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Unbiased Media / Biased Agendas: How to Make a Russian Demon

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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A little over one year ago the world was given a foundational lesson in how an impartial press can unknowingly construct a partial opinion. The consequences of that lesson are still being heard today and much to the detriment of the Russian Federation.

March 16, 2014 marked the day when the people of Crimea went to the voting booths to decide whether they would be part of Ukraine or part of Russia. While the referendum was no doubt important to people living in Crimea, I for one remained highly skeptical that the results would actually be the ultimate arbiter on the territorial decisions made about Crimea. The outside players, namely Ukraine, Russia, the United States, NATO, and the European Union, were simply too big and too influential to let this small peninsula play an independent role far beyond the geopolitical football that it represented. I felt deeply for the people of Crimea, but the bitter reality and perhaps even more bitter truth was that high politics on the global stage will still come off in such a blunt manner. Unfortunately, this type of cynical maneuvering has been going on for literally thousands of years and will likely not end with the current crisis between Russia and the West over Ukraine. We have seen this fact by potential American military initiatives today involving the Baltics and recent egregiously reckless comments made by US representative to the UN Samantha Powers about Russia and Ukraine.

Ending crises such as the one in Crimea is not only the work of governments, diplomats, and militaries. Reporters play a crucial role as well. While Western journalists as a whole tend to be a conscientious lot, simply pursuing an interesting story and often putting themselves in harm’s way in order to get it, the Cold War residue that remains between the United States and Russia has put a grimy film over more than just political actors. It often affects the way in which stories are told, the lens through which ‘impartial observers’ focus their attention. Unfortunately, this happens usually at a subconscious level, resulting in news stories that were meant to be ‘fair, free, and impartial’ instead having a decidedly biased perspective snaking its way from reporter to reader.

Look no further than the first reporting on referendum day from the highly respected and august news organization, Reuters. It reported how, ‘thousands of Russian troops have taken control of the Black Sea peninsula and Crimea’s pro-Russian leaders have sought to ensure the vote is tilted in Moscow’s favor. That, along with an ethnic Russian majority, is expected to result in a comfortable ‘YES’ vote to leave Ukraine.’ These are actually two very different perspectives conflated into a single position. On the one hand, readers were given the distinct understanding that the referendum was basically rigged, commandeered by Crimean leaders, who were nothing but sycophants to the Kremlin. But the very next sentence also accurately mentioned that Crimea was majority ethnic Russian, which should have indicated to a reader that a free and fair referendum might end up producing the very result the reporters told us could not be genuine. So which was it? Was Crimea manipulated by local leaders and the Russian military or was its majority Russian population voting its free and voluntary will? By writing the piece so that the suspicious manipulation theory was conflated with the demographically true statistic, a reader was either left confused or pushed into thinking the referendum itself was irrelevant and that Russia was rather, well, evil.

The piece further reported, ‘the majority of Crimea’s 1.5 million electorate support leaving Ukraine and becoming part of Russia, citing expectations of better pay and the prospect of joining a country capable of asserting itself on the world stage. But others see the referendum as nothing more than a geopolitical land grab by the Kremlin…Ethnic Tatars, Sunni Muslims of Turkic origin who make up 12 percent of Crimea’s population, said they would boycott the referendum, despite promises by the authorities to give them financial aid and proper land rights.’ Again, this deftly presented evidence in a manner that delegitimized the ethnic Russian majority by highlighting a small minority group, ethnic Tatars, and how it would boycott the referendum. This is playing a bit fast and loose with the complex ethnic makeup of the former Soviet Union, portraying a picture that is not entirely accurate: ethnic Tatars have a long and rich history WITHIN the Russian Federation. One of the most powerful ethnic republics and richest regions in Russia today is Tatarstan. The idea that ethnic Tatars in Crimea were protesting the referendum because they were somehow worried or fearful of being part of Russia was simply fallacious. Much more likely, given the present environment of political turmoil and open discussions about autonomy and self-rule (let us not forget that Crimea was itself a semi-autonomous region within Ukraine under the Ukrainian Constitution), was that the ethnic Tatars saw what Crimean leaders were doing and hoped to also earn their own piece of newly acquired political and economic power. Rejecting the Crimean offer of financial aid and proper land rights meant they weren’t arguing about principle anymore but just how big their piece of the pie would be. All of this background and subtle nuance would have made readers more informed and impressed at how complex and multi-layered the Crimean situation is. Instead, they were left with a picture that had Crimean authority mere puppets on Kremlin strings and oppressed minorities being politically stomped over in the process by Russian jackboots.

