Russia and the NYT

A May 2nd analysis piece from New York Times Russia correspondent Clifford Levy highlighted the paper's hopeless inability to offer readers real insights about Vladimir Putin's neo-Soviet regime. 

As the paper attempts to carry out a demented effort to collect $2/copy for its daily edition at the newsstand, it's appropriate to take a moment to reflect on its actual value. I've previously documented egregious flaws in the paper's reporting on Russia, for instance regarding Putin's war in Chechnya and on protest movements in Moldova, and I've shown how Times editorials have shamelessly perverted history in order to cover up their early support for Putin, whom they at first characterized as a serious reformer who only needed time to show his true colors.

In his latest effort, headlined "A Puzzle over Intentions of Russia's President," Levy gives readers only two dimensions where in fact there are clearly three.  He asks:

Is [Dmitry Medvedev] the affable front man for the business-as-usual hard-liners in the Kremlin, a puppet president who offers soothing remarks, but little else? Or is he a genuine reformer who is edging Russia away from the more heavy-handed practices of [Vladimir Putin], but needs time to make his mark?  Mr. Medvedev's comments are regularly parsed for signs of discord with Mr. Putin, who is considered Russia's paramount leader, and it is perhaps possible to glean from them a rebuke to Mr. Putin's style. But it seems far more likely that Mr. Putin has chosen to let Mr. Medvedev adopt his own tone as long as he does not alter the government's course.

It's simply amazing that the journalist primarily responsible for explaining to the readers of the nation's most powerful international news gatherer can be so myopic.  Isn't it also possible, just possible, that Medvedev is simply following Putin's direct orders?  Is it really so hard for the Times to understand why Putin would want Medvedev to issue empty words about liberalizing civil society?

The reason is staring Levy in the face, if only he would remove his blinders:  It's the economy, stupid!

As oil and gas production shrivels because of falling market prices, the Russian stock market has lost three quarters of its value, foreign exchange reserves are expected to be down by more than half at year's end and the currency has fallen by one-third.  Draconian budget cuts, borrowing and deficit spending are projected for next year as budgetary reserves exhaust.

Inflation and unemployment are both in horrifying double-digits, and a virulent protest movement growing in Russia's Far East is referring to Putin as "Putler" and calling for him to be sent into outer space.  Given all this, it's hardly surprising that Putin would realize, just like Mikhail Gorbachev before him, that he simply can't afford to keep the lid screwed on the Russian pressure cooker all the way right now.  Some steam has to be released before the vessel explodes.

Above all, Putin must try to defuse Western attempts to take advantage of Russia's unprecedented economic downturn to leverage advances in the protection of human rights.  The way to do that is to dupe Western observers into believing that they just need to give the Kremlin time to implement reforms - exactly as Putin was able to dupe the Times back when he first came to power.  Then, as now, Russia was mired in a deep recession and was highly vulnerable to Western pressure.  Putin needed time to rebuild, and that's exactly what benighted observers like the Times editorial board offered him.  The price of oil soared, and Putin was then able to implement a whole series of frightening crackdowns on civil society.

Levy repeats his error when he looks at specifics. He continues:

Mr. Medvedev is a former law professor who appears to have sympathy for the difficulties of human rights groups. Even so, the groups' leaders could point to only one move by the government recently that indicated a thaw: a court-ordered release from prison of a lawyer, Svetlana P. Bakhmina, who was a minor figure in the crackdown by Mr. Putin on the Yukos Oil company and its head, the former oligarch Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky.  At the same time, though, prosecutors are pursuing new charges against Mr. Khodorkovsky, who was once Russia's richest man and was imprisoned in 2003 after angering Mr. Putin by getting involved in politics. The new charges, which could keep Mr. Khodorkovsky behind bars for two more decades, have been widely seen as a sign that the Kremlin has no intention of loosening the reins.

Isn't it possible that Bakhmina, who had just given birth in prison and become the subject of an Internet campaign for mercy, was released (after serving half of a six-year term) specifically because it would allow the Kremlin to prosecute Khodorkovsky twice for the same crime and put him away for life without interference?  Reading Levy, one would never consider this alternative.  And his implication that being a "law professor" in Russia makes one a defender of the rule of law is sickeningly childish.  Medvedev took his "law degree" in the USSR, and has never spent one single second of his a career working for the rule of law in any fashion.  He left that to other attorneys, like Stanislav Markelov, who was recently shot in the head for his trouble - a fact Medvedev has doggedly ignored.

Vladimir Putin is formally trained in the martial art of judo, which teaches a combatant how to use his opponent's force against him, and this sort of misdirection has been relied upon by Putin from his earliest days in power.  His cronies, for instance, justify his totalitarian control of all national television and newspaper reporting in the country with the rationalization that the Internet remains free (Medvedev is even blogging, they proclaim).  What they forget to mention is that 79% of the country has no access to the Internet (it's far too expensive for the average Russian, who earns less than $4/hour), so that vestigial freedom his nothing but an illusion.  What's more, with repeated prosecutions of bloggers and even commenters for "extremism" whenever they go too far in criticizing the Kremlin and dogged efforts to co-opt ISPs, Freedom House says Russia's Internet is only "partly free." It says Russia's mainstream media is "unfree" and that only 21 nations only planet have more state control than Russia.  Showing his true attitude towards Russia's young people, Medvedev recently approved a law authorizing a national curfew that will keep Russian minors off the streets after 10 pm.

Since he first entered the Kremlin, Putin has left a trail of murdered critics in his wake, yet the West has yet to call him on the carpet for them, least of all the Times.  He has systematically provided aid and comfort to America's most lethal foes, but he has not been even been condemned much less punished.  And all the while, he has been slowly turning back the clock on every aspect of civil society in Russia, acting if he knew he could confuse Western observers just enough to undercut any impulse to stop him.

Putin has chutzpah, to be sure.  When he ran out of money to pay for military control of Chechnya, he simply declared "mission accomplished!" and claimed he was pulling out his forces because there was no longer any need for them.  Incidents of terrorism promptly increased, but Putin didn't catch hell for it.  When the same financial pressure forced draconian cuts in Russia's military personnel, Putin claimed it was just much needed reform of corruption and incompetence.  Again, his obvious weakness went largely unnoticed.  He made a show of "transparency" by releasing his tax returns, but most of the world ignored the fact that they were empty shells and, aside from revealing the surprising fact that his salary as "prime minister" is bigger than that of the "president," told us nothing about him.

Obviously it would be too much to ask - much too much - for the Times to take America's side, stand up for American values and interests, name Putin for the venal, malignant imperialist that he is and demand action.  That would be a job for someone like Ronald Reagan, in other words an actual American patriot. But is it really too much to ask for the Times to simply tell us the full story?

It is supposed to be the foe of those who restrict the press and people's right to know but, with enemies like the New York Times, it seems, Mr. Putin needs no friends.

Kim Zigfeld blogs on Russia at La Russophobe and writes the Russia column for Pajamas Media. She can be reached by e-mail at
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