In Russia

‘Op-Edge’ commentary by Bryan MacDonald, on, Feb 28, 2017

The New Yorker made quite a splash with its uber long read on ‘Trump, Putin and the New Cold War.’ What a shame then the actual product is sloppy, misinformed tosh masquerading as something of highbrow distinction.

On right, ‘retro’ cover of March 6, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

When I was a ‘cub’ reporter in Ireland, juggling study with coverage of anything from Barn Dances to Basketball, payment came from lineage. A hideous measure which promoted loquaciousness at the expense of brevity. The compensation was dreadful, set at the measly sum of twenty pence a line. Thus, making a carefully crafted Rugby report worth about the price of a few beers, a pack of Marlboro and a small pizza. That said, if you padded it out, it might extend to a large one, with extra anchovies.

One day my impressionable young self met an American journalist in Dublin, who told me of a magazine called ‘The New Yorker’ where the generous publishers paid one dollar a WORD. Meaning its sports writers, if it had any, probably eschewed lager, chips and bus journeys for oysters, champagne, and travel by Concorde.

Twenty years later, assuming the title has kept up with inflation, the writers must be on gallons of the fizzy stuff. Because they are clearly taking the piss. How else to explain this March’s lead story, which amounts to a small anti-Russia novella that manages, over 13,000 words, to deliver zero new information to readers. But instead delivers plenty of elementary mistakes and misrepresentations, suggesting the three authors (yes, three!) phoned it in.

This is lackadaisical, trite, obtuse, fallacious hackery at its most inglorious. Penned by a trio of long-winded malingerers, shameless prevaricators and ghastly runtish, repellent, cheerless, petulant gnomes with an ingrained and sophistic loathing of Russia. And here they are trying to push the word-o-meter to its maximum.

To be fair, the magazine’s retro cover has been a hit on social media. Although I find the Cyrillic masthead pretentious. Then there’s the introduction to the essay itself. Featuring hellish black and blood red colors depicting an upside down St Basil’s Cathedral shooting a laser beam into the White House, like a bad illustration from a sci-fi comic book, designed by a dyslexic bat. But, then again, all art is subjective really, isn’t it?

As ever, when Westerners profile Russia expectations are pretty low, but these wordsmiths even conspire to live down to the usual humble prospects. David Remnick, who has been editor of the title since 1998 and is evidently as stale as ten-day-old bread, is joined by Evan Osnos, a new name on the Russia beat. And their man in Moscow is Joshua Yaffa, one of those “fellow” chaps, representing a U.S. State Department-funded concern called ‘New America‘.

In the parallel universe The New Yorker occupies when it comes to Russia, in common with pretty much all its peers, everything Moscow does is nefarious and if America makes mistakes, it’s never intentional. The usual Uncle Sam as an eternal toddler stuff, which must always be forgiven because of its cute smile. As a result, Washington’s open interference in Russia politics is never mentioned.

For instance, a balanced article could draw on 1996 when Americans openly intervened to deliver Boris Yeltsin to victory over the less favorable Gennady Zyuganov. Or the outspoken support of U.S. officials for the 2011-2012 Bolotnaya protests. In this case, the serving U.S. ambassador even invited the leaders to his embassy.

Bad Kremlin

Instead, it’s bash Russia time in an opus riddled with fundamental errors. Like when it pours over “anti-Moscow ‘color revolutions,’ in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, which deposed corrupt, Soviet-era leaders.” Without apparently realizing how Ukraine’s twice-shafted Viktor Yanukovich was a convicted petty criminal in the USSR and upon its fall in 1991 was a regional transport executive with all the power of a spent light bulb. Or how it claims former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev “made a crucial decision not to veto an American-backed UN Security Council resolution in favor of military action in Libya.”

Because this is just disingenuous, given how Russia agreed to the establishment of a ‘no-fly zone’ over the unfortunate country, not the full-scale NATO ‘regime change’ operation that followed. At no point does The New Yorker acknowledge Moscow’s subsequent disgust at what it perceived as an outrageous breach of trust by its Western partners.

While these are especially blatant examples, there are many others. But given the length of the text, the easiest way to disassemble is to unravel it piece by piece. Here are the ‘highlights,’ but there were many more to choose from.

NEW YORKER:  Five years ago, he (Putin) blamed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the anti-Kremlin protests in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square. “She set the tone for some of our actors in the country and gave the signal,” Putin said. “They heard this and, with the support of the U.S. State Department, began active work.” (No evidence was provided for the accusation).

