The Russians Want to Explain

ROSTOV - Do Russia's militant declarations - some would call them bellicose - indicate that Russia, on the way to retrieving its international status and prestige, has consciously brushed aside world opinion? The answer is "undoubtedly" if one follows Russia's conduct toward the world media at the start of the war in the Caucasus. But the answer is "a total negative" if one analyzes its conduct in the past few weeks and the fact that it has gathered together several dozen senior public opinion makers here in Rostov in southern Russia.

This, more or less, was the picture during the first days of the war: Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili, could be seen time and again on the screens of television sets around the world. He went from microphone to microphone, took control of the Western media and placed in their hands the Georgian narrative of the conflict.

Even Russian viewers could not help but note how telegenic he was. But they also heard the voice-over from the Kremlin, which turned him into a crazed despot, the man who "insanely led the Caucasus astray into a worldwide crisis," which had gotten seriously out of hand.

While senior Georgian leaders, looking young and telegenic and spoke fluent English in the media, Russia disappeared completely. Only toward the end of the fighting did the Kremlin leaders reach the conclusion that the military and diplomatic war would not be complete without a fight on the world media front. Vladimir Putin's deputy and close associate, Sergei Ivanov, was dispatched to CNN to counter the claims of Saakashvili.

Did you say the Russian bear attacked a small and peace loving country? Just the opposite - the war-mongering Georgian giant was the one who brutally picked on a tiny republic (South Ossetia) that merely wants to exist and seeks self-determination.

Strong case of ambivalence

"Ambivalence" is how senior Russian affairs analysts, who have gathered in Rostov at the invitation of the Kremlin (see box), assess Moscow's conduct toward the media. While Russia employs the familiar, well-worn, Soviet-era rhetorical tactics to curry favor and stir up nationalist feelings on the home front, the battle in the Western media obliges it to deploy differently, in a more sophisticated fashion, with expertise and fluency in foreign languages.

Anyway, the Russians believe it is a lost cause. No matter what they say and how they justify their approach, the West will always oppose Russia in favor of "the American puppet, Saakashvili."

For that reason, some observers believe world opinion simply does not interest the heads of the Russian regime. The dogs of the Western media bark, however the Russian caravan moves on.

"What can the West do after all?" asks Dr. Nikolai Zlobin, a senior researcher at the World Security Institute in Washington and the director of its Russia and Eurasia Project.

"If sanctions are imposed, this will affect the West more than Russia. Should Russia be prevented from joining the World Trade Organization? Anyway, there's heavy pressure in Russia from businessmen opposed to joining the WTO and to the rules of competition that would be imposed on them.

"Force them out of the G8? The West needs Russia there more than Russia needs the West. A step like that would turn the G8 into yet another post-Cold War framework in a way that would be contrary to Western interests. And what about NATO? After all, even there, stopping cooperation with Russia would harm the West's interest in 'containing' the Russians within the alliance. The only significant step that the West can take would be to 'deal with' the sources of income of the Russian elite vis-a-vis the real estate and money that it keeps in Western banks."

Others do not believe Russia is planning to abandon the international media arena, including Prof. Ariel Cohen, who was born in the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine and immigrated to Israel.

Today he lives in the United States, where he is a senior research fellow at the prestigious Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. He wears the flags of both the U.S. and Russia in his jacket lapel.

Unlike Zlobin, Cohen believes Russians value their national image.

"It is completely clear to them that there is a connection between their image and capitalization and market capitalization. The Russians have recently lost billions of dollars, and it is important in their eyes to prevent a deterioration in their image in the world that will harm their income even further," he says.

To deal with the issue of image, Cohen adds, Russia is developing a "neo-Cold War" concept in which it is building alliances with partners it describes as "close" ideologically (such as Belarus, Armenia and Nicaragua) and "far" (such as China and Iran) and "neutral" (such as France, Italy and Germany).

Leaders on a media blitz

Anatoly Adamishin served as the last deputy to the Soviet foreign minister during the time of Eduard Shevardnadze.

Later, he was the Soviet Union's last ambassador in Rome and Russia's first ambassador to Italy. In Adamishin's opinion, for most Russians, the issue of image is non-existent.

"They think all the people in the West are Russophobes, and there's no point to investing in information," he says.

But, he adds that "the intelligentsia and the decision-makers have a different point of view. They understand, and more, the importance of Russia's international image. That is why they set up state-run TV channels in English and Arabic, and also why they set up the Valdai Forum" (a series of meetings organized by the Kremlin to woo Western pundits).

Indeed, the fact is that ultimately the Russian leaders were sent to carry out a media blitz that included not only CNN but also Al Jazeera, the BBC, the French TFI channel and the state English-language channel, Russia Today.

The president, Dmitri Medvedev, even sent a detail-rich article to The Financial Times, explaining Russia's motives in recognizing the independence of the rebel provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Another fact: For years now, the giant New York advertising and marketing firm Omnicom has been operating in the Kremlin.

Do the Russians not care a hoot about the world? They don't, according to some of the experts here. Do they try to sway it? Yes, according to the other version.

"If at the beginning of the fighting in the Caucasus, the Georgians were better prepared from the media point of view," they say, "this just goes to prove our point that they were the provocateurs who started the war."