News and Opinions - Новости и Мнения:
A blog about Russia and her relations with The West
Monday, April 17, 2017
In Putin’s Moscow, a Pliant Press That Trump So Craves - NYT | Iraqi Officials Say Islamic State Fighters Use Chemical Weapons In Mosul | How Trump Borrows From Putin’s Dirty Tricks Playbook - Monday April 17th, 2017 at 8:18 AM Newsweek
As soon as I turned on a television here I wondered if I had arrived through an alt-right wormhole.
Back in the States, the prevailing notion in the news was that Mr. Assad had indeed been responsible for the chemical strike. There was some “reportage” from sources like the conspiracy theorist and radio host Alex Jones — best known for suggesting that the Sandy Hook school massacre was staged — that the chemical attack was a “false flag” operation by terrorist rebel groups to goad the United States into attacking Mr. Assad. But that was a view from the fringe.
Here in Russia, it was the dominant theme throughout the overwhelmingly state-controlled mainstream media.
On the popular Russian television program “Vesti Nedeli,” the host, Dmitry Kiselyov, questioned how Syria could have been responsible for the attack. After all, he said, the Assad government had destroyed all of its chemical weapons. It was the terrorists who possessed them, said Mr. Kiselyov, who also heads Russia’s main state-run international media arm.
One of Mr. Kiselyov’s correspondents on the scene mocked “Western propagandists” for believing the Trump line, saying munitions at the air base had “as much to do with chemical weapons as the test tube in the hands of Colin Powell had to do with weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”
That teed up Mr. Putin to suggest in nationally televised comments a couple of days later that perhaps the attack was an intentional “provocation” by the rebels to goad the United States into attacking Mr. Assad. RT, the Russian-financed English-language news service, initially translated Mr. Putin as calling it a “false flag.” The full Alex Jones was complete.
When Trump administration officials tried to counter Russia’s “false narratives” by releasing to reporters a declassified report detailing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles — and suggesting to The Associated Press without proof that Russia knew of Mr. Assad’s plans to use chemical weapons in advance — the Russians had a ready answer borrowed from Mr. Trump himself.
As the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia put it, “Apparently it was for good reason Donald Trump called unverified information in the mass media one of the main problems in the U.S.”
It was the best evidence I’ve seen of the folly of Mr. Trump’s anti-press approach. You can’t spend more than a year attacking the credibility of the “dishonest media” and then expect to use its journalism as support for your position during an international crisis — at least not with any success.
While Mr. Trump and his supporters may think that undermining the news media serves their larger interests, in this great information war it serves Mr. Putin’s interests more. It means playing on his turf, where he excels.
Integral to Mr. Putin’s governing style has been a pliant press that makes his government the main arbiter of truth.
While talking to the beaten but unbowed members of the real journalism community here, I heard eerie hints of Trumpian proclamations in their war stories.
Take Mr. Trump’s implicit threat to the owner of The Washington Post, Jeff Bezos, during the election campaign. In case you’ve forgotten, while calling The Post’s coverage of him “horrible and false,” Mr. Trump warned that if he won the presidency Mr. Bezos’s other business, Amazon, would have “such problems.” (The Post was undaunted, and the issue hasn’t come up again.)
The government here doesn’t make threats like that. Things just happen. That was the case last year at the independent media company RBC after its flagship newspaper reported on sensitive financial arrangements of members of Mr. Putin’s family and his associates. The Russian authorities raided the offices of its oligarch owner, Mikhail Prokhorov. Within a few weeks its top three editors had left.
The Kremlin denied involvement. But it must have liked the new editor’s message to the RBC staff: Journalism is like driving, and “if you drive over the solid double line they take away your license.”
That same day, I met with one of the former RBC editors, Roman Badanin. We chatted at his new place of employment, TV Rain, in the Flacon warehouse complex here, populated by young people with beards, tattoos, piercings and colored hair. (Brooklyn hipster imperialism knows no bounds.)
TV Rain has its own hard-luck tale. It was Russia’s only independent television station. Carried mainly on cable, it regularly covered anti-Putin protests and aired voices excluded from the rest of television.
But after it ran an online poll asking whether Russia should have abandoned Leningrad to the Nazis to save lives — deeply offending Russian national pride, and receiving a public rebuke from Mr. Putin’s top spokesman — its landlord evicted it and its cable carriers dropped it.
It now lives primarily as a subscription service on the internet, which remains fairly free given Mr. Putin’s primary focus on television as the most powerful medium in the country. (Mr. Badanin and others worry that’s going to change, too.)