REALITY: As mentioned above, the then U.S. ambassador, Michael McFaul invited the protest leaders to the U.S. embassy. Which, given the relative support levels and the anti-establishment nature of both movements, would have been precisely the same as his Russian equivalent bringing Occupy Wall Street members to his consulate. Furthermore, the magazine doesn’t consider that perhaps Putin received this information from intelligence agencies? As we have just seen in America, they don’t seem to need to provide evidence for their findings to become accepted gospel truth these days. In fact, this entire article is precisely based on the assumption of how “the DNC hacks, many analysts believe, were just a skirmish in a larger war against Western institutions and alliances” (to quote the intro). As we all know, there is no actual proof of Kremlin involvement in the DNC hacks. Indeed, WikiLeaks itself has said the Russian government was not its source. And its envoy claimed that a “disgusted” whistleblower was responsible.

NEW YORKER:  In early January, two weeks before the Inauguration, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, released a declassified report concluding that Putin had ordered an influence campaign to harm Clinton’s election prospects, fortify Donald Trump’s, and “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.” The declassified report provides more assertion than evidence. Intelligence officers say that this was necessary to protect their information-gathering methods. Critics of the report had repeatedly noted that intelligence agencies, in the months before the Iraq War, endorsed faulty assessments concerning weapons of mass destruction. But the intelligence community was deeply divided over the actual extent of Iraq’s weapons development; the question of Russia’s responsibility for cyberattacks in the 2016 election has produced no such tumult. Seventeen federal intelligence agencies have agreed that Russia was responsible for the hacking.

REALITY: This is not entirely true. As many others have pointed out, the NSA (i.e., the agency most likely to know, because it can monitor communications) has offered only ‘‘moderate’ support.

NEW YORKER:  Another Administration official said that, during the transfer of power, classified intelligence had shown multiple contacts between Trump associates and Russian representatives, but nothing that rose to the level of aiding or coordinating the interference with the election.

REALITY: Obama’s team had much the same level of contacts. In fact, his chief “Russia hand”, McFaul, even visited Moscow during the 2008 transition to speak to Russian officials. And there was nothing wrong in what McFaul did. For example, Bill Clinton’s point man on Russia and Eastern Europe was considered a source of intelligence information and classified as “a special unofficial contact” by SVR. The man concerned, Strobe Talbot, correctly pointed out how it was an exaggeration of chats he had with the Russian ambassador to Canada, Georgiy Mamedov.

Additionally, Henry Kissinger has maintained intensive contacts with Moscow for decades. Yet every recent American president has sought his advice. And George W. Bush’s Russia expert, Elizabeth Jones, actually grew up in Moscow and attended local Russian schools.

NEW YORKER:  Russian security concerns were hardly the only issue at stake with respect to the expansion of NATO; Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other countries in the region were now sovereign and wanted protection… Putin, in his first few years in office, was relatively solicitous of the West. He was the first foreign leader to call George W. Bush after the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. When he spoke at the Bundestag, later that month, he addressed its members in German, the language that he had spoken as a KGB agent in Dresden. He even entertained the notion of Russian membership in NATO. America’s invasion of Iraq, which Putin opposed, marked a change in his thinking.

REALITY: Protection from what exactly? In the 1990’s, nobody was threatening anyone and Russia was both on its knees and desperately trying to join the Western fold, under the famously pro-American Boris Yeltsin. Indeed, as acknowledged by the magazine, during his early years in office, Putin continued the same posture, before becoming embittered by NATO expansion and the illegal Iraq War. There have been countless academic articles, from genuine experts, backing up this view. And even George Kennan, the most celebrated American Russia analyst of the twentieth century, agreed. Thus, NATO’s overreach eastwards has caused the exact problem that NATO purportedly exists to circumvent: insecurity in Europe. In this sense, it was like employing a team of golden retrievers to clean up shredded canine hair. Also, is it such a big surprise that the illegal invasion of a sovereign country, based on obviously false evidence, without a UN mandate, would affect the thinking of a government which regards its UN veto as an important defense tool?

NEW YORKER:  He (Putin) was alarmed by the Obama Administration’s embrace of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. And he was infuriated by the U.S.-led assault on Muammar Qaddafi’s regime.

