Recently I was interviewed by Alexei Pankin, one of Russia’s most distinguished journalists. His interview was published in the country’s largest newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda. I present it here with the consent of the interviewer and publisher:
“Russia should stop shying away from defending itself in the foreign press”
Is it true that the West is against Russia? Is it waging a propaganda war? –Let’s discuss!
If the answers to those questions are yes, how is the anti-Russian propaganda organized, and who is behind it? Is it possible to counter it? And are our authorities negligently leaving the formation the country’s image to the enemies of the president? Alexei Pankin talks about all this in conversation with well-known American media analyst William Dunkerley.
Bill, recently, The Moscow Times published a scandalous article by Steven Korn, president of the American governmentally-sponsored Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In it he relates a very disparaging characterization of president Vladimir Putin. I was very struck by Mr. Korn’s sincerity. I get the feeling that he himself believes what he’s written, and thinks that for English-speaking audiences all those negative allegations are self-evident. Is it true that the image of the Russian president in the West is one of a leader who is a “ruthless politician” who “dismantled Russia’s democratic and free market reforms” in order to become a “totalitarian leader”?
–Yes, that’s right. According to an opinion poll in March 2012, only 15 percent of Americans have even a somewhat positive view of Putin. Over the years, the most prominent Western news stories about Russia have claimed that Putin has used energy as a weapon against Ukraine, ordered the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, and ruthlessly invaded Georgia to strangle democracy there. From the start of Putin’s presidency, the news has characterized him as a sneaky former spy with an insatiable thirst for power. There was a brief reprieve from that negativity when Putin was the first foreign leader to contact the American president with sympathy over 9/11. That resulted in a surge in positive feelings toward Russia. But, there has always been a notable absence of major news stories commenting upon the improvements in Russia’s economy and standard of living during Putin’s tenure.
You once said that it seems like Putin has been spat upon in the Western press, and all he does is wipe it off.
–Indeed, he doesn’t seem to object to the negative news stories. The trouble is that when publically-made allegations go unchallenged, they become fixed in the minds of Westerners. It’s not like Putin started his Kremlin life with an established positive image. Frankly, he was an unknown in the West. So the allegations have been all that people have known of him. For most Americans, Russia is not a highly interesting news topic. The whole topic of foreign news is not of major interest here. So there is no natural curiosity to reality-test the stories Americans have heard. People just accept them. Putin’s absence of response has allowed his enemies to control the story. That certainly puts him at a disadvantage in face-to-face international negotiations. Korn’s article is perhaps evidence of what Putin is up against.
Recently, Putin’s arch enemies have even found success in turning negative international stories inward. That’s been responsible for emboldening agitators and fomenting dissatisfaction in the heart of Russia. Putin’s popularity has slipped. The negative stories are gaining ground.
It’s said newspapers are the first draft of history. That’s bad news for Putin. In the West he won’t be judged by his achievements and failures, but by the negative allegations advanced in the media by his enemies.
Meanwhile, the Pussy Riot band of serial exhibitionists have earned themselves a so-far unchallenged place in history as recipients of the John Lennon Peace Prize for opposing Putin’s purported oppression, and as the European Parliament designees as finalists for the Andrei Sakharov Prize. Western audiences would be aghast if they saw pictures of some of the young women’s previous lurid exploits.
Honestly, in Russian terms, phrases like “enemies of Russia” and “enemies of Putin” conjure up very painful recollections of the “enemies” of the Stalinist past. You are using those terms very liberally.
–I wouldn’t agree that I use the terms liberally. Modern warfare includes cyber attacks and advanced psychological warfare. The definition of an enemy can no longer be limited to foreign countries. After 9/11, the United States became acutely aware of what it is like to have non-state enemies. I think that Putin needs to awake to the realities that he faces. He seems to want to conceive of things primarily in state-against-state terms. It may also be repulsive to him to believe that he and the Russian state may have mortal enemies that were born and raised on Russian soil. Russia and Putin himself would be better served if he reacted to the real situation.
Although, I don’t know the totality of the threat Putin faces, I have carefully studied what happened in the Litvinenko case. It clearly represented a media-based attack against Putin. And there, the finger of suspicion points to persons who were born in Russia, but are now closely connected with London.
And so we pick up on the story of Russia’s “non-state” enemies…
–Let’s discuss this by concrete example. The Alexander Litvinenko case illustrates the process through which Putin is regularly slimed internationally. My book, The Phony Litvinenko Murder, explains this process in detail. In a nutshell, though, this is a case of a “managed story.” The entire Western news story about Putin being behind the murder of Litvinenko was fabricated apparently by the Berezovsky camp. And then it was skillfully foisted upon unsuspecting Western media who were appreciative of getting an enormously attention getting story handed to them ready-to-use.
