Royal Dutch Shell Plc  .com Rotating Header Image 2006: A NEW LOW FOR RUSSO-WESTERN RELATIONS: ‘Shell gets poloniumed’

January 9, 2007            

I imagine Sergei Lavrov is feeling a little blue this New Year period. Imagine if you will – everyone else in the Cabinet is at the New Year party, popping champagne and congratulating each other for their brilliance at managing all that petro-wealth. Then their eyes fall on Seryozha, sulking in the corner and muttering about double standards and western media bias.

It really is the one black spot on the government’s year. Everything else – from the Rosneft IPO to the G8 meeting to the Davis Cup – went pretty much swimmingly for the Kremlin this year, yet still, somehow, relations with the West, and with Western media in particular, are at their lowest for years.

And this, despite the fact the Kremlin is spending millions of dollars on initiatives like Russia Today and the PR contract with Ketchum. What’s going on?

It’s quite common to say that the Kremlin is terrible at PR. That was certainly the case at the start of the year, when it handled the Ukraine gas crisis very badly. It’s still paying the price, in PR terms.

And throughout the year, the Kremlin handled other big stories badly. Putin’s remarking the aftermath of Anna Politkovskaya’s death about her being irrelevant to Russian domestic politics was perhaps true, but utterly tactless. The Kremlin’s handling of the Litvinenko poisoning, I would say, was somewhat better – their press spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov, went on an emergency press tour of the West, general prosecutor Yuri Chaika also gave a (rather bad-tempered) press conference, and there was a general recognition that the Kremlin had to go on the PR offensive over the story.

Russia Today has proved just as pointless as we feared it would. Their documentaries on Russia, the one area they could distinguish themselves, are blander than a Channel One comedy show. I saw one RT documentary over Christmas, called ‘Peoples of Russia’, a long-running series which is trailing dismally through the hundred or so different ethnic types in Russia, showing their traditional dances, filming them milking their goats, etc. There was a shot of two chickens fighting on a dust path, with the commentary ‘There is not much to do in the village of Baluga’. Amazingly, they’ve managed to make modern Russia incredibly boring.

In general, however, I would say the Kremlin’s PR has improved this year, particularly in the run-up to the G8. Whether it is the work of Ketchum or Novosti, I’ve been impressed by the amount of senior politicians which Novosti has lined up for press conferences in their office on Zubovsky Boulevard. Vladislav Surkov was a particular coup.

Yet still, the year has ended very badly, in terms of ‘Russia’s image in the West’. The stories that have really damaged the Kremlin are, as we know, the Litvinenko poisoning and Politkovskaya murder, the Sakhalin dispute plus the general Gazprom-phobia which appeared after the Ukraine gas crisis, and the Kremlin’s stand-off with Georgia, and the consequent crack-down on Georgian immigrants. Russia’s increasingly US-independent foreign policy – Putin’s meetings with Hamas and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez in particular – also infuriated American foreign policy elites.

These instances were added to the long-standing charges against the Kremlin of controlling the media, squashing NGOs, turning the Duma into a rubber stamp and getting rid of direct elections for regional governors. These stories have merged into one long and endlessly wheeled-out anti-Russia litany in the western press – journalists leap with ease from Litvinenko to Sakhalin (like the Wall Street Journal editorial ‘Shell gets poloniumed’) as if all these stories are symptoms of the same chronic illness of Putinitis.

Who’s to blame for this nadir in relations? In part, I believe the western press. It’s had a bad year in its Russia coverage.

It’s funny, because the Kremlin has always believed that Moscow-based journalists are more prejudiced against them than journalists in western capitals. But this year has shown the reverse to be true.

Particularly during the Litvinenko saga, Moscow correspondents watched in wonder as their London and New York colleagues indulged in an orgy of inaccurate and unqualified Putin-o-phobia.