When I asked Mr. Badanin what would be different if Russia had full press freedoms, he looked at me wearily and said: “Everything. Sorry for that common answer, but everything.”
Despite steep challenges, people like Mr. Badanin are still battling on. Their journalistic spirit couldn’t be killed, even after some of their friends and colleagues had been.
One newspaper here, Novaya Gazeta, has lost five reporters to violence or suspicious circumstances since the turn of the century. Toward the end of the week, I went to its spartan offices in central Moscow to visit its longtime editor, Dmitri Muratov, who has fiercely guarded the paper’s independence through all of the killings and the crackdowns.
With the gallows humor of a seasoned journalist, Mr. Muratov was in a jovial mood and told me that he was getting a great kick out of state media’s hard turn against Mr. Trump.
Initially, Mr. Muratov said of the president, “he was treated as warmly as McDonald’s; he entered every home like he was our national Santa Claus.” Mr. Muratov had no doubt the sentiment toward Mr. Trump would reverse again, perhaps soon. (To borrow from “1984”: “Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.”)
Novaya Gazeta had the toughest coverage on the chemical weapons attack that I saw here, challenging the government narrative with reporting from the ground indicating the chemical weapons were dropped from the air. (The anti-Assad forces do not have airplanes.)
There’s a lot of speculation in Russian media circles about why the Kremlin allows Novaya Gazeta to continue to operate.
Mr. Muratov says he believes it’s because the newspaper is not owned by a single businessman subject to pressure. The newspaper’s staff owns a majority of the shares, and the rest of them are owned by the former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the Russian businessman Alexander Lebedev. (Mr. Lebedev told The Guardian last year that he was no longer financing newsroom operations because of “the strain.”)
That, and a loyal subscriber base of more than 240,000, help insulate it from outside pressure, if not the violence.
The very day of my visit, Mr. Muratov received a threat against his entire staff from religious leaders in Chechnya, angry over articles about anti-gay violence in the region.
The Novaya Gazeta offices are scattered with reminders to take such threats seriously, like the case that holds the dusty desktop computer of Anna Politkovskaya. She was shot dead in her apartment building in 2006 after exposing human rights abuses in Chechnya and writing unflinchingly about Mr. Putin.
I wondered aloud whether it scared any of Mr. Muratov’s reporters away from certain stories. He turned serious, looked straight at me and said, “I really wish it could.”
Mr. Muratov follows the American news media closely. I asked him what he thought about the American press corps’ quandary when it comes to covering a president, like Mr. Trump, who trades in falsehoods and demonizes journalists.
He seemed put off by the question; the answer, to him, was so obvious.
“Information from the Kremlin or from the White House, it’s not for us verified information,” he said. “We don’t place our trust just on their word.”
It’s a lesson American reporters should have learned long before Mr. Trump came along, especially after Iraq.
Journalists in Russia like Mr. Muratov haven’t lost sight of that lesson because they can’t afford to. Neither can we.
The same dirty tricks deployed by the KGB for decades are used in today’s Cold War 2.0 and have permeated geopolitics from Syria to Ukraine and the world’s capitals.
But spies in trench coats have been supplanted by Russians in tuxedos with huge bank accounts who use financial, social and political weaponry to build tentacles that reach into the highest echelons of targeted jurisdictions.
This geopolitical architecture is the brainchild of former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, and his operatives are Russians who owe him everything because he has, by edict, made each one a fabulously wealthy owner of Russia’s assets and vast resource endowment.
Their tools are no longer listening devices or fast Aston Martins but transactions, partnerships, investments, banks, loans, lobbyists, public relations specialists and social access at the highest levels to fatten their wallets and advance Russia’s influence and geopolitical agenda.
They lurk in the shadows of offshore banks, tax havens, anonymous corporations, private clubs and influencers who are secretly on their payrolls.
They “bribe,” but through sophisticated transactions such as overpaying for assets or services; selling assets or services or lending money at rock-bottom prices to enrich a targeted influencer; or inviting politicians, tycoons and officials to yachts, estates, sporting team events, sponsored arts galas, ribbon-cutting ceremonies at libraries, think tanks, universities or other charities that they lavish money on strategically.
Donald Trump at a campaign event in Palm Beach, Florida, on March 11. Diane Francis writes that Trump denies involvement with the Russians but shared an interesting transaction with a Russian oligarch in West Palm Beach. Was the windfall profit he made on the deal a result of his real estate smarts or was it a Russian buyer who wanted to curry favor? Carlo Allegri/reuters
President Donald Trump denies involvement with Russians but strangely shared an interesting transaction that’s led to an ongoing association with a Russian oligarch.
