The AFP released an article today that was downright comical by any standard of journalism. For starters its was titled “Obama dominates in first 100 days” — a title more fitting a “news” release from Xinghua, Interfax, or KCNA (respectively the Chinese, Russian and North Korean state controlled media outlets). For finishers it was a long list of annoucements and proclamations, not an actual news story. It reads about the same way reading the entire full name of a small country’s king or spiritual ruler: “The Highest, Enlightened, Glorious, Holy Ordained, Swift, Strong, blah blah blah So-and-So who Vanquished the Zits of Belinda, Defeated the Gas Monster of Gastrous, etc.”. It is interesting to read for a very basic lesson in identifying propaganda.
But this release was from the AFP, not from a state-controlled news agency. How did this sort of glowing, propagandist story get published by Agency France Presse, and more importantly why? This release makes more sense in the context of a partial return to a US-Russia Cold War paradigm. To rehash briefly:
- We saw the new Cold War start with the Russian desire to influence the outcome of the Kosovo question. They were against Kosovar independence for two reasons, one reason being strongly grounded an enduring need to resist the West and the other reason being related to slightly temporal Russian politics. The Russians had just endured the crash of the ruble, the decline and demise of their previously enormous empire and had slowly watched the West systematically subvert and slice away all of their historical geographical buffer zones as NATO expanded to include former Warsaw Pact members. Vladmir Putin had finally crushed the oligarchs in a definitive way and was in desperate need of a few issues to disagree with the West over — hopefully issues that would have something to do with Eastern Europe. The important thing was not that Russia had an acual beef with the US it was going to air in public, far from it, the real Russian problem with the US was that Russia wants control over its former empire, official or otherwise. The important thing Russia wanted to do was to be seen disagreeing with the US publicly over something, anything. Kosovar independence was that issue. The US was for independence so Russia needed to be suddenly and adamantly against it. This was a great issue because it did not really affect the balance of power in the world if Russia was ignored in the West, but Russian grumbling would definitely be heard and thought about very hard in East Europe. Russia also wanted to set an example against secessionism in principle because Russia had just dealt with the first Chechen War and was preparing for the second round.
- We saw the Cold War II scenario pick up and take a few interesting and very nostalgic turns with the attempted assassination of Yushchenko in Ukraine (when he was the leading pro-West political candidate during the Orange Revolution) and later with the successful assassination of a former KGB/FSB operative living in England. It was clear the Russians were not just making noise, they were back at their old tricks again. Not only were they up to their old tricks again, they were still quite good at them. The transition from KGB to FSB was obviously not as problematic as the western media has made it out to be and the humint and operative espionage capacity of the FSB was clearly a force to be reckoned with. These particular incidents were widely reported but received in a strangely benign way by the public with few people drawing parallels — much less accurate connections — between the two incidents.
- Another greatly overlooked but very important move occurred inspring 2008 with Bush’s state visit to Ukraine and extremely vocal support of Georgia, even going so far as to make a lot of noise about bringing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Because NATO works by consensus any member could block a move to include either one, and certainly Germany would feel different about bringing Ukraine or Georgia into NATO (a essentially anti-Russian alliance) than the US. Germany sits right next to Russia and has been invaded by them before. The military impotence of both Europe at large and Ukraine and Georgia in particular weighs heavily in the mind of the Germans. The Americans, on the other hand, feel much more confident poking Russia in the eye with such recommendations for NATO expansion. In short, for this particular reason this sort of NATO expansion is unrealistic (among other reasons: that is just Germany, many European states would vote against bringing Ukraine or Georgia into NATO, including Ukraine itself).
- Cold War II was not so cold for a brief period right after this when Russia finally decided the time was ripe to retaliate in Georgia militarily and make a violent, bloody example of them to all other former Soviet states that they had better continue to toe the line when Moscow called for them to.
- Things got increasingly interesting with the recent natural gas crisis over the winter of 2008-2009 — which is still potentially not resolved, thanks to Moscow keeping prices too high for Ukraine to realistically pay in any event and thereby keeping a hand on the natural gas politicla crisis button if they need it again…
- We saw Russian direct military and political engagement with former Soviet client states in South America during the last half of 2008 and continuing today. This deserves a whole book of its own. Messing around in the US’s backyard is relatively cheap and is just that much more irritating for the US.
- After the gas crisis achieved its aim of politically dividing Europe — Germany made a separate peace with Russia which throws another wrench in the works of European Union cohesion — we saw Russia take aim at the US directly with the Iranian nuclear issue and its link to East European anti-ballistic missile site establishment. The issue is untenable for both sides over the long term, which guarantees interesting politicking on both sides.
- And finally… the most recent issue the Russians have been using to antagonize the US with is military supply routes to Afghanistan. Thanks to Pakistani instability there is no entirely safe way to get supplies from the portin Karachi to Afghanistan any longer, because the theater of operations (at least from the enemy perspective) has now expanded to fully include every part of Pakistan now. The other routes into Afghanistan would run through Russian controlled territory (make no mistake, Russia still bosses the Central Asian states around at will), Iran (interesting possibilities here over the mid-term), or China (increasingly weird possibilities over the mid-term).
