As a result of the civil war that has raged in Ukraine since April 2014, at least 7,000 people have been killed and more than 15,400 wounded, many of them grievously. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 1.2 million eastern Ukrainians have been internally displaced, while the number of those who have fled abroad, mainly to Russia and Belarus, has reached 674,300. Further, the United Nations has reported that millions of people, particularly the elderly and the very young, are facing life-threatening conditions as a result of the conflict. Large parts of eastern Ukraine lie in ruins, and relations between the United States and Russia have perhaps reached their most dangerous point since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
And yet a special report published last fall by the online magazine the Interpreter would have us believe that Russian “disinformation” ranks among the gravest threats to the West. The report, titled “The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money,” is a joint project of the Interpreter and the Institute for Modern Russia (IMR), a Manhattan-based think tank funded by the exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Cowritten by the journalists Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev, this highly polemical manifesto makes the case for why the United States, and the West generally, must combat what the authors allege to be the Kremlin’s extravagantly designed propaganda campaign. If implemented, the measures they propose would stifle democratic debate in the Western media.
The report seeks to awaken a purportedly somnolent American public to the danger posed by the Kremlin’s media apparatus. According to Weiss and Pomerantsev, the Russian government—via RT, the Kremlin-funded international television outlet, as well as a network of “expatriate NGOs” and “far-left and far-right movements”—is creating an “anti-Western, authoritarian Internationale that is becoming ever more popular…throughout the world.”
While it would be easy to dismiss the report as a publicity stunt by two journalists attempting to cash in on the Russophobia so in vogue among American pundits, their thesis has gained wide acceptance, nowhere more so than in the halls of Congress. On April 15, Pomerantsev testified before the House Foreign Relations Committee on the supposed threat posed by “Russia’s weaponization of information.” Committee chair Ed Royce and ranking member Eliot Engel are now expected to reintroduce a 2014 bill to reform the Voice of America, which fell into disarray following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In his opening statements at the hearing, Royce argued that the bill “will help us fight Putin’s propaganda,” though some critics believe it would turn the federal government’s international broadcasting service into “something fundamentally not American.”
Who Are These Guys?
Weiss and Pomerantsev are an unlikely pair. Weiss, youthful yet professorial in manner, has become a nearly constant presence on cable news because of his supposed expertise on, among other things, Russia, Syria, and ISIS. A longtime neoconservative journalist, he began his rise to cable-news ubiquity as a protégé of the late Christopher Hitchens. After working with Hitchens, he made his way to the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), a London-based bastion of neoconservatism that, according to a report in The Guardian, has “attracted controversy in recent years—with key staff criticised in the past for allegedly anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant comments.”
The historian Marko Attila Hoare, who resigned in protest from the HJS in 2012, has written that the organization publishes “polemical and superficial pieces by aspiring journalists and pundits that pander to a narrow readership of extreme Europhobic British Tories, hardline US Republicans and Israeli Likudniks.” According to Hoare, Weiss reinvented himself at the HJS “as an expert on Russia—about which he has no more academic expertise than he does about the Middle East.” Weiss served as HJS communications director before moving on to found the Interpreter under the auspices of the US-based IMR in 2013. Solidifying his mainstream-media credentials, he will join the Daily Beast as a senior editor on June 1.
Where Weiss’s moderate demeanor belies a deep commitment to neoconservative ideology, Pomerantsev exudes a kind of louche nonchalance. A British citizen of Russian extraction, this rumpled television producer has parlayed his career in the less-than-reputable districts of the Russian media landscape into a role as a kind of latter-day Cassandra, sounding a clarion call about the danger that Russian state propaganda poses to the West.
An assiduous self-promoter, Pomerantsev chronicled his journey into the belly of the Russian media beast in a recent book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. A launch party in early 2015 at the Legatum Institute, a London-based research organization with close links to the IMR, offered a glimpse of the esteem that Pomerantsev enjoys. At the event, the American director of the institute’s Transitions Forum, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, told the audience that she believes his book is “an extraordinary achievement.”