The journalism coming out of London was really sloppy and one-sided – not because western governments were leaning on western journalists, as the Kremlin does in Russia, but because ‘evil Putin kills heroic KGB defector’ is an easier story to sell than ‘murky Russian killed in murky poisoning by any one of fifty different suspects’. And western media is all about selling.

Western op-eds proved themselves worst of all, not just over the Litvinenko case, but also over Sakhalin. The western op-ed writer would turn their lazy eye over the confusing mess of Russian affaires, and, scratching their head, would reach instinctively for their identikit liberal principles. ‘What do I believe in?’ he asks himself. ‘Well, the sanctity of contract, of course, and free market principles, and democracy, and human rights and all that Lockean stuff. Hmm, rum chap this Putin. Rather anti-Lockean. I’ll do my bit for freedom by penning a brave defence of these principles from my desk.’ So the op-ed writer jots down 300 words of brave liberal rhetoric, and goes to the pub feeling like a hero.

It doesn’t matter if the writer in question has never been to Russia, or if they only have a passing familiarity with events there, or if they simply have some post-prandial wind they feel they need to exercise on paper, they still feel legitimate in thumping their tub.

I’ve got particularly bored about western politicians and op-ed writers wringing their hands over Russia wielding the dreaded ‘energy weapon’. Wouldn’t we wield this weapon too, if we had it? Is it worse than the US wielding the B-52 weapon over countries it disagrees with? So, is it OK to use bombs as an instrument of foreign policy, but not oil? Yeah, using oil is cheating. Why? Because we have lots of bombs, but don’t have much oil.

The fact is, we’d use the energy weapon over Russia if we could – just as we used the IMF weapon in the 1990s. It makes perfect sense for Putin to consolidate control over oil and gas reserves and use it for foreign policy. We should stop whining about it, stop insulting Gazprom, and quietly diversify our energy sources. 

There is often a wide degree of difference between a paper’s Moscow reporting and their op-eds. The Wall Street Journal is a good example. Its Moscow reporting is second-to-none, but its op-eds on Russia, which are possibly more influential on public opinion, are really loony.

Take Bret Stephens’ infamous piece, ‘Russia: The Enemy’ (November 28). Stephens declares that Russia should now be considered an enemy of the US because its foreign policy is “openly, and often gratuitously, hostile to the US”. Why? Putin spent political capital, early in his presidency, by supporting the US’ War on Terror, by not complaining when the US set up military bases in central Asia, for example. What has the US done since for Russia? The US openly supports regimes that are very critical of Russia, like Georgia. I’m glad they do, because Europe needs the BTC pipeline, but then the US shouldn’t get too uptight if Russia gets friendly with Venezuela. And, as for Putin meeting with Hamas, everyone outside the US knows that American foreign policy on Israel and Palestine has proved dangerously one-sided, so the rest of the world can welcome any attempts to even out that tilt.

There is an amazingly arrogant belief on the part of many American op-ed writers that, because a country doesn’t automatically go along with the White House’s foreign policy objectives, it’s a dangerous enemy. And if it does go along – like Russia did, or the UK did – then it shouldn’t expect any influence or gratitude in return.

Look at the extraordinary mess American foreign policy has created in Iraq, and the degree to which it has destabilized the region and empowered regimes like Iran and Syria. At least 50,000 Iraqi civilians have died, at a minimum, and the Lancet medical journal estimated that up to 600,000 Iraqis had died prematurely as a result of the war. And above all, the West has squandered its moral legitimacy, crucial to its capacity to steer other countries’ development towards democratic ideals. And yet British and American op-ed writers feel entitled to hurl all their moral indignation at Putin for the death of Litvinenko, one lone petty criminal. Who’s more dangerous – the US or Russia?

Western journalism on Russia needs to be more historical. Again, it makes a nicer, simpler story to say ‘Russia was happily developing as a free market democracy, and then evil Putin came to power’, but it’s not the truth. Western media and western governments were myopic in support of Yeltsin, and blind to his government’s responsibility for the biggest theft of state property ever, as well as for the first Chechen War and the stealing of the 1996 election. They were blind to the extent to which the 1990s were a deeply traumatic and humiliating experience for the majority of Russians.

