The US Department of Justice (and the mainstream US media following its lead) gave a royal gift to the “ideological hawks” in the Kremlin, one that even the boldest propagandists dared not dream of. The Russian television channels Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik have been forced to register as “foreign agents”; the stormy (and completely unsurprising) reactions have escalated the information wars, whose consequences are difficult to predict.
Russian lawmakers reacted to the DOJ’s decision emotionally and quickly: In just a few days, amendments were passed without discussion on the media law, adding paragraphs on foreign media and “foreign structures distributing information.” The law regulating non-commercial organizations can now impose on them the status of a foreign agent. “This is a very broad formulation,” says Galina Arapova, director of the Mass Media Defence Centre, media lawyer, and member of the board of Article 19. “It applies to all foreign mass media and foreign structures that produce information for an unlimited circle of readers or viewers; the important part is that they receive foreign money. Obviously, all non-Russian mass media and Internet sites will be considered foreign. Every lawyer understands the absurdity of ‘transferring’ to foreign mass media registered in other countries the norms of the law on non-commercial foreign agent organizations that are registered on Russian territory, and which therefore must follow Russian legislation. This is beyond political control; this is a farce. Russian law cannot force a foreign company registered in another country to present financial reports to the Ministry of Justice if the company doesn’t even have a representative office in Russia. By the way, the Law on Mass Media governs the distribution of foreign mass media on the territory of Russia as well as the registration of their bureaus. It is clear that the new amendment is aimed primarily at the media whose target audience is the Russian reader. The amendment is essentially a declarative political statement.”
In other words, all mass media with foreign financing can be put on the list of “agents” and will be required to present financial documentation, information on employees, and other information to the Russian authorities. Noncompliance brings astronomical fines and even a block on information resources. The basis for inclusion on the agent list is not defined and in fact all foreign companies might be subject to it, from The New York Times to The Herald of Zimbabwe.
Russia’s Presidential Council on Human Rights immediately responded with harsh criticism of the initiative and asked for at least a postponement, since the amendment texts had many errors and contradictions. It must be said that in the last few years the Council has been calling on Parliament and the president to repeal the law on foreign agents, which until now applied only to NGOs and made life very difficult not only for more than a hundred organizations on the list but for the work of civil society as a whole. Moreover, there were fears that the latest proposals, which essentially made it impossible for foreign mass media to work in Russia, was not the end—that the screws would be tightened even more. The speed with which the president signed the amendments supported this concern. But the greatest blow was the US Congress’s decision to take away the accreditation of RT journalists. In response, some Russian parliamentarians proposed taking away the accreditation of all American journalists by the State Duma. However, journalists feel that it is almost impossible for this to happen, since accreditation for foreign correspondents in Russia is given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the meantime, the Voice of America, Radio Liberty and its departments, such as Kavkaz Realii and Krym Realii, have already been informed that they need to register as foreign agents. At the moment of writing, there are nine US media outlets on the list. The consequences of these decisions will be much harsher for them than for RT in the United States. The OSCE, the International Federation of Journalists, and other international organizations have called for both countries, Russia and the United States, to rescind their decisions, which are contrary to the principles of freedom of speech and of journalists not persecuting each other. The appeals have not been heard. On the contrary, the information war is heating up.
It is impossible to predict what will happen next. But even if, by some miracle, reason prevails over the ambitions of decision-makers on both sides of the Atlantic and these hasty decisions are repealed, journalism as whole will still suffer irreplaceable losses. It is certain that in any case RT will receive additional billions of rubles from the Russian budget to expand its activity in the world. That is, the money that theoretically could have been spent on developing public mass media, training journalists, developing social programs in local newspapers, exchanges, and much more.
There is no doubt that American programs that aim to counteract “Kremlin propaganda” will also receive funds that theoretically could have been spent on reviving once active and fruitful contacts and joint programs for Russian and US journalists. It looks as if we can forget about future development of dialogue among journalists. And it is also perfectly clear that the search for a fifth column and internal enemy, in the media as well, will become more active in Russia. The familiar pattern is that every new anti-Russian sanction by the West leads not to hostility of citizens toward the state, but just the opposite—an increased consolidation of the obedient majority around the regime, a readiness to forgive all its sins in exchange for resistance to the foreign enemy, and to new repressive measures against independent voices, whose number is rapidly diminishing. This happened with the Magnitsky Act and the sanctions of the last three years. Indeed, the Russian press has come up with a telling phrase: In response to foreign aggression, Russia will “bomb Voronezh”—that is, take it out on its own people.
Russiagate managed in a few months to strike a much stronger blow against the prospects of improving relations than all the years of the Cold War and the arms race together. The mutual trust of the elites is gone. The rules of the game, once reliably observed, have been violated. The worst part is that trust is lost between the people and the intellectuals of both countries. There is another danger that has not been fully comprehended—the basic theses that provided the necessity and possibility of dialogue have been put into doubt. The hybrid war that mixes truth and fake, interpretation and fact, vileness and virtue is a fight without rules in a dark room. One can now say to an audience of millions what until recently was considered unthinkable. The concepts of decency and measure have been cast aside. The battlefield belongs to moral marauders. No one believes anyone anymore.
Experts feel that the abyss between our professional communities will continue growing and it will be even harder to rebuild bridges of understanding and cooperation between anything. The propaganda hysteria on television is not going away, nor will the search for the internal enemy and the fifth column.
Who wins by this? Who benefits from Russiagate? Why is this happening?