Pomerantsev, it turns out, is an experienced lobbyist too. In his book he recalls visiting the British Parliament in 2013 to make the case for “why Europe needs a Magnitsky Act.” The original version of the bill, pushed by British hedge-fund magnate Bill Browder and passed by the US Congress in 2012, imposed bans on a group of Russian officials deemed responsible for the prison death of Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky. This in itself is notable, since Browder was an enthusiastic supporter of Vladimir Putin’s decision to jail Khodorkovsky in 2003.
Like Weiss, Pomerantsev has become a frequent presence in the US media. He appeared on the op-ed page of The New York Times last December to inform readers that at the core of the Kremlin’s information strategy is “the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth.” Two months later, he was the subject of a fawning Times profile in which he described his book as being “about the Faustian bargain made by an ambitious youngster working in Russia’s medialand of opportunity.” In joining forces with the editor of a Khodorkovsky-funded webzine, he seems to have traded one Faustian bargain for another.
Because of his decade-long imprisonment, Khodorkovsky has attained the stature of a secular saint in some circles. But it should not be forgotten that the oil tycoon made his fortune in a spectacularly corrupt and sometimes violent fashion. Indeed, in 2000, Foreign Affairs described him and his fellow oligarchs as “a dangerous posse of plutocrats” who “threaten Russia’s transition to democracy and free markets” as well as “vital US interests.”
According to a recent profile of Khodorkovsky in The New Yorker, staff members of a Riga-based news outlet in which he planned to invest objected. “He’s a toxic investor,” said a person “close to the project.” The article added that “his views of journalists haven’t changed much since the nineties, when reporters could be bought and sold, and ‘hit’ pieces could be ginned up for the right price.” Khodorkovsky’s agenda—to bring regime change to Russia—is faithfully reflected in the work of IMR, the Interpreter, and the “Menace of Unreality” report.
With the report’s publication, Weiss and Pomerantsev have joined the long line of Western journalists who have played to the public’s darkest suspicions about the power, intentions, and reach of those governments that are perceived as threats to the United States. In his seminal essay on McCarthyism, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote that in the worldview of these opportunists, “very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing).” There exists no better précis of Weiss and Pomerantsev’s view of Putin and the Russian government’s media apparatus.
The report asserts that Putin’s Russia is “arguably more dangerous than a communist superpower.” Any effective response to the virus of Russian propaganda, Weiss insists, must combine “the wisdom of Orwell…with the savvy of Don Draper.” Readers will certainly cede that the duo has led by example, since the report and its set of “modest recommendations” are nothing if not Orwellian.
The authors call for the creation of an “internationally recognized ratings system for disinformation” that would furnish news organizations and bloggers with the “analytical tools with which to define forms of communication.” While they throw in an obligatory caveat that “top-down censorship should be avoided” (exactly how is left unexplained), they nonetheless endorse what amounts to a media blacklist. “Vigorous debate and disagreement is of course to be encouraged,” the authors write, “but media organizations that practice conscious deception should be excluded from the community.”
What qualifies as “conscious deception” is also left undefined, but it isn’t difficult to surmise. Organizations that do not share the authors’ enthusiasm for regime change in Syria or war with Russia over Ukraine would almost certainly be “excluded from the community.” Weiss, for instance, has asserted repeatedly that Russia is to blame for the July 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. But would a news organization like, say, The Atlantic or Der Spiegel be “excluded from the community” for writing about a German intelligence report that indicated the missile in question did not come from Russia? Would journalists like Robert Parry be blacklisted for questioning the mainstream account of the tragedy? Would scholars like the University of Ottawa’s Paul Robinson be banned from appearing on op-ed pages and cable-news programs for challenging the notion that there is, in the words of Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, “no civil war in Ukraine,” but rather a war “started and waged by Russia”?
Weiss and Pomerantsev accuse the Kremlin of “making deception equivalent to argumentation and the deliberate misuse of facts as legitimate as rational persuasion.” Maybe so. But these tactics are hardly unique to the Kremlin. In December, a group of Kiev parliamentarians presented photographs to the Senate Armed Services Committee purporting to show Russian troops and tanks invading eastern Ukraine. Subsequent reports revealed that the images had been taken during the Russian-Georgian war in 2008. Did the Interpreter denounce the Ukrainian delegation for trying to pass off doctored photos? No. Its warnings about disinformation cut only one way.