So, now that we have a basic rundown on how we got to where we are, what does it mean? It means that the Russians and Americans are playing their old media tricks again. The Russians sent a media shot at the US and Europeans with an announcement two months ago that Spain and Russia had signed a natural gas supply deal. This struck me as very out of place at the time. Actually, I wanted to write a story about it but just didn’t have the time to research it properly or any place to write from, either. Basically it amounts to Russia trying to appear to hold a stronger position than they really do. At the time the US had purposely leaked a story about a letter from Obama to Medvedev about resolving the ABM issue in the context of a broader deal to shut down Iran’s nuclear program (Russia is the primary technology and nuclear fuel supplier for Iran — if anyone holds they keys, its them). The reasoning goes that without an Iranian nuclear threat the US does not need ABM sites in Eastern Europe, so Russia could relax. Around the same time Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had made some noise about linking the Afghanistan supply route issue and the ABM sites as well (much to the irritation/shock/fear of the Poles). The Russian response to this came at the press conference that was called for the Spanish-Russian liquid natural gas deal’s announcement.
The response from Medvedev was, in short, that Russia did not see it fit to link the issues in any way and that negotiations would have to continue as before. The question came at a weird time while the other reporters were asking questions about business issues and the economic impact of the Spanish-Russian LNG deal, etc. It just didn’t fit. But from a Russian perspective it did. The LNG deal didn’t make sense to begin with because the Russians have no means to produce, package or ship LNG to Spain. At the moment Spain does not have the ability to receive and covert LNG, either. So the whole deal is a sham deal which was created to make Russia appear to be in a stronger position than it really was. The message was that even Europeans states with can’t get Russian natural gas (because of simple geography) and lining up to get it somehow because hey! Russia is great! Let’s go Russian! In that sort of a media environment it is very fitting for Russia to make a public response to a seemingly unrelated and “unofficial” American proposal. The fact that it seems to come as an off-hand comment at a seemingly unrelated event further makes the US appear to be less important in the Russian’s eyes (it puts the fundamental forces behind American and Russian relations lower in importance than Spanish-Russian phantom gas deals) than they really are and makes Russia’s goals appear more important by contrast. This was a very common tactic during the Cold War and Russia has absolutely not lost its flair or ability in this area.
So now we are back at the ridiculously happy-face Obama story from AFP. This makes perfect sense as a sort of flat response to the Russian media plays they have made lately. It is important to remember that the power of a political player is at least about half derived from how important and powerful he makes himself appear. The Russians, Iranians, Chinese, French, Germans, hell, everybody was banking on the idea that Obama would basically be a pushover. Bush’s presidency was defined by the Jihadist War. He didn’t start it, but it sure fell in his lap. He was put into a position where a “strong, decisive” leader was needed, a position where bold mistakes can merely be made up for by more boldness. He did as well as he could in that role and played an incredibly nuanced and deep game which advanced American interests in every area. Picking up such a deeply engaged and diverse game is difficult, however, and that is why Obama has elected to hire on most of Bush’s acting staff members to work in his own administration (as I have discussed elsewhere).
Part of the reason Obama was elected was that he portrayed himself domestically as a listener, a problem solver, someone who reaches out at tries to create consenses among adversaries. This message resonated very strongly with the American public at that particular time and was a wiley tactic to get into power. Now he is in the position of power he was seeking, but his campaign tactics and message made him look like a pussy by foreign political standards of today. Consensus builders do not make people like Vladmir Putin quake in their boots, but subtle threats from Bush at least made him listen and take the man seriously. Obama now must kill this image of himself as a pushover if he is to play the game of nations he signed up for. So we havea long list of somewhat ridiculous pro-Obama stories coming out of the media. It is not just a case of media bias in favor of Democratic patry members. Certainly that plays a part, but the stronger force here is Western general interest. If the Americans seem week or impotent right now the “West” in general has a lot to lose potentially. This is one of those interesting periods in history where the balance of power could — at least temorarily — shift, so everyone his holding their breath.
In politics reality is not as important as the ability to shape perceptions of reality. That is really what is going on with this story, as well as with Bush’s NATO expansion talks, Medvedev’s Spanish natural gas deals, Chinese domestic economic dialogue, American domestic economic dialogue (much humor), European domestic economic dialogue (much more humorous), and European-American international economic dialogues (downright the funniest stuff in ages). In the end, the utility of announcements and the utility, factual accuracy, or even practicality of an announcement’s underlying meaning or referenced action are two entirely different things and should be evaluated independently.
I appologize for the lack of structure in this article. I did not do any pre-writing at all because this AFP article just made struck me so funny that I felt like writing a piece on it right away.