The story told is specious, but believable by the uninformed. The famous deathbed statement is a good example. That’s the statement where Litvinenko accused Putin as being behind the poisoning. At first, an associate of Berezovsky’s said it was dictated to him by Litvinenko just before his death. The associate said he wrote down Litvinenko’s words. Later he confessed they weren’t Litvinenko’s words at all. Litvinenko didn’t dictate anything. It was written by that associate. I didn’t see where any journalists called attention to that discrepancy. But when facts change to suit the convenience of the news source, it reflects on the credibility of the whole story. Another issue is that news reports called Litvinenko a former spy. But there’s no indication that he ever did espionage work. Even his wife has explained that he never was a spy.
In September, the London coroner resumed investigating the case after a six-year hiatus. One independent London-based analyst suggested in a KP interview that the coroner may claim to be trying to establish the truth, but the prosecutor and the press will continue to spew the Berezovsky version. In any event, this seems destined to impact Russia’s reputation negatively.
–I would be very surprised if the coroner arrives at an honest verdict. The inquest procedure has telltale signs of being rigged. There has been no explanation why after almost six years there has not been even a conclusion on whether or not Litvinenko’s death was a homicide. When coroner Andrew Reid reopened activity on the case, he called for disclosure of MI5/MI6 documents that are relevant. But then it was reported that Reid was suddenly stricken by appendicitis and hospitalized. Next a scandal erupted over Reid’s employment of his wife several years earlier, and he was removed from the case. A new coroner was then appointed, who announced that the secret documents would not be disclosed.
Meanwhile, I’ve also seen collusive-sounding intersections between the prosecutor who formulated Britain’s allegations of Russian state involvement in Litvinenko’s death, and people connected to Boris Berezovsky. A lot of other inconsistencies in the case exist, as well. There seems to be a keen attempt to avoid full disclosure. Even if the coroner were to arrive at a verdict soon, there is every reason to distrust it.
Coroner Reid himself stated that “public interest plainly demands an open and fearless investigation into the full circumstances.” He went on to say, “any lesser level of inquiry would not command public confidence either nationally or internationally.” But now it seems that the public will indeed get a lesser level of inquiry. Relevant documents will be withheld.
Reid is wrong about public confidence, though. Western audiences won’t distrust rigged results. That’s because all they’re likely to see is continuation of the mythological version of the case, the “managed story,” put forward by Putin’s enemies.
In my opinion, the whole case should simply be dismissed. There is little chance for a legitimate outcome. Not only is there reason to distrust whatever verdict may arise, but hasn’t the basis for going forward vanished? Coroner Reid ruled that “the whole purpose of the inquest is to investigate the credibility of the competing theories.” That would mean: no competing theory, no problem. In the Berezovsky v. Abramovich case, the High Court judge ruled that Berezovsky is “inherently unreliable.” That would mean that his theory in the Litvinenko case can not be relied upon. If one discounts Berezovsky’s theory that Putin is behind Litvinenko’s death, doesn’t that mean there are no competing theories to investigate? Why are the British going to spend a reported $6 million on a seemingly pointless inquest? Doesn’t it seem like there must be an ulterior motive?
Okay, let’s consider that the campaigns against the Russian president did not erupt spontaneously, and that they were skillfully directed. In that case, it is easy to speculate that the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi will be an opportunity for new attacks. I remember that on the eve of the St. Petersburg G8 summit in 2006, there was talk of excluding Russia from this elite club. The 2014 Olympics are widely regarded as a personal project of Putin’s. The event is very important for all Russians. Are these festivities destined to be spoiled? Or can trouble be preempted?
–There is good reason to suspect that media-based attacks against Putin are opportunistic. Politkovskaya was killed on Putin’s birthday. The media blitz over Litvinenko occurred while Putin was attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Hanoi. The Sochi Olympics present Putin’s enemies with an obvious opportunity.
Of course, it is possible to employ preemptive tactics. But victory will not be simple, and there is scant time left to do an effective job.
I’ve studied the media-based attacks since the dawn of the Putin era. I’ve carefully analyzed how they have been used to defame Russia and its leader. That gave me the insight to see how the process can be defeated. I know exactly how it works, what the vulnerabilities are, and how to defeat it.
That leaves me amazed to see that Putin has employed virtually no effective countermeasures since day one of his rule. It’s hard to imagine why not. Maybe it’s out of ignorance of what to do. Or perhaps it’s a result of arrogance over the need to respond at all.
What can preempt an unfortunate scenario at the Olympics? I say that the first step must be an attitude change on the part of Putin. Isn’t it high time for him to get serious about protecting his own image, and to start becoming an effective steward of his country’s reputation? This is not a private matter, but a matter of national importance.
(This interview appeared originally in Komsomolskaya Pravda on October 22, 2012.)