“You know the closest I came to Russia? I bought a house [in 2006] in Palm Beach...for $40 million, and I sold it [in 2008] to a Russian for $100 million,” Trump said.
Could such a windfall be a result of his astute real estate smarts or was it a buyer who wanted to curry his favor?
What’s interesting to note, however, is that the Trump media-management style borrows heavily from propaganda techniques honed by the Russians. These include negativity and disdain toward institutions and the traditional media to demoralize the “enemy” and the widespread use of disinformation (false assertions or allegations), such as Trump’s unproven accusation that President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower illegally.
Another technique is called “whataboutism.” This is the use of false moral equivalencies to reduce the truth to just one of many possibilities. It litters the conversation and gives equal play to ludicrous assertions.
Propaganda techniques include hacking to embarrass or impair rivals, as happened during the election, but also to perpetuate “fake news” or hoaxes on social media sites. The most odious example involved Hillary Clinton and a Washington, D.C., pizzeria and pedophilia.
Also of concern is the promotion of search rankings by Russian trolls and chatbots. For instance, type in “Putin...” on Google in the United States or Canada and the drop-down menu offered by its artificial intelligence (based on site rankings and number of clicks) is “awesome” or “a hero.”
The cumulative danger of these shenanigans is serious, writes Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny: “Paid trolls have made it impossible for the normal Internet user to separate truth from fiction.”
He said such efforts are paid for by Russian officials and oligarchs to gain control over media outlets they don’t own, with the added benefit of spreading lies internationally.
Another gambit is known as “gaslighting,” named after an American suspense film about a man who drives his wife mad by accusing her of doing things that she didn’t do—but that he had done.
An example was when Trump began labeling critics who prove his allegations to be inaccurate as “fake news” purveyors. Such memorable lines are repeated in order to become a hashtag on social media or a colloquialism.
Another maneuver is known as “chaff,” the code name for a top secret weapon in World War II that enabled allies to drop bombs in broad daylight. Chaffing was when planes dropped tens of thousands of strips of aluminum foil to confuse radar systems by creating thousands of decoys in the sky.
The Trump media strategy is all about “chaff,” or throwing up all kinds of noise, confusion and distractions to shift attention. For example, the Obama wiretapping allegation was followed by a bombardment of tweets that sent the press on wild goose chases. Likewise, Trump’s pronouncements against NATO or Europe are contradicted in statements by his vice president and others.
This use of contradictions, nastiness and dissonance is not helpful to democracies or economies. But they work.
For years, the Russians have seized control of conversations around the world, and their bespoke agents have infiltrated the world’s powerful. And America is no exception.
TALLINN (Sputnik) — Over 200 Estonian troops will take part in international NATO exercise that will begin on Monday in Latvia, the Headquarters of the Estonian Defense Forces said in a statement.
"Over 200 Estonian troops will participate in NATO Summer Shield drills that will take place in Latvian Adazi training area on April 17-30," the statement said.
According to the statement, over 1,200 troops from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Germany and Sweden will take part in the exercise.
The drills will help troops practice artillery support, anti-mechanized defense, operations involving military engineers and countering mass destruction weapons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an annual meeting on Thursday that the country's military is stronger now than any potential aggressor. However, he added that it must strengthen its nuclear forces.
“We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defence systems,” Putin said in a statement.
Putin thanked the defence ministry for its work. However, he said that they should be cautioned as the situation may change very quickly if they let themselves relax even for a moment. He spoke after the annual report was presented by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
In his report, Shoigu lauded the Russian military achievements in Syria for its ongoing efforts in modernising its Army. He said that the country's military has fully covered the Russian border with early warning systems for the first time.
Shoigu announced that there were plans to send more troops to Russia's west, southwest and the Arctic after complaining about the increased North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops in its border areas. He said that NATO has proclaimed that Russia is its main threat instead of uniting efforts with its military forces against terrorism.
Military drills were conducted near Russia's border in 2016 by Russia and NATO members.
Although Putin thinks that his army is stronger now, senior research fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute Igor Sutyagin told the Associated Press that the Russian military was not the world's strongest but it was improving. He noted that it was due to Putin's control over his military.
Sutyagin said that the military is stronger because if Putin wants to use them, he does not need to seek for advice. He does not need to ask the parliament for the Capitol Hill. Because of the lack of restrictions, it makes the military equipped for combat.
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