So do its oft-expressed concerns about transparency. Time and again, the authors call on pundits and think tanks to be more transparent with regard to their affiliations, financial interests, and funding. But the Interpreter doesn’t necessarily practice what it so ardently preaches. In addition to the support provided by Khodorkovsky, the publication identifies its other initial source of funding as the Herzen Foundation of London. Weiss responded to a query asking about the provenance of the foundation by admitting, “I don’t know Herzen’s current organizational status, board of directors, etc. You are most welcome to inquire with the Charities Aid Foundation in the UK.” Multiple requests to the Charities Aid Foundation, with which Herzen had claimed to be registered, have all gone unanswered. Indeed, there is no evidence Herzen exists.
The authors believe active measures must be taken to shield gullible Americans from the depredations of Putin’s propaganda. That American newspapers employ public editors to monitor their news reports isn’t enough; they should also staff “counter-disinformation editors” who “would pick apart what might be called all the news that is unfit to print.” Such professional censors are necessary, we are told, because the Kremlin “exploits systemic weak spots in the Western system, providing a sort of X-ray of the underbelly of liberal democracy.” Worse, the authors charge, are the legions of “senior Western experts” providing aid and comfort to the enemy, whether by appearing on RT, accepting positions on the boards of Russian companies, or simply attending Russian-sponsored forums. “The blurring of distinctions between think tanks and lobbying helps the Kremlin push its agenda without due scrutiny,” they write.
According to Weiss and Pomerantsev, the most severe threat is the one posed by RT, a network to which they impute vast powers. They are hardly alone. In January, Andrew Lack, then chief executive of the Broadcasting Board of Governors—the federal agency that oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and other US-funded media outlets—likened RT’s threat to those posed by “the Islamic State in the Middle East and groups like Boko Haram.” (Lack was recently named chairman of NBC News.)
RT is allegedly so skillful at masking its nefarious message that “anyone tuning in would not immediately know it is Kremlin-run or even associate it with Russia,” the authors write—even though the network’s news broadcasts begin with the statement “Coming to you live from Moscow, this is RT.”
The Phantom Menace
The leading authority on Soviet and Russian mass media, Duke University professor Ellen Mickiewicz, disputes the entire premise of Weiss and Pomerantsev’s report. She told me that the hypodermic model of media effects (in which messages are “injected” into the audience simply by virtue of being disseminated) was scientifically disproved decades ago. “It’s the most simpleminded mistake you can make in evaluating media effects,” she said.
It would be hard, then, not to conclude that Weiss and Pomerantsev’s overwrought fears are just a pretext for whatever they and Khodorkovsky have truly set out to do. Their real goal is not to fight Russian “disinformation” but to stigmatize and marginalize—even exclude from American discourse—anyone with a more nuanced view of Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis. They are waging this war against enemies real and imagined, and by doing so they are helping to create an atmosphere in which dissenting opinion on US policy toward Russia becomes impermissible. Two pieces in the Interpreter are worth examining in this context.
In early November, the Interpreter published a piece by former National Security Agency analyst John Schindler with the headline “Is a Top American Diplomat a Russian Agent?” Recycling a story that had appeared on a Ukrainian news site, Schindler repeated the claim by Putin critic Konstantin Borovoy that the Kremlin has “agents of influence” within the NATO hierarchy. According to Borovoy, an unnamed ex–US ambassador to Russia had “established an unprecedented intimacy with former top officials of the KGB and the current leaders of the Russian FSB.” This intimacy, Borovoy claimed, “was one reason for his leaving Russia.” Schindler wasted little time letting readers know that he believes the unnamed ambassador is NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander “Sandy” Vershbow, who served as ambassador to Russia from 2001 to 2005.