Anatol Lieven – one of the sanest voices in Washington foreign policy circles – wrote in October 1998: “the American press in general, and The Economist and the Wall Street Journal in particular (with occasional lapses by the Financial Times) have suffered from an underlying teleology which has coloured everything they have written: either the development of a successful western-style free market economy or a ‘reversion to communism’”.

Journalists, particularly ideologically-inflexible ones sitting in New York and London, are too often blind to the realities of ordinary people’s lives in Russia. Just as they were blind to the sufferings of ordinary people in the 1990s, so they are blind to the simple, basic fact that the majority of Russian people’s lives have improved since the 1990s, that they basically approve of the way their country is being managed, and that for the first time in twenty years, they feel optimistic about their future.

But we rely for our sense of Russian popular opinion on the reporting of a handful of educated and well-off Russian reporters who write for the American press and tell them what they want to hear. Don’t get me wrong – these are brave informed reporters, committed to freedom. But sometimes their commitment to freedom, their yearning for a liberal Russia, blinds them to the more humdrum realities of ordinary Russians’ lives, ordinary Russians for whom, more often than not, they express animosity and contempt.

What’s to be done?

I think it is incumbent on Moscow journalists to try and educate their London staff on Russian matters. I know that is difficult – that we are thousands of miles away, are trying to please our news desk editors rather than disagree with them, and often don’t have any contact with the op-ed desk. It feels better to stand up for shining liberal ideals than it does to stand up for shaded and balanced reporting. A more inflexibly liberal view of Russia is, in some ways, an easier story to sell. But we have a moral responsibility to strive to be balanced, to correct our news editors if they try to get us to write a story that isn’t substantiated by facts on the ground, and to try and steer coverage to stories that show Russia in its complexity. That may mean taking time not just to pitch the daily stories, but to talk to one’s editors and outline the broader trends one sees at work in Russia.

I don’t want to be an apologist for Russia. Some of the negative stories this year were the Kremlin’s fault, plain and simple. They completely over-reacted to the spies case in Georgia, and Putin looked ridiculous talking on national TV about the grave threat posed to Russia by Georgia. The ensuing crack-down on Georgian immigrants was odious in the extreme.

Likewise, the Kremlin must take its share of the blame for Politkovskaya’s death. It has showed that it views any criticism of its behaviour in Chechnya, or even any independent reporting of its behaviour in Chechnya, as an enemy threat. It has also basically given Ramzan Kadyrov carte blanche to run the region as he wants, and to kill who he wants.

The Kremlin’s tight control over TV news is utterly objectionable. It is hindering the development of Russians as free-thinking, morally engaged citizens, and trying to keep them as serfs. Sergei Ivanov once said that the majority of Russian TV was moronic. Well, whose fault is that? The oligarchs were not ideal media owners either, but there should be a middle road, and a greater attempt to protect genuine media independence. Putin looks incapable of achieving this, because he doesn’t seem to believe such a thing is possible. He doesn’t seem to have any respect for journalists as a profession, or sense of their role in protecting society. Protecting society is the monopoly of spies, he apparently believes.

The creation of the FSB as a protected political and business elite is also abhorrent. Why should a few thousand people and their children be allowed to do whatever they want, to grab whatever companies they want, to create whatever laws they want, to run over whatever old ladies they want, just because they are members of Russia’s secret service, or children of members? The FSB sees itself as some shining order of knights, protecting Russia from its foreign enemies. It is not – it is a parasitical class which exaggerates the threats it faces (Georgia, NATO, foreign NGOs) to justify its own bloated budget and unchecked power.

There are thus serious criticisms western media can make of the present Russian government. But it undermines its own case by its often hysterical, ahistorical and inaccurate reporting. By being so unfocused, it is actually letting the Kremlin off the hook.

Julian Evans, a British freelance journalist based in Moscow.

January 9, 2007 and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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