The Media's New Cold War
Thirteen years after the end of the Soviet Union, the American press establishment seemed eager to turn Ukraine's protested presidential election on November 21 into a new cold war with Russia. Still worse, its greatest enthusiasts were not the usual Russophobes but influential opinion-makers and publications reputed to be exemplars of balanced, moderate, even liberal, outlook.
An essential element of the last, forty-year cold war was manichean, double-standard thinking on both sides that relentlessly vilified the other, denied it had any legitimate national interests outside its own borders and blamed it for every conflict. The result was to maximize differences, minimize mutual understandings and inspire a nearly catastrophic nuclear arms race. Consider, then, recent commentary in the mainstream American press on the US-Russian conflict over Ukraine, which might not have ended with the victory of the candidate favored by Washington, Viktor Yushchenko, on December 26.
Its basic premise was that events in Ukraine were, in the alarmist formulation of Washington Post editorialist Jackson Diehl, "disturbingly reminiscent of...1947-48" (Dec. 6). His colleague at the Post, Anne Applebaum, was more Churchillian: "Looking back, we may...see 2004 as the year when a new iron curtain descended across Europe" (Nov. 24). Not surprisingly, the sole cause of this fateful possibility of "a renewed cold war," in the equally foreboding words of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (Dec. 15), is said to have been "massive and malign Russian intervention in Ukraine" to help Moscow's favored candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, as the Post charged repeatedly in a torrent of editorials (Oct. 31, Nov. 23, Nov. 25, Dec. 2).
Considering that Russian President Vladimir Putin had courted the West for five years, even taking the unprecedented step of publicly endorsing President George W. Bush's re-election, how was the Kremlin's "remarkably Cold War" campaign for Yanukovich, as the Post's editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt denounced it (Dec. 13), to be explained? The possibility that Russia may have a legitimate security or other national interest in Ukraine, to which it has been intimately, even familially, related for centuries by geography, traditions, language, religion, economics and intermarriage, was flatly ruled out. Indeed, according to an approving report in the Times by Elisabeth Bumiller (Nov. 30), Washington "Russia specialists say [Putin's] involvement in Ukraine is his most serious offense yet in American eyes." (Apparently not in Ukrainian eyes: In a survey done at the end of December 2004, 83 percent of Ukrainians expressed having a "good" opinion of Russia, and 50 percent even regretted the end of the Soviet Union.)
Nor was it asked if Putin might have been reacting to the well-known (to the Kremlin, at least) US "involvement" in Ukraine on behalf of Yushchenko. The indignant complaint that Moscow organized a "mass influx of Russian celebrities" to promote Yanukovich (Stephen Sestanovich, Post op-ed, Nov. 19), for example, seemed especially disingenuous in light of a State Department official's boastful testimony to a House committee on December 7 that the US government had sent its own legion of notables to Ukraine. They included Senators John McCain and Richard Lugar, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former President George H.W. Bush, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright and former NATO commander and Democratic presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark.
Even leaving aside Putin's retort that an election more democratic than the protested one in Ukraine can hardly be expected in US-occupied Iraq this month, there is another, evidently forgotten, American precedent. In a repeated "news analysis," a Times correspondent (Steven Lee Myers, Nov. 24; similarly, Dec. 19) assured readers that the Kremlin leader's great offense was having "stepped on accepted diplomatic protocol by campaigning so overtly on Mr. Yanukovich's behalf." Perhaps Putin thought his conduct was accepted protocol based on the Clinton Administration's flagrant "campaigning" for the re-election of America's "friend," Russian President Boris Yeltsin, in 1996. That "intervention" included exceedingly undiplomatic boosterism, a $10 billion IMF loan, US political strategists dispatched to Moscow to advise Yeltsin's campaign, attempts to pressure a liberal rival to drop out in his favor and effusive apologies for both his pro-oligarchical economic policies and his murderous war in Chechnya.
(An important sidebar: Nostalgia for Yeltsin, "who embraced the West," as Erin Arvedlund reminisced in the Times on December 2, informed much of this American commentary. Indeed, according to Kristof, "the West has been suckered by Mr. Putin. He is not a sober version of Boris Yeltsin." Not noted, and still less explained, is that Yeltsin is probably the most despised political figure in Russia today and Putin certainly the most popular by far.)