A daily bulletin of news & opinion

12 November 2009

Once a month, readers of The Washington Post who make it past the stock news and television listings are rewarded with Russia Now, a surprisingly sleek six-page section whose last issue included a report on the fight over a Gazprom tower in St Petersburg, a Q&A with rifle inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov and a stuffed-cabbage recipe. Russia Now is published by Rossiskaya Gazeta, the daily organ created by the young Russian Federation in 1990 as a post-Soviet successor to Pravda and Izvestia. Its American edition demonstrates that Moscow’s propagandists have learned at least two things from glasnost: the value of a good features desk and the possibility of having their agitprop literally hand-delivered to the White House.

In the two decades since the Berlin Wall fell, relations between the US and Russia are starting to, finally, look normal. Americans are governed by their first president to have begun his political career after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Barack Obama graduated from law school that year, and approaches Cold War politics bloodlessly. As one of his first foreign-policy actions, Obama quietly loosened the longstanding American embargo against Cuban travel and trade. He showed no interest in renewing the Central American power game after a summertime coup in Honduras unseated the country’s leftist leader.

With Russia, Obama has little use for the Soviet-era nostalgia exhibited by those such as John McCain, who can never mention Vladimir Putin without reference to his KGB years and celebrated this week’s anniversary by feistily reminding a group of students that as “Russia has reverted to authoritarianism at home, it has also become more aggressive abroad.” Obama, however, also seems to lack his predecessors’ desperate need to establish their post-cold war credentials by personally charming their Russian peers.

Obama and his equal, Dmitry Medvedev are intellectual forty-something lawyers who demonstrated few signs of warmth when they first met in April. They are unlikely to share the “Ol’ Boris” – “my friend Bill” rapport that Clinton nurtured with Yeltsin, or the spiritual kinship that led George W. Bush to claim a “sense of [Putin's] soul”. Instead, Obama and Medvedev pledged a “fresh start” between their countries, and seem to be delivering in the form of frank realpolitik.

This autumn, Obama dropped Bush’s plans for an Eastern European missile shield, antagonising US allies in Poland and the Czech Republic but impressing Medvedev. A week later, he rewarded Obama with Russia’s backing for the American strategy for containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Amid such emotional détente, Russia – while not bashful about its expansionist interests elsewhere – seems eager not to alienate Americans. Lukoil petrol stations run along the East Coast, but the company’s red-and-white logo does not provoke the political outrage of Venezuelan-owned Citgo’s orange triangle. (Sponsoring popular sports teams may help: in Philadelphia, Lukoil’s best market, the company has backed every professional franchise.)

Moscow’s propaganda push comes via a Washington PR firm, Ketchum, which has earned millions leading trans-Atlantic press junkets, hosting an elite discussion club, and pushing Putin (successfully) for Time‘s 2007 “person of the year”. Most days, Russia looks more like a banal empire than an evil one.


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