REALITY: This is presented as something irrational, and comes without proper context. However, given that Russia is home to around 20 million Muslims and has a history of problems with Islamist terrorism, what’s unusual about Putin being concerned about secular, stable (if obnoxious) regimes in the Middle East being replaced by (obviously even more obnoxious) radical Islamists? Also, he was infuriated about Qaddafi because, as mentioned earlier, the mandate the UN agreed to was for a ‘no-fly zone’ – not a fully fledged NATO campaign of airstrikes, coordinated with the opposition.

NEW YORKER:  Russian television, of course, covered the siege of Aleppo as an enlightened act of liberation, free of any brutality or abuses.

REALITY: Which is more or less exactly how American and British TV covered the “liberation” of Baghdad in 2003. Check out this extraordinary report from BBC’s Andrew Marr. Who later became the channel’s political editor.

NEW YORKER:  And yet Russian military planners and officials in the Kremlin regarded Georgia as a failure in the realm of international propaganda.

REALITY: It’s not hard to see why. Even to this day, U.S. news outlets (and the aforementioned McFaul who definitely knows better) continue to insist that Russia attacked Georgia. But in actual fact, the EU’s independent investigation into the conflict ruled that Georgia started the war.

NEW YORKER:  The United States, meanwhile, had its own notable cyberwar success. In 2008, in tandem with Israeli intelligence, the U.S. launched the first digital attack on another country’s critical infrastructure, deploying a “worm”, known as Stuxnet, that was designed to cause centrifuges in Iran to spin out of control and thereby delay its nuclear development.

REALITY: This admitted act of aggression is given a sentence, but an incident in Estonia in 2007 (never proved to have been Russian state ordered) is highlighted over many paragraphs complete with quotes from the country’s former President Toomas Ilves.

NEW YORKER:  Obama’s adviser Benjamin Rhodes said that Russia’s aggressiveness had accelerated since the first demonstrations on Maidan Square, in Kiev. “When the history books are written, it will be said that a couple of weeks on the Maidan is where this went from being a Cold War-style competition to a much bigger deal,” he said. “Putin’s unwillingness to abide by any norms began at that point. It went from provocative to disrespectful of any international boundary.”

REALITY: Even though they have 13,000 words to play with, our heroes never consider other aspects of Maidan. Such as, was it normal for serving U.S. and EU officials to turn up at the rallies and more or less encourage protestors to overthrow their democratically elected government? Indeed, it looked like the rock star style adulation went to their heads. Furthermore, what authority did U.S. official’s Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt have to choose the subsequent regime in Kiev?

NEW YORKER:  Bruno Kahl, the head of Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, has expressed concern that Russian hackers are also trying to disrupt the German political scene, where Chancellor Angela Merkel is standing for reelection as a stalwart supporter of NATO and the EU.

REALITY: German intelligence recently admitted that it found no evidence of Russian election hacking after insinuations of such activity was breathlessly carried by popular media last year. Notably, the “all clear” given to Moscow was ignored by the same outlets. Also, this whole premise is a bit illogical, seeing as the only realistic alternative to Merkel – the SPD led by Martin Schultz – is even more pro-EU than her CDU party. And Schultz himself has spent most of his adult life working in Brussels, home to both the EU and NATO.

NEW YORKER:  While officials in the Obama Administration struggled with how to respond to the cyberattacks, it began to dawn on them that a torrent of “fake news” reports about Hillary Clinton was being generated in Russia and through social media.

REALITY: It’s been proven the “fake news” was primarily generated in America itself and in Macedonia. Not Russia.

NEW YORKER:  Russia’s political hierarchy and official press greeted Trump’s Inauguration with unreserved glee.

REALITY: Given Clinton’s aggressive anti-Russia rhetoric, during which she compared Putin to Adolf Hitler, why is this a surprise? Especially when Trump had spoken of trying to mend fences with Moscow?

And we shall leave it there. Because I’ve just breached the 2,500-word barrier myself and am in danger of resembling those I reprimand. Meanwhile, dear reader you may well have bitten off all your fingernails by now. If you’ve made it this far.

As for The New Yorker, their approach to covering Russia appears to be inspired by the great Samuel Beckett and his excellent observation: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Perhaps they’d be better off listening to my late grandfather, Paddy, born the same year, who used to say, spade in hand, “you may as well do a job properly as do it at all.” He was right.

Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist based in Russia


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