Some believers in conspiracy theories in Moscow say that the massive attack on little-known RT and Sputnik—totally without influence on American audiences—resembles a special operation to promote them: Now everyone knows who they are. The historian Ivan Kurilla, a specialist in Russian-American relations and author of Frenemies, has a better explanation: This is not the first time that Russia has been used in the United States in order to define its own identity. Similarly, Russia has used the image of America to solve its own domestic issues throughout the centuries. This promoted the creation of numerous persistent myths, vividly portrayed in movies in Hollywood and by Mosfilm, that were rather removed from reality. The short period of embrace during perestroika ended with a nearly total loss of interest in Russia among the US establishment. The unconsidered description of Russia as a “second-rate provincial state,” the condescending attitude toward Russia, the unwillingness to take its interests into account and try to understand the country’s reality ended with a steep decrease in relations, a rise in anti-American rhetoric long before Crimea and the subsequent anti-American campaign in the mass media, including the statement by Dmitry Kiselev, head of the state agency Russia Today, that Russia could turn the United States into “radioactive ashes.” Russiagate in the Russian press is represented as the hysterical reaction of the superpower to its gradual loss of world sovereignty and fear of the growing “Russia’s unique power.”
For today’s Russian liberal, the intensification of Russiagate is profoundly wounding. First of all, the Russian liberal truly believes in the stability of US democratic institutions per se. The very thought that the strongest democracy in the world could be shaken—and the holiest of holies, the election, be influenced—by some hackers, even the most highly qualified, is intolerable and impossible, almost insulting. The American adherence to the rule of law, replacement of presidents, and transparency of procedures, even complicated ones, is a standard, a model to follow, for generations of liberal-minded Russians. No Russian liberal seriously believes that Russian hackers, however numerous and adept, could influence the elections. Nor could Chinese, Iranian, or US hackers.
Russian intellectuals cannot understand the US press’s stubborn insistence on the exclusive role of Russian hackers, trained by special services. They do not believe Russian propaganda and understand that any reference to the “Russian trace” plays into the hands of the current masters of the Kremlin; they wonder why the US media has to talk about it constantly. The rare press mentions that suggest the US establishment and press are not at all interested in Russia but only in their own problems and that the “Russian trace” is a poorly chosen form of confronting the current administration (for it could have some other trace) creates even greater frustration. The Russian intelligentsia have traditionally believed that their American brethren sincerely want to support democratic reforms and liberal forces in Russia—that they want to promote the primacy of law, transparency of the market, the growth of civil society, and the free development of the arts. They remember how, in the “stagnation” years, US journalists overcame all obstacles in order to meet with Soviet dissidents, or how Slavic scholars supported samizdat authors and opened the world’s eyes to the reality of Soviet life never covered by Soviet propaganda. Journalists and Slavists, together with Soviet liberal intellectuals and dissidents on both sides of the ocean, created a powerful platform for the renewal of the political landscape in the perestroika era. This heroic, without exaggeration, period to which dozens of the leading intellectuals of both countries devoted their best years, has come to an end. New subjects do not fit the old frames. Today US journalists, and Western journalists as a whole, limit themselves to predictable reports about Russia as a dangerous country with an unpredictable and aggressive leader—and nothing more.
The situation is bitterly disillusioning for Russian liberal journalists. Russiagate killed the beautiful dream of the perfection of the US system of government, respect for the law, and the excellence of the US press. A generation of my Russian colleagues grew up holding US journalists, analysts, and researchers as role models. Even in Soviet times, despite the imposed propaganda, college journalism departments did not hide respect for the American way. The fact that this idealized image of US journalism does not always correspond to reality causes a bitter, almost childish, hurt. How could the best press in the world violate its own principles for political aims? How then, does it differ from Russian propagandists? Even more painful is the condescending attitude toward Russians and the clear unwillingness to look more deeply at the complicated situation in the country. This hurt, these unmet expectations for understanding and sympathy, is a time bomb. It may become a real obstacle to future dialogue.
The historian Vladislav Zubok, a professor at the London School of Economics, notes that this attitude toward the complexity of post-Soviet Russia began long ago, when in the 1990s Americans preferred to support “their guy” in the Kremlin and ignored the contradictions in the country. Then, as the contradictions grew sharper and democracy slowed down, the United States simply forgot about Russia: The star correspondents worked in other regions; Russian studies programs were reduced; and information about the country appeared only in stories about extraordinary news events, like Pussy Riot, but there was no serious analysis for readers. Nor is there any serious analysis now. Russiagate leads further and further away from it.
The bitter understanding that playing the Russia card in the information war is an easy way to deal with a political opponent gives rise to a quiet inner protest in the Russian liberal. Notes of hurt and disappointment appear with greater frequency in the independent mass media, as the number of outlets continues to diminish. Economic difficulties are not helping the development of independent media. It is said that the current advertising market in Russia cannot support private press, and managers have to seek additional financing, which most often comes from state structures. The variety of voices in the Russian media landscape is narrowing. The departure of foreign media from the Russian information space—and that is what the new legislative decision might bring—will seriously reduce variety. Of course, in the digital age total isolation as in Soviet times is impossible. But the information milieu will be different.
The dramatic nature of this moment lies in the fact that unlike during the Cold War, when professionals—politicians, image-makers, officials—were involved in the ideological standoff, today ordinary people are involved as well. That did not happen under Brezhnev and Reagan. Today everyday people hate the virtual enemy seriously and emotionally. I don’t remember ever witnessing such anti-American sentiment in Russian society in my entire life. As Olga Alexeyeva, editor-in-chief of Gazeta.ru, said in a recent interview, even a sophisticated reader has trouble finding information on real events in the thickets of fake news and emotional content.
Effort on both sides is needed if Russian and American readers and viewers are to see the true faces of one another. This is work for scholars and scientists and journalists, not just politicians. Citizen diplomacy is needed, so that when relations between our countries improve (which historically is inevitable), politicians will have support in renewing our needed conversation.