The Reuters piece continued to explain the situation, stating ‘the protests began when Yanukovich turned his back on a trade deal with the European Union and opted for a credit and cheap oil deal worth billions of dollars with Ukraine’s former Soviet overlord, Russia.’ I have written on this issue in the past and it continues to perplex me how the above transaction is only portrayed in Western media as Yanukovich simply being in the back pocket of Moscow. Entering into greater trade cooperation with the European Union, paving the way for closer relations, also means ultimately answering to European Union financial demands. Perhaps we could ask Greece, Italy, or Portugal how that goes at times? These realities, along with the inevitably cyclical and topsy-turvy nature of the global economy, mean not all paths to the EU are paved with gold. Given such, why did Western media portray acceptance for a credit, oil, and gas deal worth ‘billions of dollars’ for Ukraine RIGHT NOW as being akin to a Faustian bargain made with a ‘Soviet overlord?’ What was the impact on uninformed readers who did not know that the Russian credit deal basically meant Russia forgave a massive amount of oil and gas debt owed by Ukraine? If a country was truly looking to be an ‘evil overlord’ might it not be far easier to simply call in one’s chips without remorse, rather than offering deals that eliminate debt with no repayment?

Finally, the piece reported, ‘voters have two options to choose from – but both imply Russian control of the peninsula. On the surface, the second choice appears to offer the prospect of Crimea remaining with Ukraine. However, the 1992 constitution which it cites foresees giving the region effective independence within Ukraine, but with the right to determine its own path and choose relations with whom it wants – including with Russia.’ The problem I have highlighted is not that such journalists are unprofessional or have some anti-Russian personal agenda. I have no personal knowledge of the journalists who wrote and contributed to the above Reuters piece and I am sure they take their profession with the utmost seriousness and have high personal standards of integrity. The problem, as I mentioned, is a pervasive subconscious Cold War residue that has major influence on how uninformed readers around the world learn about the situation in Crimea and Russia’s subsequent larger image even today.

For example, the 1992 constitution mentioned above is the UKRAINIAN Constitution, not the Russian. It does indeed grant the Crimean region effective independence within Ukraine AND the right to determine its own path and relations with whomever it wants. Ukraine wrote those words in the immediate glowing aftermath of Soviet dissolution, when, quite frankly, most in the West felt the true political and economic prosperity path shone brightest for Ukraine and NOT Russia. Many seem to have forgotten this but any simple source search back to the time period will reveal massive Western enthusiasm for Ukraine’s prospects while Russia was deemed too large, too ethnically diverse, and too dependent on decrepit and degraded Soviet infrastructure. It is easy to grant ‘autonomy’ when authorities feel confident that said autonomous chicken will never come home to roost. But now, a generation after the fall of the Soviet Union, no one makes comparisons anymore between Ukraine and Russia where Ukraine is the golden-child and Russia the basket-case. So yes, it was quite true that the constitution recklessly gave Crimea the opportunity to pursue the very path it was pursuing a year ago. But the hands that wrote that problematic constitution were Ukrainian, not Russian. This was a reality not revealed to readers. Instead, they were fed an opposite impression of the referendum as not only being illegitimate but manipulatively engineered by Russia and forced on the local people.

Russia, no doubt, was not guiltless. No state is in complex geopolitics. It absolutely took advantage of the turmoil and instability of the Maidan revolution in Kiev. But it took advantage of this opportunity by maneuvering with a small peninsula that had always been militarily important to and, quite frankly, politically and culturally aligned with Russia. Was this maneuver ‘nice?’ No, it was not. But was it geopolitically strategic? Yes, it most certainly was. Which thought process do you think matters most to states on the global stage, the former or the latter?

What I wish to see more of is reporting that testifies to this inherent nature of geopolitics and the admission that most states, no, ALL states will be strategic before they choose to be nice. Be warned: this won’t make for light or fun reading, per se. But it would make for more informed and more accurate reading than the quasi-impartial pieces that clearly push a psychological caricature of one particular side to readers who do not have the background to know what is fact and what is farce. The consequence, of course, is the creation of a Russian demon that is not entirely deserved and most certainly does not serve anyone’s enlightenment or the amelioration of conflict. There are enough real demons in the political world without the free media creating more absent-mindedly.

