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.”