The drumbeat has been relatively low key, but remarkably steady: ever since the rise of Vladimir Putin, a constant stream of stories in the mainstream media emphasizing his KGB background, his “strongman” persona, and his stern visage have built up an image of Russia resurgent and revanchist, roiling with rampant nationalism and bitterly resentful of the West. Putin’s serio-comic meeting with Fidel Castro in Havana was like the revival of some much-beloved Broadway play, with new actors playing familiar roles and even featuring one of the original stars. “Cold War II” it’s obviously a musical comedy. With lyrics by Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz, and Condolezza Rice, and background music composed by their obliging servants in the Fourth Estate, it’s bound to be a hit in Washington, where the national security apparatus built up during the original cold war is withering for want of a mission. But will it play in Peoria?
The quality of the background music is the key factor in answering that question. For this sets the public mood, or at least aspires to: the music is the first thing a theatergoer experiences, and it literally establishes a tone that can make or break a production. The mainstream media, in wartime, is like an orchestra: there may be a few dissonant notes here and there, but in the main the body acts in unison, obeying the commands of its invisible conductor. This same analogy is operative during the prelude to a war, albeit far more subtly. Without melodrama, but with remarkable persistence, the American public is being fed the story that fascism, or neo-communism, or some unpleasant combination of the two, is on the rise in Russia. For example, the headline on a recent Agence France Presse story warns us “Russian Press Freedom Still Under Attack.” The writer reports the solemn deliberations of the Council of Europe, which recently announced that “attacks on the freedom of the press in Russia are still common with intimidation, threats and harassment being par for the course for some Russian journalists.” Alexei Simonov, who bills himself as the president of something called the Foundation for the Defense of Glasnost, told the assembled delegates that “in the year 2000, 15 journalists were killed and 73 were subjected to attacks.”
THAT NAME RINGS A BELL
In a country where gangsters and not just the government types run rampant, this is hardly surprising. Putin came to power, after all, on the strength of his promise to restore the rule of law. Simonov was shocked shocked! that Russian authorities, like all governments everywhere, “want to hide, to cover up certain things. They don’t want the media to enlighten the public on mistakes made by powers,” he burbled. Apparently this Russian “journalist” has never even heard of an American government official that tried to “cover up certain things.” I’d like to ask Mr. Simonov: Does the name Bill Clinton ring a bell? How about Richard Nixon? And those are only two of the most obvious examples. Here’s another:
THE BIG BREACH
It seems that the “rogue” British intelligence agent, Richard Tomlinson, had to go to Russia to have his book, The Big Breach: From Top Secret to Maximum Security, published, where a first edition of 10,000 was printed by Narodny Variant (Popular Option). The London Times [January 14, 2001] published an excerpt, detailing the illegal and immoral activities of M16, the British spy agency, in routinely harassing and squelching its critics: when Tomlinson contracted with a British publisher to bring out the book, Blair’s cops raided the office and carted off the manuscript. More extracts were subsequently published in defiance of a government injunction, which forbids the publication of “official secrets,” with the paper arguing that the government’s action was moot since the material is already available elsewhere. A British judge ruled in favor of the Times, and a panel of judges put off an appeal until after publication, but the point is that if the Blairites failed in their attack on Britain’s free press, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Yet we don’t hear anything about the ominous rise of Tony Blair’s authoritarian tendencies; Putin is regularly likened to Stalin and the Russian czars, yet nowhere is the resemblance between Cromwell and Blair noted.
UNCLE SAM’S “JOURNALIST”
The Council of Europe was also addressed by Andrei Babitsky, whom the AFP story describes as “a Russian journalist.” The truth is that Babitsky is an employee of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), an agency of the US government. He has taken up the cause of the Chechen terrorists who plague Russia’s southeastern border, kidnapping, pillaging, raping, and murdering in the name of Allah and “independence,” and his arrest in January of last year provoked an international uproar. It seems that Mr. Babitsky was in the country on a forged passport: a charge he does not deny, but insists that the Kremlin had it in for him on account of his critical reporting on the Chechen war. Can you imagine if Babitsky was an actual journalist, instead of a US government employee, reporting the US “war on terrorism” behind the lines with Osama bin Laden’s group and championing his cause? He’d have been arrested so fast his head would spin and not for having a forged passport.