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu and chief analytical strategist of I3, a strategic intelligence consulting company. All inquiries regarding speaking engagements and consulting needs can be referred to his website: https://profmatthewcrosston.academia.edu/

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Coronavirus: Why Russians Are Lucky to Be Led by Putin

Eric Zuesse

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On Tuesday, March 24th, the following happened:

U.S.A. had the world’s largest number of new coronavirus-19 cases: 10,168. The prior day, there were 33,546 cases; so, this 10,168 new cases were a 30% increase from the day before. 

Russia had 71 new cases, up 19% from the prior day’s 367

Reuters bannered “U.S. has potential of becoming coronavirus epicenter, says WHO” and reported that,

The World Health Organization said on Tuesday it was seeing a “very large acceleration” in coronavirus infections in the United States which had the potential of becoming the new epicenter.

Over the past 24 hours, 85 percent of new cases were from Europe and the United States, WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told reporters. Of those, 40 percent were from the United States.

Asked whether the United States could become the new epicentre, Harris said: “We are now seeing a very large acceleration in cases in the U.S. So it does have that potential.

Right now, on Wednesday the 25th, the U.S. again has the world’s largest number of new cases reported, 11,074. That’s a 25% increase added to the 43,734 cases total on March 24th. And, within just three more days, America will have the world’s largest total number of cases, if Italy won’t. And after yet another day, the U.S. will almost certainly have the world’s largest total number of cases, because Italy has been adding only around half as many new cases per day as the U.S., though Italy’s total right now is higher than America’s, and is actually the second largest total after only China’s. China will have the world’s third-largest total number of cases by this weekend, the 28th or 29th, and America will be #1 then, not only on the number of new cases, but on the total number of cases, of this infection. That quickly, then, China will become no longer the #1 coronavirus-19 nation, but, instead, #3, behind the #1 U.S., and the #2 Italy. 

America has been in political chaos because each of its two houses of Congress, and both Parties, and the President, have been blocked from agreeing on what to do — all of them were ignoring that this is an existential emergency and thus dealt with it as if it were instead just another way for each to increase its chances of re-election at the expense of the others. Both political Parties, Republicans and Democrats, and Congress and the President, agreed on a “$500 billion fund for corporations” to reduce the negative impact on billionaires’ wealth, but Democrats demanded that limits be placed on executives’ pay, and “included reducing student debt and boosting food stability programs. Some of the ideas would be major sticking points with Republicans: The bill, for example, would invest money ‘to eliminate high-polluting aircraft’ and ‘research into sustainable aviation fuels.’” Democrats also wanted, but Republicans refused, some costly measures to continue workers’ incomes during their plague-induced period of unemployment. Agreement had been reached only on the billionaire-bailouts — protections especially of stock-values. This is the way America’s ‘democracy’ works. Rule by the billionaires is considered to be ‘democracy’. Luxuries are treated as being more important than necessities are. (Billionaires are thought to be superior people, who must be served before anyone else.) Dollars rule, people don’t. And this chaos is the result of that.

On March 23rd, the prominent progressive economist James K. Galbraith headlined “What the Government Needs to Do Next” and described in detail what a governmental policy-response would be that would subsidize the public to deal with this crisis, but not subsidize the billionaires (who already have way too much and can well afford to become merely millionaires while not actually suffering at all), and that would be of maximum benefit to the total economy by protecting the assets of the most-vulnerable (who could then continue to shop and work), but his common-sense proposal wasn’t even being considered by the legislators, nor by the President.

Only a few countries had a faster rate of increase in cases than the U.S. did on March 24th, but all of them had far fewer cases: Portugal, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda. For example, Rwanda had the world’s highest percentage-increase from the day before, almost a doubling, but that was 17 new cases, up from a total of 19 on the day before. So, America’s 30% increase was clearly the world’s worst performance, on that single day.

Russia’s performance is perhaps the world’s best.

On March 22nd, CNN headlined “Why does Russia, population 146 million, have fewer coronavirus cases than Luxembourg?” (that’s a country of 628,000 people) and reported that 

Russia’s early response measures —  such as shutting down its 2,600-mile border with China as early as January 30, and setting up quarantine zones — may have contributed to the delay of a full-blown outbreak, some experts say.

Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to criticism over the number of recorded cases.

A strong record on testing

“The director-general of WHO said ‘test, test, test,’” Dr. Melita Vujnovic, the World Health Organization’s representative in Russia, told CNN Thursday. “Well, Russia started that literally at the end of January.”

Vujnovic said Russia also took a broader set of measures in addition to testing.

“Testing and identification of cases, tracing contacts, isolation, these are all measures that WHO proposes and recommends, and they were in place all the time,” she said. “And the social distancing is the second component that really also started relatively early.”