Typically, such a scurrilous accusation against a career Foreign Service officer would be met with a chorus of protest from the Washington establishment. After all, Vershbow helped to steer and subsequently enact the Clinton administration’s policy of NATO expansion in the late 1990s. As recounted in the memoirs of Brookings Institution president Strobe Talbott, a leading proponent for sending arms to Kiev, Vershbow helped shape NATO and American policy during the Kosovo War in 1999. Recently, Vershbow declared that he saw Russia “as more of an enemy than a [NATO] partner,” and in March he delivered a speech in Latvia in which he decried “Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine.” Yet his establishment credentials could not protect him from the Interpreter.
Moreover, it seems the Interpreter’s crusade is having some effect. Few of Vershbow’s former colleagues were willing to comment for this article on the allegations, still fewer to defend him—perhaps fearing they would be tarred with the same McCarthyite brush. One of the few who did talk, a former high-ranking official in the Bush administration, vehemently disputed Schindler’s story. “Sandy wasn’t pushed out,” the official insisted. “In fact, by the end of his time there, the Kremlin wouldn’t even grant him meetings because he was seen to be too close to dissident groups.”
Another former associate and friend of Vershbow’s, professor Robert Legvold, former director of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, told me that Schindler’s story was little more than a “crackpot accusation which displayed a monumental ignorance of what were actually difficult years for Vershbow in Moscow.”
The Interpreter tried to pass off another McCarthyite smear as journalism last February, when one of its bloggers, Catherine Fitzpatrick, published a story headlined “Former Russian Intelligence Officers Behind Boisto ‘Track II’ Talks—and Now the Flawed Minsk Agreement.” The Boisto Track II talks were a series of discussions between Russian and American policy hands that took place in Finland last June. They produced a 24-step plan that sought to resolve the Ukraine crisis. Track II talks—unofficial diplomacy between individuals acting in a private capacity—have long been a staple of US diplomacy.
In her article, Fitzpatrick cites an interview given by a Russian intelligence operative, Leonid Reshetnikov, in which he claims he met with the American participants before the talks took place. He says the proposal formed the basis for the first Minsk cease-fire in September 2014. For Fitzpatrick, Reshetnikov’s comments are proof that the group was colluding with Russian intelligence.
Though Fitzpatrick tries to paint the Americans as dupes, her story unravels quickly. Among other things, her chronology is all wrong. While it’s true that two of the six American participants met with Reshetnikov, they met him three weeks after the talks (and well after the Track II proposal had been finished) at a completely unrelated event. This information was available to Fitzpatrick, who, according to my sources, never bothered to ask any of the American participants for comment. Why clutter up a good piece of fiction with facts?
The irony, of course, is that Fitzpatrick does what she accuses the American group of doing: taking what a Russian intelligence operative says at face value and falling for his version of events, as one participant told me, “hook, line, and sinker.”
Slouching Towards McCarthyism
One might expect that such neo-McCarthyism, reeking as it does of a barely concealed attempt to censor and intimidate, would have touched off protests, if not condemnation, in the establishment media. But the Interpreter has been given a rapturous reception on both sides of the Atlantic.
Among its most visible proponents has been the Legatum Institute. As Mark Ames recently reported in the online publication PandoDaily, Legatum is the brainchild of billionaire venture capitalist Christopher Chandler. Like Browder and Khodorkovsky, Chandler made his billions in post-Soviet Russia. According to Ames, he and his brother “reportedly were the single biggest foreign beneficiaries of one of the greatest privatization scams in history: Russia’s voucher program in the early 1990s.”
To mark the publication of the “Menace of Unreality” report, Legatum hosted a panel discussion that featured such luminaries as Anne Applebaum, US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, former US ambassador John Herbst, and Ukrainian Ambassador at Large Olexander Scherba. All expressed grave concern over the threat that Putin’s propaganda machine poses to the West.
The event was followed by similar sessions hosted by the Harriman Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy. At the latter event, Weiss and Pomerantsev were joined by Freedom House director David Kramer; a young functionary of the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative; and the NED’s International Forum executive director, Christopher Walker, who touted the endowment’s “close ties” with both the Interpreter and the Institute for Modern Russia.
