How Newsweek gets Russia wrong

RT Editorial
RT editorial commentary and responses.
How Newsweek gets Russia wrong
In the internet age, anti-Russia commentary very quickly circulates around the world. It lingers online, waiting to be cited by another op-ed writer, thus feeding the cycle of nonsense in the so-called 'analysis' of Russia in Western discourse.

One of the main sources for factually challenged diatribes is think tanks. In an era of miserly budgets, cash strapped news media find it hard to turn down freebies. So, when friendly policy institutes offer pieces for nothing, the reply is, invariably, “thank you very much.” And one of the biggest culprits is Newsweek.

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The once venerable New York magazine has endured calamitous difficulties since 2008. From a subscriber base of 3.1 million, it folded its print edition in late 2012. Last year it was relaunched. However, the new product is a pale imitation of the legendary publication that preceded it.

For example, the once-illustrious organ currently bearing Newsweek’s moniker allowed the Atlantic Council, the rabidly pro-NATO think tank, to stir up tensions in late September with an extraordinary op-ed from one Andreas Umland. Certainly, the old Newsweek wouldn’t have published unchallenged, one-sided ravings by a Kiev-employed professor on alleged “Russian paranoia.” 

NATO - its own worst enemy

Headlined ‘Putin’s Paranoia Has Caused Russians to Suspect the West,’ Umland’s article hysterically portrays Russia as an aggressive, authoritarian nation ready to unleash its huge nuclear arsenal. He blames Russian media – domestic and foreign - branding it propaganda. The German academic also insists that NATO and the EU are innocent targets of the Russian press.

“The propaganda machine's constant repetition that NATO, the European Union and its allies are after Russia's lands and resources has convinced many Russians they must stick together to secure their nation's physical survival,” Umland writes.

It’s worth noting that the US is responsible for 70 percent of NATO spending. Thus, it can legitimately be argued that NATO is a tool of US foreign policy, dressed up as an alliance of equals. Also, the very ethos of NATO is currently confusing. Alliance bosses have long portrayed it as a force for the spread of democracy. However, long-standing member Turkey has been openly rolling back freedoms in recent years, with no apparent consequences.

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In reality, nothing sullies NATO’s name more than NATO’s own behavior. Its assertive expansion eastwards, and illegal wars waged against sovereign states in the 1990’s and 2000’s have hardly improved its image. Thus, the notion that Russian media is a major reason for negative perceptions of NATO power in the West is patently absurd.

As it happens, the largest European protests against American military aggression took place on February 15, 2003, with three million marching in Rome alone. On the same day, 1.3 million rallied in Barcelona. Another million marched through the streets of London. It is implausible that RT influenced this movement, given that RT wasn't founded until 2005.

Aside from NATO, the EU is doing a fine job of destabilizing itself, without any help from Russian media interests. The union’s third most powerful member, Britain, is threatening to leave, egged on by its own establishment newspapers, most notably the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph.

Newsweek, with London-based editors, should know better.

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Meanwhile, eurozone participants have also warned of exits, like Greece, or been encouraged to leave by the UK press, as was the case with Italy.

Meanwhile, applicants such as Poland and the Czech Republic have gone cold on the idea. Added to this, the summer 2015 refugee crisis has seen Hungary erect border fences and threaten to extend them to the intra-EU frontier with Romania. Even Germany re-instated immigration controls, thereby undermining the Schengen Agreement’s promotion of free travel inside the zone. It’s worth noting that the refugee emergency has been caused by NATO’s military campaigns against Iraq, Libya and Syria, in an incredible example of blowback.

In light of all these deep-seated problems, to suggest, as Umland does, that Russian media plays a part in the EU’s woes is outrageously dishonest.

Control freaks

The real reason that elitist American institutions like the Atlantic Council detest the likes of RT is because they cannot dictate to it. Popular media in the US, such as the New York Times, or the UK, for example the Sunday Times, is so beholden to NATO and government interests that Washington foreign policy bigwigs can’t comprehend a critical news outlet gaining popularity.

Hence, when the New York Times publishes articles based on ‘government sources,’ that is considered ‘news.' Yet, when RT carries legitimate stories that counter the established narrative that is termed ‘propaganda.’

For example, if American and British troops, under the NATO banner, hold exercises in the Baltic States, Western media calls it ‘training.’ Britain's publically-owned BBC even embedded a reporter with participants "in defense of Europe." When Russia does the same, inside its own territory, Moscow’s actions are labeled ”aggressive.” by the UK press.

Umland continues: “RT's pseudo-pacifist stance began to lose clout with the start of Russia's all-too-obvious ‘hybrid war’ against Ukraine. The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by a Russian missile (unproven) over Ukrainian territory in 2014 has been particularly damaging. It dealt a lethal blow to the propaganda strategies of RT and other Russian outlets aimed at muddying the waters of Western public opinion on Russia's military escalation in the Donbass.”

Not only was RT not “muddying the waters,” it strived to inform the world about Ukraine long before Donbass erupted. RT crews were shot at by snipers in Kiev during the US-backed coup that removed President Yanukovich in early 2014.

Later, RT journalists exposed the hardships of civilians in Eastern Ukraine – something mostly ignored by Western media and Ukraine’s domestic services. In fact, RT attempted to cover the other side in the civil war, but Kiev repeatedly banned our correspondents from its territory. 

The new Kiev

Umland is not a journalist, but that hardly excuses him from ignoring facts in his opinion pieces. His Wikipedia entry (the link to his Atlantic Council biography is invalid) says he’s a political scientist, historian and Russian language interpreter.

A product of East Germany, he teaches at Kiev’s National University, Mohyla Academy. This institution, which is partially American-funded, served as the headquarters of the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution.’

As someone who works in Kiev, Umland is surrounded by militant Russophobia. His views certainly seem to align with the virulently anti-Russian post-coup elite in Ukraine. The kinds of people who run the show in Ukraine nowadays are deeply unpleasant. Take Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who recently shared a message from a Facebook “friend” who wants to help ISIS militants take revenge against Russian forces in Syria "in accordance with Sharia law." The majority of Gerashchenko’s Facebook friends supported the idea, calling it “brilliant” and “effective.” 

The new Ukrainian authorities banned 376 Russian films and TV series and outlawed TV channels in Russian. This despite the fact that 83 percent of Ukrainians responding to a 2008 Gallup poll preferred to use Russian instead of Ukrainian to take the survey.

Census results suggesting that Ukraine has more Ukrainian speakers than Russian are not borne out in reality. In 2005, even Kiev’s Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences admitted that 58 percent of Ukrainians speak Russian at home. The real figure is probably much higher.

Umland concludes that there’s nothing to discuss with the Russian authorities. Instead, he says, “we” have to address the Russian audience directly: “Neither better diplomacy with the Kremlin nor a boost in NATO's military capacity will overcome this threat. Instead of engaging in ever more diplomatic activism and spending more on weapons, the West's leaders and thinkers should ponder how and what to communicate to the Russian people living both inside and outside Russia. How can we reach them and make them believe that we are not their enemies? Where should we put our money and direct our energy to tackle not the symptoms but the root of our problem with Moscow? Finding practical answers and workable instruments to address these issues will make the Earth a safer place for all of us,” he writes.

Essentially, Umland is wondering how Americans (because in NATO terms they are ‘we’) can reach out to Russians and tell them that the growing NATO presence on their doorstep is extremely good for them.

That's akin to tempting turkeys with positive news about Christmas.