Rospotrebnadzor, Russia’s state consumer watchdog, said Saturday that it had run more than 156,000 coronavirus tests in total. By comparison, according to CDC figures, the United States only picked up the pace in testing at the beginning of March.

On March 20th, the permanently anti-Russian U.S. organization, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (whose “Orwellian” name was perhaps one of the inspirations for George Orwell’s permanent-warfare novel, 1984) headlined “Confronting the Challenges of Coronavirus, Russia Sees Its Worldview Vindicated”, and tried to put as bad a face on Russia’s coronavirus performance as they could, such as by alleging that (alleged) dictatorships were performing no worse than ‘democracies’ at controlling the coronavirus threat:

The state has reasserted itself as the prime actor on the global scene. International institutions like the World Health Organization have become mere statisticians, and even the EU has taken a back seat to the governments of member states.

The world’s democracies are not faring better in the crisis than nondemocracies.

However, back on 27 July 2015, that organization had bannered “How Authentic is Putin’s Approval Rating?” and reviewed more than 15 years of Putin’s approval ratings from the Russian public, and reluctantly concluded that it was and had always been “Authentic,” and almost always high.

Internationally, too, Putin’s leadership of Russia is more highly regarded than is the current U.S. President’s leadership of America.

Back in 2017, the British firm of WIN/Gallup International issued “Gallup International’s 41st Annual Global End of Year Survey Opinion Poll in 55 Countries Across the Globe”, which sampled 1,000 persons in each country in order to determine in each one the percentage of the public who rated “Favorable” and who rated “Unfavorable” each of the following 12 national heads-of-state (listed here in descending order of their net favorability, or “favorable” minus “unfavorable”): Merkel, Macron, Modi, May, Xi, Putin, Saud, Netanyahu, Rouhani, Erdogan, and Trump. (Merkel globally scored highest, Trump lowest.)

Amongst Russians, the score for Putin was 79% Favorable, 11% Unfavorable, for a net score of +68%.

Though Germany’s Merkel had the highest score worldwide, her score in Germany was only 54% Favorable and 44% Unfavorable, for a net of +10.

Macron’s net score in France was -1%.

May’s net in UK was -18%

Rouhani’s in Iran was +37%

Erdogan’s in Turkey was +22%

Modi’s in India was +72% (that’s 84%-12%)

Trump’s in U.S. was -23% (35%-58%) — the worst of all.

The following leaders weren’t surveyed in their own countries: Xi, Netanyahu, and Saud.

So: Putin’s net +68% score amongst his own country’s population was second ony to Modi’s — and, whereas Modi had been in office for only 3 years and had not yet begun his controversial actively anti-Muslim campaign, Putin had led Russia for 17 years, and was a very firmly established high performer in these figures. Here are some of the reasons for this.

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Russian-Japanese dialogue in the context of amendments to the Constitution

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As Russia discusses amendments to the Constitution, an issue of particular concern has been the amendment that prohibits the alienation of Russian territories. The amendment will likely be put to vote on April 22. It is not surprising that it has evoked interest abroad, especially in Japan, where they still expect to regain control of the so-called “northern territories”. Unlike a great number of categorical alarmist comments in the Japanese press on this issue, Sankei Shimbun writes: “The amendment includes the wording “except for cases of demarcation or re-demarcation of borders with neighboring states”. Thus, negotiations on the Japanese “northern territories” can be considered not in conflict with the new Constitution. “

Are there grounds for such an interpretation of the amendment in question? “Any moves aimed at alienating territories, as well as calls for such actions, are not permitted,” – the presidential amendment says, specifying that it is not indeed about delimitation, demarcation, or re-demarcation of the state border.

Japan, claiming the southern islands of the Kuril Ridge, cites the Soviet-Japanese Declaration of October 19, 1956 “On ending the state of war between the two states and restoring diplomatic and consular relations”, according to which the USSR pledged to transfer the Shikotan and Habomai Islands. The Declaration, ratified by the parliaments of the two countries, has not been abolished. Another presidential amendment to the Constitution of the Russian Federation stipulates that Russia is the legal successor of the USSR in its territory and as a member of international organizations and international treaties.

However, the Tokyo Declaration indicated that the de facto transfer of these islands to Japan would be executed after the signing of a peace treaty between the USSR and Japan. In addition, the Soviet Union was also far from happy about the presence of American military bases on Japanese territory.

At present, what obstructs progress on the islands and the peace treaty is Japan’s unwillingness to take into account Russia’s strategic concerns about the status of the four islands of the South Kuril Ridge. In particular, Russia would like to receive guarantees about the neutral status of these territories and the non-deployment of US military bases on them.

