There are plenty of reasons to worry about Russian infiltration into the West, whether it is the serial killings of Russian defectors and oligarchs in the United Kingdom or pervasive meddling in the American presidential election in 2016. Russian president Vladimir Putin continues to seek to expand his influence whenever and wherever he can. But, Cockburn wonders, does Moscow’s reach extend even into leading think tanks in Washington, DC, including the Wilson Center, which is funded by the US federal government, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Center for the National Interest?
A new study published by the Institute of Modern Russia that is called ‘Hybrid-Analytica: Pro-Kremlin Expert Propaganda in Moscow, Europe and the US: A Case Study on Think Tanks and Universities’ would have you believe that it does. The institute is headed by Pavel Khodorkovsky, the son of the exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Its new report, whose author is listed as Kateryna Smagliy, a former director of the Kennan Institute’s office in Kiev, seeks to disclose the hand of Moscow in Donald Trump’s Washington and elsewhere. But its reliance on questionable sourcing and assertions suggests that the report itself is emblematic of what it wishes to expose — partisan propaganda.
One problem with the report is simply its conspiratorial tone. Early on in the report, if that is even the proper word, comes an elaborate chart called ‘the Kremlin’s web of hybrid analytica.’ It looks like something that would have appeared in an alarmist cold war pamphlet put out by the John Birch Society rather than a chart that would appear in a publication with pretensions to scholarly standards. Everything from Oxford University to Milan University, from Kissinger Associates to the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History, is depicted as part of a wider Russian influence operation. Putin could only dream that he had as much control over foreign organisations as the study’s little chart ascribes to him.
The language of the report is seldom less than strident. It condemns the fact that western scholars attend the annual meetings of the Valdai Club, declaring that ‘their presence, listening, nodding, and silent acceptances of messages delivered by Kremlin-appointed speakers is later used to legitimise the regime and its actions.’ But the meeting provides a useful opportunity to sound out Russian officials and to pose questions to Putin himself. It is difficult to see how this can be construed as ‘silent acceptance’ of whatever party line the Kremlin is seeking to purvey.
The report also condemns the Wilson Center and its Kennan Institute for having too cozy relations with leading Russians. Specifically, it attacks the Wilson Center for what it deems turning a ‘blind eye’ to the Alfa Group’s activities and granting in November 2015 an award to one of its leaders Petr Aven. But there is no reason to think that the Wilson Center breached any ethical standards. Quite the contrary, Alfa Bank was seen internationally as a legitimate enterprise.
To be sure, Aven and his associate Mikhail Fridman played hardball in the Darwinian atmosphere of the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it also the case that, as Dexter Filkins notes in a new essay in the New Yorker, they must move very carefully in Putin’s Russia. (There is even renewed speculation, as Filkins demonstrates, that the bank may have served as a cover for secret communications with the Trump presidential campaign, possibly without the knowledge of its leadership.) The report does not capture the nuances that Filkins does: ‘Alfa Bank prospered during the Yeltsin years and has continued to do so under Putin. Though Fridman and Aven are not part of Putin’s innermost circle, they have managed to avoid the fate of some other oligarchs, who have had assets seized and, in a few cases, been imprisoned, after falling out of favour. Michael McFaul, a former US Ambassador to Russia, told me he was impressed that Fridman and Aven had “navigated the very difficult world of maintaining their private business interests and not crossing the Kremlin.”’
When it comes to the Center for the National Interest, the ‘Hybrid-Analytica’ essay also goes astray. It relies on one Andrei Piontovsky for the assertion that the head of the center, Dimitri K. Simes, ‘leads the Kremlin’s Washington-based propaganda network.’ But Piontovsky is hardly an authoritative source. For one thing, he referred sardonically, in an article about the Middle East titled ‘Crimes of the Zionists’ in June 2009 on the Russian website Grani, to President Obama as a ‘black-skinned messiah.’ He also seems to regard any outreach to Russia as ipso facto evidence of dubious motives. On June 4, 2009, for example, he declared in an op-ed in the Moscow Times, ‘The Kremlin’s achievements in securing the help of Americans willing to offer their influence are equally impressive. Indeed, US President Barack Obama’s policy on Russia is being nurtured with advice from people who have no official position in the administration but have close business ties to Russia and the Kremlin: Former US Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker, Kissinger Associates senior director Thomas Graham and Nixon Center president Dimitri Simes. They all write key reports for the administration, shuttling between Moscow and Washington, and coordinate the parameters of the Obama administration’s effort to “reset” the bilateral relationship.’ But the reset failed. So how great was their influence with Obama? Anyway, might Kissinger, Graham and others not have genuinely believed that it was in America’s interest to try and reach some modicum of understanding with Moscow? After all, Kissinger, a longstanding realist, sought to improve ties with Moscow in the 1970s during détente, long before he had established any business interests.
It is also the case that the report blandly cites Piontovsky describing Thomas Graham as ‘a former diplomat. I know the day when he was bought by the Kremlin. He did not last through the end of President Bush’s term. He was what is called a “Russian Tzar” and he left in the middle of the second term when he received an offer from Kissinger. On the day when he left, I ran into him on the Metro.’ Bought by the Kremlin? For the report to quote this with apparent endorsement about a highly respected former US diplomat is astounding.
Nor is this all. The report also suggests that Simes left Washington, DC ‘almost immediately’ after the arrest of Maria Butina, a suspected Russian agent, to launch a television show in Moscow. This appears intended to indicate that he was fleeing Washington. In fact, Simes travelled to Russia over a month after her arrest and he has since returned to Washington. What’s more, the television show he co-hosts that airs in Russia could scarcely have been created overnight. On the show Simes is often critical of Russian foreign policy and invites American guests on to the show who also criticise Moscow’s stands.
Then there is the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Once again, we are told that very bad things are happening. Using the passive voice, the report claims that ‘Carnegie’s conciliatory approach towards the Kremlin was also observed in the writings and public presentations of its leading figures in Washington,’ including vice-president Andrew Weiss. One can only wonder what measure the authors are using to determine the sufficient degree of opposition to Putin. The notion that Weiss is a patsy for the Kremlin defies credulity, as even a cursory look at his Twitter feed reveals:
First time I've seen such damning quotes from Putin-Trump phone calls that demonstrate how the Kremlin stokes Trump's paranoia about the Deep State's opposition to his agenda #ThisIsNotNormal @gregpmiller https://t.co/ImRTxjbHSG pic.twitter.com/9QH7eTL8aF
— Andrew S. Weiss (@andrewsweiss) September 19, 2018
As Putin’s poll numbers tumble in Russia and the West seeks to grapple with an increasingly belligerent Moscow, a debate over how to approach Russia is wholly appropriate. The Institute of Modern Russia says that its mission is to help construct a democratic Russia based on the rule of law. Its foolish report, however, does nothing of the kind. Instead, in attempting to quash different views about dealing with Russia, it raises profound questions about the true understanding of the contributors to the study, as well as its funders, of American democracy.