Fragile fact-checking: How the media fell in and out of love with the Sikorski ‘revelations’

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist based in Russia.
Fragile fact-checking: How the media fell in and out of love with the Sikorski ‘revelations’
What’s worse than a junior neocon? A junior neocon trying to make a name for himself. Ben Judah’s meteoric rise, aided by his staunch anti-Russian credentials in a climate of fear, has imploded as quickly as it began.

As I learnt the hard way, when you are a young man in a hurry it’s easy to trip up. The first few times you’ll, probably, be forgiven but once it becomes a trend, even the most ardent supporters will abandon you. The fewer redeeming features you possess, the faster it’ll happen. When it has the potential to create an international diplomatic crisis, I can only assume it’s fatal to that once promising career.

On Sunday, the niche US journal Politico published a piece which, briefly, rocked the Russia-related media world. In a rambling, rabble-rousing diatribe by Ben Judah came a, seemingly amazing, scoop - Vladimir Putin had allegedly proposed, in a 2008 Moscow meeting, that Russia and Poland divide Ukraine between them. The source for this, supposed, latter-day Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was given as ex-Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski. Carl Bildt was also included – but the less said about him the better – in a veritable neocon tea party. After reading about the ostensible carve-up, I was wondering what century I was in.

Following some nonsense about Napoleon, Sikorski was quoted as saying: “He (Putin) wanted us (Poland) to become participants in this partition of Ukraine.”

“This was one of the things that Putin said to my prime minister, Donald Tusk, when he visited Moscow. He went on to say Ukraine is an artificial country and that Lwow (sic) is a Polish city and why don’t we just sort it out together? Luckily Tusk didn’t answer. He knew he was being recorded,” Sikorski, supposedly, added.

READ MORE:Sikorski U-turn: Polish ex-FM backtracks on scandalous 'divide Ukraine' claim

If true, the only word could have been ‘wow.’ However, I doubted it right away. The author was not credible (previously he'd written a Newsweek lead which read like an audition for a post at Hello! Magazine) and the comment about recording seemed odd. It’s par-for-the-course in bilateral talks, especially in situations of mutual distrust, for both parties to record conversations - and there’s few relationships as chary as Moscow-Warsaw.

This is done to counter misquotations later and I’ve known about the practice since my cub reporter days in Dublin. John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov have become famous this year for their garden walks in Moscow and Paris. They don’t do it because they are horticulture enthusiasts - it’s an opportunity to speak candidly without fear of leaks.

The fictional piece attempts to argue that Vladimir Putin would, somehow, trust a Eurocentric leader like Donald Tusk with such a cunning plan. That raised the alarm. Did Judah and Politico really believe serious analysts would swallow this? No matter what mud is hurled at Putin, it rarely comes with the word ‘stupid’ emblazoned across it.

You don’t rise from being a minor KGB agent in East Germany to head of the FSB by being dopey. You do it by being, extremely, clever. An exceedingly savvy Russian President would hardly make a proposal to divvy up Ukraine to a, noted, pro-Western Polish PM. In fact, unless the Russian intelligence services were having a New Year's Party that extended into May, Putin would have been well briefed on Tusk.

There are a few more wing-nut positions in the piece. The elected Russian government is described as an “imperialist dictatorship,” Never mind that for a Brit to be accusing anybody of imperialism is beyond parody, it takes some imagination to dream up that kind of nonsense.

Judah goes on to state that “European leaders, intimidated by his charisma and outspoken views on Russia, chose not to appoint him as Europe’s high representative for foreign affairs earlier this year.” It’s clear that it was something a trifle more troubling than Sikorski’s pizzazz that stymied that bid. The clue is in the article.

The desultory screed then gets bogged down with information from Kremlin ‘sources’ - who conveniently agree with the author on his anti-Russia and Putin views. The two are not synonymous - many decent western journalists dislike the current Moscow government but love the country. Judah, clearly, is fond of neither. Anyway, I don’t buy the veracity of these 'sources' but, luckily, I have a genuine insider in my circle of acquaintances. I asked him if I was wrong in doubting whether Judah’s ‘moles’ are not skin blemishes or figments of the imagination? “No, I don't think he has reliable sources there,” was the succinct reply.

On Tuesday, my initial hunch was proven right. Sikorski distanced himself from Judah and claimed "his memory had failed him." He clarified that there had been no bilateral meeting at all between Tusk and Putin in Moscow in 2008. Information about Putin's meetings is freely available online and his own website has an archive dating back to the year 2000. There is a record of a February 2008 visit by Tusk to Moscow available there.

Sikorski tweeted that “the interview with Politico was not authorised, and some of my words have been over-interpreted." These comments might seem odd to foreign ears (not authorised) but experienced journalists know that this is Polish custom - and, indeed, German. It's known as 'copy approval' in the UK, something which is granted more often than people think. It's quasi standard practice for controversial interviews with big hitters.

Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, from the same party as Sikorski, criticised him: "I will not tolerate this kind of behaviour. I will not tolerate this kind of standards that Speaker Sikorski tried to present at today's (news) conference." This was after the ex-Foreign Minister had, initially, dodged questions before being rolled out again and, finally, opening up. Political opponents want him fired, saying there is no room in politics for what they called "irresponsibility."

I usually conclude columns of this nature with warning of how dangerous such - often deliberately - erroneous western media commentary is. Not this time. All bar the biggest lunatics in the American press have washed their hands of this nonsense, so there’s no need.

As of midnight Tuesday, London time, Politico had still not retracted any of the allegations their piece made. The article’s foot-note read “Ben Judah is author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin.” Yes, that 88 per cent approval rating Putin. I’m off now to work on my book - “How America Fell Out Of And Then Into Love With Barack Obama.” Yes, that 40 per cent approval rating Obama.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.