The main thing is that while considering the issue of concluding a Peace Treaty with Japan, Russia insists that Japan recognize the results of World War II – something it has refused to do for many years. This approach is regrettably deeply rooted in the minds of the Japanese establishment and expert community. The abovementioned newspaper, for example, cites the opinion of Professor Sindzo Hakamada of Niigata University that “if Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe takes part in the celebration of Victory Day this year, it will mean acknowledgment of a blatant distortion of history by Russia and its uncompromising policy towards Japan.

From the Russian point of view, such statements are characteristic of the position of Japan. History, by the way, remembers cases when Tokyo changed this position depending on the political situation. A. Koshkin writes that in the spring of 1945, amid fears that the Soviet Union could participate in the war against Japan on the side of the Allied Powers, the Japanese leadership began to develop plans to “interest” the Soviet government by the concessions which Tokyo could make in exchange for Moscow’s neutrality and consent to mediate in armistice negotiations, including the abandoning of claims on Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands.

Some Japanese experts, for example, M. Sato, believe that even after the amendments are made, there are two ways to resolve this problem so that the transfer of Habomai and Shikotan does not contradict the Russian Constitution. “The first way: to confirm that the transfer of Japanese islands to the USSR was recorded in the Yalta agreement of February 1945 and that in accordance with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the Kuril Islands, which Japan turned down, do not include Habomai and Shikotan. The transfer of Habomai and Shikotan is not an act of alienation of territories, but the result of demarcation of borders, so this will not run counter to the Constitution of Russia. The second way: since the Soviet-Japanese declaration is an international agreement signed long before the approval of the Russian Constitution, the provisions of the Fundamental Law of Russia should not apply to it.

In any case, the presidential amendment that delimitation, demarcation and re-marking of the state border do not fall under the alienation of territories is fairly substantial. There have been similar situations in the past, for example, how would the Russian leadership act when considering the demarcation of the Russian-Chinese border in 2005 or the Russian-Norwegian border in 2010?

However, in the case of Japan, the formality – when and if the presidential amendment is adopted – is less important than content. The Russian-Japanese dialogue on a Peace Treaty is still possible and may end to the benefit of both parties if they manage to accept the terms of the Tokyo Declaration taking into account the new realities. In my opinion, this is what the presidential amendment to the Russian Constitution is all about.

From our partner International Affairs

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Coronavirus: A blessing in disguise

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Last week, many universities and colleges in Europe and other countries canceled classes and moved to online instruction amid coronavirus fears as the authorities are trying to check the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Paradoxically, such measures can prove beneficial to the world’s leading universities that practice online training and have developed platforms for this, above all in Russia, where the oldest educational institutions have long been using digital technology in teaching.

St. Petersburg State University (SPbU), the alma mater of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, is among the institutions, which are best prepared to go on-line, and a large number of dedicated courses developed by the university can already be found on federal educational platforms such as https://openedu.ru/. The issue of digital education featured prominently on the agenda of the 4thInternational Labor Forum held in St. Petersburg in February – the last major international event held by the university before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Speaking at the forum, the university’s rector, Nikolay Kropachev, described SPbU as being at the forefront of the development of online courses and distance learning.

Nikolay Kropachev also said that the university had come a long way in promoting international cooperation, and was among the first to protect foreign students from being subjected to irrational and ill-advised measures related to the spread of coronavirus. In February, after many Russian politicians proposed isolating all students from Southeast Asia, Nikolay Kropachev appealed to common sense, questioning the need to place in quarantine for several months students who have not been in their home country since their last vacation.

Now that the entire university has gone on a kind of “antiviral” vacation, St. Petersburg State University is working out an algorithm of distance learning, including by foreign students, who come for a year or two studying in English and other languages. Thus, even if the coronavirus epidemic lingers on, students will not lose a semester or two and will be able to fully communicate with their tutors via a computer screen. Also, everyone is welcome to come aboard and join the training process. For more details, go to the University website.

Note: St. Petersburg State University is a complex of early 18th century buildings – the city’s oldest stone structures, which housed the ministries of Russia’s first emperor, Peter the Great. Nikolay Kropachev wants to move some of the classrooms out to create in their place several museums dedicated to Russian history and Russia’s greatest scientists. Just like other Russian universities, SPbU now has chance to check the effectiveness of its achievements in the field of distance learning. “A blessing in disguise” as the Russian proverb has it. 

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