Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian Studies and Politics (at NYU and Princeton), and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen returns to a subject he has treated repeatedly since the 1990s, mainstream media malpractice in covering Russia, but with a new and highly indicative example that is both historical and profoundly contemporary. There have been three relevant major episodes of such malpractice. The first was when American newspapers, particularly The New York Times, misled readers into thinking the Communists could not possibly win the Russian Civil War of 1918–20, as detailed in a study by Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz, published as a supplement to The New Republic, August 4, 1920. (Once canonical, the study was for years assigned reading at journalism schools, but no longer it seems to be.) The second episode was in the 1990s, when virtually the entire mainstream America print and broadcast media covered the US-backed “reforms” of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, which plundered and immiserated the Russian people, as a benevolent “transition to democracy and capitalism” and to “the kind of Russia we want.” (For this episode, see Cohen’s book Failed Crusade: American and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia.) The third and current episode grew out of the second but spread quickly through the media in the early 2000s with the demonization of Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin’s successor, and now is amply evidenced by mainstream coverage of the new Cold War, Russiagate’s allegation that “Russia attacked American democracy” in 2016, and much else related to Russia. This rendition may be the worst, certainly it is the most dangerous.
Media malpractice has various elements—among them, selective use of facts, some unverified, highly questionable narratives or reporting based on those “facts,” mingled with editorial commentary passed off as “analysis,” buttressed by carefully selected “expert sources,” often anonymous, and amplified by carefully chosen opinion page contributors. Throughout is the systematic practice of excluding developments (and opinion) that do not conform to the Times’ venerable motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” When it comes to Russia, the Times often decides politically what is fit and what is not. And thus the most recent but exceedingly important example.
In 1990, Soviet Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed not only to the reunification of Germany, whose division was the epicenter of that Cold War, but also, at the urging of the Western powers, particularly the United States, that the new Germany would be a member of NATO. (Already embattled at home, Gorbachev was further weakened by his decision, which probably contributed to the attempted coup against him in August 1991.) Gorbachev made the decision based on assurances by his then–Western “partners” that in return NATO would never be expanded “one inch eastward” toward Russia. (Today, having nearly doubled its member countries, the world’s most powerful military alliance sits on Russia’s western borders.) At the time, it was known that President George H.W. Bush had especially persuaded Gorbachev through Secretary of State James Baker’s “not one inch” and other equally emphatic guarantees. Ever since Bush’s successor, President Bill Clinton, began the still ongoing process of NATO expansion, its promoters and apologists have repeatedly insisted there was no such promise, that it had all been “myth” or “misunderstanding,” and moreover that NATO’s vast expansion had been necessary and has been a great success, actual myths that Cohen also discusses.
Now, however, the invaluable National Security Archive at George Washington University has established the historical truth by publishing, on December 12 of last year, not only a detailed account of what Gorbachev was promised in 1990–91 but the relevant documents themselves. The truth, and the promises broken, are much more expansive than previously known: All of the Western powers involved—the US, the UK, France, Germany itself—made the same promise to Gorbachev on multiple occasions and in various emphatic ways. If we ask when the West, particularly Washington, lost Moscow as a potential strategic partner after the end of the Soviet Union, this is where an explanation begins.
And yet, nearly a month after the publication of the National Security Archive documents, neither the Times nor The Washington Post, which profess to be the nation’s most important, reliable, and indispensable political newspapers, has published one word about this revelation. (Certainly the two papers are pervasively important to other media, not only due to their daily national syndicates but because today’s broadcast media, especially CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and PBS, take most of their own Russia-related “reporting” cues from the Times and the Post.)
How to explain the failure of the Times and Post to report or otherwise comment on the National Security Archive’s publication? It can hardly be their lack of space or their disinterest in Russia, which they featured regularly in one kind of unflattering story or another—and almost daily in the form of “Russiagate.” Given their immense daily news-gathering capabilities, could both papers have missed the story? Impossible, even more so considering that three lesser publications—The National Interest, on December 12; Bloomberg, on December 13; and The American Conservative, on December 22—reported and commented on its significance at length. Or perhaps the Times and Post consider the history and process of NATO expansion to be no longer newsworthy, even though it has been the driving, escalatory factor behind the new US-Russian Cold War; already contributed to two US-Russian proxy hot wars (in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine since 2014) as well as to NATO’s ongoing buildup on Russia’s borders in the Baltic region, which is fraught with the possibility of an actual war between the nuclear superpowers; provoked Russia into reactions now cited as “grave threats”; nearly vaporized politically both the once robust pro-American lobby in Moscow politics and the previously widespread pro-American sentiments among Russian citizens; and implanted in at least one generation of the Russian policy elite the conviction that the broken promise to Gorbachev represented characteristic American “betrayal and deceit.” Both Russian presidents since 2000—Putin and President Obama’s “reset partner,” Dmitry Medvedev—have said the same, more than once. Putin put it bluntly: “They duped us, in the full sense of this word.” (See Cohen’s book Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives.) Russians can cite other instances of “deceit,” including President George W. Bush’s 2002 unilateral abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Obama’s broken promise that he would not use a 2011 UN Security Council resolution to depose Libyan leader Gaddafi. But it is the broken promise to Gorbachev that lingers as America’s original sin, partly because it was the first of many such perceived duplicities, but mainly because it has resulted in a Russia semi-encircled by US-led Western military power, an encroachment that continues today.
Given all this, we must ask again: Why did neither the Times nor the Post report the archive revelations? Most likely because the evidence fundamentally undermines their essential overarching narrative that Putin’s Russia is solely responsible for the new Cold War and all of its attendant conflicts and dangers, and therefore that no rethinking of US policy toward post-Soviet Russia since 1991 is advisable or, it seems, permissible, certainly not by President Donald Trump. Therein lie the national-security dangers of media malpractice, and this example, while of special importance, is far from the only one in recent years. In this regard, the Times and Post seem contemptuous not only of their own professed journalistic standards but of their purportedly cherished adage that democracy requires fully informed citizens.
If Americans cannot rely on the Times and Post, at least in regard to US-Russian relations, where can they seek the information and analysis they need? There are many valuable alternative media outlets, but few hard-working citizens have time to locate and consult them. Cohen recommends that they turn to two websites that almost daily aggregate reporting, analysis, and opinion not to be found in the Times, Post, or most other mainstream publications. One is Johnson’s Russia List. The other is the website of the American Committee for East-West Accord, of which Cohen is a board member. Upon request, both will come to your computer. The former requests a nominal donation but does not insist on it. The latter is free. For readers who worry about international affairs, the new US-Russian Cold War, and America itself, the information and perspectives they will gain from these sites are invaluable.