Two of the report’s most visible supporters have been Applebaum and Edward Lucas, a senior editor at The Economist. Soon after the launch party at Legatum, Applebaum took to the pages of The Washington Post and The New York Review of Books to plug Weiss and Pomerantsev’s crusade. In an essay for the former, she warned that “for democracies,” Russian disinformation poses “a serious challenge.” Russia’s use of what Weiss and Pomerantsev refer to as Internet “trolls” is especially worrying to Applebaum, who fears readers will be unduly influenced by their “negative or mocking remarks.”
Lucas praised “The Menace of Unreality” on Twitter as a “sizzling new report on Kremlin disinformation.” He later made headlines at this year’s Munich Security Conference, where he went to great lengths to denounce both RT and the Russian government’s Internet news outlet Sputnik.
A number of high-profile officials count themselves as admirers of the Interpreter as well. In February, on the first anniversary of the Maidan coup, Geoffrey Pyatt tweeted: “@Interpreter_Mag With thanks for your relentless focus on the fast evolving Russia-Ukraine crisis & appreciation for the windows you provide.” Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves pitched in as a special guest editorialist to mark the occasion. Meanwhile, NATO Commander Philip Breedlove has taken to complaining publicly that “Russia has embarked on a deliberate strategy to confuse using disinformation and propaganda.” Indeed, he has called it “the most amazing information-warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare.”
The “Menace of Unreality” report is dangerous not only because it lends an intellectual sheen to what amounts to a censorship campaign, but because it further pollutes the already toxic atmosphere that has enveloped the debate over the crisis in Ukraine. Indeed, as one leading political scientist told me: “The atmosphere here in the US created by the Ukraine crisis is poisonous—and I say this having been in academe for 37 years.”
Insinuations of unpatriotic disloyalty on the part of critics of US policy toward Russia are numerous, but consider a few examples. For much of the past year, Princeton and New York University professor emeritus Stephen F. Cohen, a leading scholar of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia and a Nation contributing editor, has been routinely castigated in The New Republic, the Daily Beast, The Boston Globe, New York, and Slate as “a toady,” “Putin’s best friend,” and a “Putin apologist.” The latest such attack came on May 6, courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which published a story claiming, without evidence, that “Cohen is essentially defending the Kremlin’s agenda in the West.” Hurling such barbs at a prominent scholar seems to be an attempt not only to marginalize Cohen, but also to silence other critics—including, and perhaps especially, younger ones.
Similarly, in June 2014, the Daily Beast ridiculed a conference attended by Columbia University’s Robert Legvold; Jack Matlock, former ambassador to the Soviet Union during the Reagan administration; and a leader of a Russian opposition party as a gathering of “anti-Semites and ‘truthers’” that amounted to little more than “a pity party for the Kremlin’s die-hard American apologists.”
Then, in August, Anders Aslund of the Peterson Institute for International Economics launched a screed against David Johnson, the proprietor and editor of a listserv that aggregates Russia-related articles. “What I find most surprising,” Aslund wrote, “is that you have several items from RT every day, which is to Putin’s rule what Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer was to Nazi Germany.”
Thanks in part to the Interpreter’s penchant for reckless accusations and the widespread promotion of “The Menace of Unreality,” the atmosphere of censorship and intimidation has grown worse in the months following the report’s publication. In mid-December, The Washington Post ran a letter from former US ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor accusing Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brookings Institution scholars Michael O’Hanlon and Jeremy Shapiro of wanting to “appease” Russia. “Appeasement” in this context is a very loaded term, meant to castigate those who would cave in to Putin’s allegedly Hitlerian revanchism.
In the end, apart from being a frontal attack on the core tenets of free speech, the Weiss-Pomerantsev crusade lets Western pundits and policy-makers off the hook for their complicity in the Ukraine crisis by discouraging any kind of critical thinking or reconsideration of US policy. The incessant focus in “The Menace of Unreality” on the Kremlin’s media apparatus obscures the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Ukraine, as well as the growing danger of a larger US-Russia war. The policy of belligerence toward Russia that Weiss and Pomerantsev so staunchly support has been one of the primary culprits in the Ukraine crisis. The fact that they now seek to silence, smear, and even blacklist critics of that policy makes their project all the more egregious.
One would have hoped that journalists, of all people, would object to this project in the strongest possible terms. That no one has yet done so is an ominous sign.