or U.S. international broadcasting in general, Edward Lucas argues strongly against all appeasement in the informational sphere and proposes instead in conclusion of his CEPA article launching an even stronger informational challenge to the Kremlin’s control of Russian mass media and its internal and external propaganda.

“The most important thing to be done in constraining the Kremlin is what might be termed information-warfare. Highlighting the shortcomings of the system inside Russia (especially corruption and ineffectiveness), as well as its meddling and bullying in neighboring countries, and its attempts to influence the political and economic systems elsewhere in Europe and in the United States are a national security priority — or should be. Such efforts were a serious part of Western defense efforts during the Cold War, but have fallen into some disuse. Universities, think-tanks, media outlets, public broadcasters, human-rights organizations and others all have a part to play here. The most important points that can be widely grasped are these: Just because Russia is a nominally capitalist economy and holds what look superficially like multi-candidate elections does not mean that it is run well. Nor does the fact that Russia is weak in overall terms mean that it cannot pose a specific threat to our interests. It does.”

President Putin has the upper hand over U.S. broadcasters like Radio Liberty and Voice of America by controlling the best and the most popular distribution channels, namely domestic terrestrial television networks and FM and AM radio. Shortwave radio listening is no longer as effective or as popular in Russia as it was during the Cold War. Only the Internet and some of the print media are not, at least for now, controlled or blocked by the Russian authorities, but they could be if the Kremlin is faced with a future threat of serious domestic opposition to its rule.

Information delivery is a big problem, even assuming that the U.S. is serious about confronting the Kremlin in the informational and ideological arena. One solution to the program delivery dilemma is to soften the message with fluff journalism in the hope that some of the more substantive information and analysis can get through on the margins. There is wishful thinking that less polemical programming would appeal more to a younger audience and perhaps even some Kremlin supporters of whom there are many in Russia. This approach assumes that the less important local broadcast media outlets, including perhaps an individual TV station or two, would feel safe enough to use some of Radio Liberty’s content and that the Kremlin would choose to look the other way. This would be a very naive assumption if one agrees with Edward Lucas’ idea that the current ruling oligarchy is indeed paranoid and uses paranoia to influence and control domestic public opinion. There was also a wrong assumption that younger Russians don’t care about politics. When the RFE/RL management fired their senior colleagues, young Radio Liberty journalists, many of them new media experts, resigned in protest.

A different solution would be not to change Radio Liberty’s image and reputation for hard-hitting journalism but to strengthen it in defiance of Putin. This is what the democratic opposition in Russia wants and expects from the United States.

Under this scenario, Radio Liberty would continue to use the Internet and social media and expand their use for as long as it is possible, not only in terms of delivering text, but also video and audio programs. Experienced journalists and new media professionals who were fired would also do live online video discussions, live video streaming from demonstrations and political trials and video reports for YouTube — everything they were already doing before the latest changes. If there is much more money, which does not appear likely in these times of tight budgets, television news programs on popular satellite channels would be very effective. Shortwave radio and perhaps some cross-border AM radio transmissions to parts of European Russian from neighboring countries like Lithuania should be kept or, in case of AM explored to see if it has a potential audience, as a current and future emergency response if the Russian government decides to block everything else.

Public perceptions are extremely important in a country like Russia, where some leaders, as Edward Lucas argues in his article, create and use paranoia to strengthen their hold on power. His article strongly suggests that softening the informational image only encourages the Kremlin to do more mischief. The article perhaps does not make a clear enough case that a public perception of U.S. informational weakness and real or imagined gestures of appeasement of the Kremlin also have a demoralizing effect on the opposition, including independent journalists, to whom, in our view, Lucas does not seem to pay enough attention.

The firing of well known and respected journalists and the practice of “normal journalism” in the aftermath of Masha Gessen’s well publicized meeting with President Putin shortly before accepting the Radio Liberty job — even though she declined his offer to continue working for one of his favorite nature magazines after refusing to cover one of his publicity stunts — became a major public relation and a public diplomacy disaster in Russia. In addition, soft journalism did not produce any of the desired results but instead seriously undermined Radio Liberty’s reputation and future effectiveness, as did the firings of famous reporters associated with the station’s uncompromising journalistic image. The idea that someone could outsmart Putin into allowing Radio Liberty to expand its audience and impact in Russia was a foolish one.

Radio Liberty has a much better chance of influencing public opinion if it sticks with hard-hitting journalism and uses all new media and all information delivery options without having to count on Putin’s good will. Edward Lucas, an outspoken critic of over-dependence on Putin’s Russia in any sphere, would no doubt agree.

The full text of Edward Lucas’ article, “Rethinking Russia: The Paradox of Paranoia,” is available from the the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) website.

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