- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He has studied at the American University of Beirut and graduated in 2010 with degrees in English and International Relations from the University of California, Davis. Before coming to FP, his work appeared in the Atlantic and the National Interest, among other publications.
President Vladimir Putin’s direct appeal to the American people in the pages of the New York Times is just one part of his government’s messaging strategy on Syria. Russia’s English-language media outlets are busy blasting out the Kremlin line on the conflict as well.
A few articles have focused on the American reaction to Putin’s editorial on Thursday (see, for example, "White House Pokes Russia over Putin’s Syria Op-Ed"), but many outlets have drawn attention to other criticisms of President Obama’s stance on Syria. RT, the flashy Kremlin-financed news channel, is covering a range of critiques — from former President Jimmy Carter to Madonna. The Russian media has also tried to gauge the American mood through polling: RT notes that a recent survey by the libertarian magazine Reason found that two-thirds of Americans feel that Obama’s handling of foreign policy has been as bad or worse than President George W. Bush’s. But that doesn’t mean Americans are thrilled with the Russian disarmament plan; the state-owned RIA Novosti pointed to a Pew poll showing that the majority of Americans distrust Russia.
The Russian press is most interested in discrediting the story that the Assad regime used chemical weapons — an allegation that has been supported by evidence collected by the Obama administration, the French government, the United Nations, and Human Rights Watch, among others. These efforts to present a counternarrative — in which the rebels gassed themselves and civilians — range from the credible but circumstantial to the just plain silly. On the more intriguing side, there’s the account given by two kidnapped Europeans, who traveled to Syria as supporters of the rebels but wound up being held hostage until last week. They claim to have overheard a conversation with a rebel commander suggesting that the rebels were involved in the attack, but have not discussed details of what they heard. Less compelling is the idle speculation of Ray McGovern — a former CIA analyst, 9/11 conspiracy theorist, and RT favorite, that the CIA fabricated evidence implicating the Assad regime in the chemical weapons attacks, and the video analysis of a Syrian nun. Across the Russian media, there’s consensus on at least one thing: the rebels are "terrorists."
In addition to trying to discredit accusations that Assad used chemical weapons, the Russian press is going after the messenger: Obama. A piece by Pravda columnist Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey, who coined the term "FUKUS" for the alliance that intervened in Libya, asks if Obama is "the worst president in the history of the USA." Another Pravda piece branded Obama as "blood-hungry." The state-run Voice of Russia proposed Obama’s Nobel peace prize be transferred to Putin.
Then, there’s the downright paranoid. An editorial in RT muses that Assad’s comment that the United States should "expect everything" in retaliation for a military strike makes it more likely — not less — that the United States will strike Syria, regardless of chemical weapons use and punitive measures. But nothing surpasses the Cold War mentality espoused by Gennady Zyuganov, chairman of the Communist Party’s central committee, who told Pravda:
Now we can and we must protect. We must help, support and protect Syria; we must constantly keep it in mind that we will be next after Syria. It may be too bold a statement, but not that long ago, we could not even imagine that NATO would be the master in the Baltic, that SS legionaries would march on the streets of Riga. Nobody thought that there would be such a mess in Central Asia, and no one thought that in North Africa, where Egypt was the leader, all would turn into a bloody drama. Today it has become a reality.
Thankfully, not all of the Russian media is trapped in 1980. At least RIA Novosti and the Moscow Times, which is often more critical of the Kremlin, took a hard look at the realpolitik of U.S.-Russian sparring over Syria. Russia isn’t all that invested in whether or not the United States attacks the Assad regime, argues a RIA Novosti piece, but with no real consequences if its confrontation with Washington fails, it’s too good an opportunity for Washington to pass up. The Moscow Times framed the situation differently: Putin is laying a "trap" (or maybe three traps) for Obama. And regardless of whether or not the U.S. strikes occur, the real hazard is U.S. "mission creep."
If that argument sound familiar, it’s probably not because you read it in RIA Novosti. The New York Times made the same point last week.
Correction: This post originally referred to two Danish documentarians who were kidnapped in Syria. The hostages were in fact from Belgium and Italy.