“The pressure hasn’t eased off,” whined Babitsky to the conference. “It has continued for the media who tried to attract public attention to the death of civilians” during the Chechen civil war. Since his buddies in the Chechen gangs are the major cause of civilian deaths in the region and, some claim, in the recent bombings carried out in major Russian cities Babitsky and his bosses in the US Department of State are in no position to criticize the Russians, whose depredations in Chechnya hardly measure up to the proportions of the genocide inflicted by the US on 1.3 million Iraqis.
I HATE THE NEW YORK POST
A recent editorial in the New York Post [January 21, 2001] disdainfully dismissed the possibility that “depleted” uranium is any more harmful than, say, a lung-full of New York City air. We are suffering, they opined, from a “war disease syndrome” that is “dulling the shine of America’s victory over Iraq. ” That this “shine” may be due to radioactivity is not a proposition the Post is willing to admit. Ever since Vietnam, the Post avers, this “syndrome” has cropped up persistently, in spite of the government’s calm assurances that the numerous symptoms are “psychosomatic”: Gulf War Syndrome, according to the Post editorialist, was “vague” and unproved, and the same goes for the depleted uranium scare in its “Balkan Syndrome” incarnation:
“Again, the claim seems preposterous. The uranium, after all, is called “depleted” because the most radioactive elements have been removed. The remainder emits such small amounts of radiation that it takes 4.5 billion years for just half of it to decay. And scientists across the board say that it’s hard for the stuff to penetrate the skin and that even if it does, it’s not likely to get to the bone marrow, and so cause leukemia. Indeed, depleted uranium doesn’t seem to have much of an adverse health effect at all. “
HOW ABOUT IT, RUPERT?
There is only one way to test out the Post‘s hypothesis that depleted uranium is no big deal. Why not install a big vat of it smack dab in the center of the Post‘s editorial office as close to the editor’s desk as possible? Perhaps we could sprinkle some in the coffee-maker, and periodically shower a fine dust through the air vents, just to make sure the staff feels the full effect if any. Indeed, perhaps the owner of the Post, Rupert Murdoch himself, might want to take up the challenge and defend the editorial honor of that pitiful rag that litters the streets of New York and lines its cat-boxes with fatuous headlines and forgettable prose. A spoonful of depleted uranium with his evening cocktail should do.
Behind the propaganda campaign to demonize Putin is an orchestrated effort to portray Russia as a dangerous adversary intent on pursuing an openly revanchist and aggressive policy. A new arms race, the “Star Wars” boondoggle for the armaments industry, and increased US and European intervention in the Caucasus and Central Asia all this will be justified in the name of stopping Russian “expansionism.” But the idea that Russia poses a threat to the security of the United States or its legitimate interests is not one that any serious observer of the Russian condition can credit. Far from being on an expansionist course, Russia seems to be imploding literally. A recent article by Murray Feshbach in the Wilson Quarterly points out that Russians are dying faster than they are being born, and that the fate of those who manage to survive is extremely uncertain: AIDS, syphilis, hepatitis C and other medico-social scourges are pandemic, and an estimated 20 million are alcoholics. The Russian health system is buckling under the strain, and, by 2050, the population will have shrunk by fully one third.
THE ENEMY AT THE GATE
Strangely, Feshbach’s conclusion is completely counterintuitive. He says that Russia’s radical population decline “raises the twin prospects of political disintegration and subsequent consolidation under an authoritarian leader hostile to Western interests.” But even if an authoritarian leader should take power in the Kremlin, he would still preside over a Russia shrunken and prostrate: how a state could be undergoing “political disintegration” and still pose a threat to its neighbors, let alone the US, is a question that Feshbach does not answer: nor does Arnold Beichman, writing about the piece in the Washington Times. The military rationale behind the formation of NATO was the presence of a vast Eurasian horde that would engulf Western Europe on the Kremlin’s command. Now the Red horde has disappeared, but in the West NATO’s hordes are gathering at the Polish border, and spilling over into the Baltics, almost within sight of Moscow. Of course it is purely a coincidence that Putin, once depicted in the West as Russia’s savior, and the legitimate heir of the US-backed Boris Yeltsin, is now characterized as a tyrannical Czar, a kind of Peter the Great with a cell phone.
The theater darkens, and the first strains of the orchestra are heard. Softly, lightly, at first. Then the prelude rises out over the audience, and the music grows louder, as the curtain rises over the second act of the Cold War Follies.