Eternal negativity of the one-track mind: Think tank session on Russian response to Covid-19 exposes futility of racket
There's something incredibly fascinating about the "Centre for European Policy Analysis" (CEPA). While other firms on the think tank gravy train at least try to dress up their agenda, this one is pretty up front.
Put bluntly, CEPA is a lobby group for British and American arms manufacturers and the broader US-led military complex, with offices in Washington and Warsaw. Its mission is to whip up anti-Russian hysteria, particularly in eastern Europe, because the country's neighborhood being fearful of Moscow’s intentions is profitable for the bottom line of its financial supporters.
CEPA is funded by 'regime-change specialists' the National Endowment For Democracy, NATO, the US Department of Defence, the US State Department and other American government cutouts, who also bankroll copious other think tanks. But what makes CEPA “special” is the share of arms manufactures on its contributor list, which is far greater than comparable outfits: They include FireEye, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Bell Helicopter and BAE Systems.
The pressure group's personnel list reads like a who's who of anti-Russia activism, with the grandiose sounding 'International Advisory Council' featuring former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt and Estonia’s ex-President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who was raised in the US, and once worked for its state broadcaster, RFE/RL. Also, erstwhile US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is listed, along with the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Polish-born one time National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter, and Anne Applebaum, a long term resident of Poland. She moved upstairs from a position as a “Senior Adjunct Fellow" (these people love their fancy titles).
On Tuesday, CEPA held a "Virtual Event" about 'Russia’s COVID-19 Moment.' The panel intrigued me, because it featured a pair of correspondents for US/UK media in Russia: Joshua Yaffa of the liberal New Yorker and Natalia Vasilyeva of Britain's right wing Daily Telegraph. To be honest, I just couldn't get my head around why two journalists would want to get involved with the likes of CEPA, given they are surely aware of its raison d’être.
Yaffa recently wrote that book. The one many Anglo-American reporters in Moscow eventually can't resist writing, presumably because they see it as a route back home. These tomes are all basically the same, with nothing fresh to offer; just different ways of telling people Russia sucks, and that US/UK hacks in the Russian capital have more time than inspiration on their hands. To be fair to Yaffa, his output for the New Yorker shows that he's a far better writer than most of his peers.
The Daily Telegraph is Vasilyeva's employer. It's a rabidly pro-Brexit, and anti-liberal London newspaper which prints Chinese propaganda for money, according to a Buzzfeed report this week, yet is avowedly hostile to Russia.
The third guest was Patrick Tucker, of US outlet 'Defence One.' Given he has no track record as a Russia expert, Tucker seemed like a weird choice. However, a bit of research showed that 'Defence One' is a niche publication aimed at 'national security influentials' in the US. As these are the same folk who stump up the dosh for CEPA it made perfect sense.
The event's host was Alina Polyakova, CEPA's 'President' (see what I mean about titles?). Formerly a lobbyist at Brookings, she has also worked for Atlantic Council. A careerist in the think tank racket, she's not particularly interesting. However, Polyakova did post a factually incorrect tweet last week alleging that Russia had sent "mostly useless and malfunctioning supplies" to Italy, to help with its coronavirus crisis.
Her accusation has not been verified by any credible, on-the-record Italian source. Instead, Italy's ambassador to Moscow has made a point of saying Russia's aid was valuable.
This would give a taste of what was to come during the online debate. Which I watched, so you didn't have to. All times are US Eastern and it was conducted using Zoom, the remote conferencing service du jour.
9.31am: Polyakova kicks off the show by immediately asking whether Russia's reponse to the Covid-19 pandemic is believable. Vasilyeva praises Moscow for closing its border with China early on, but insists the Kremlin and Putin were in denial until two weeks ago about the dangers of the virus. Then again, if they were in denial, why did they shut down the frontier with China so quickly? She cites the fact Paris was pretty much in lockdown long before Moscow. But it's hardly comparing like with like. There are already over 10,000 dead in France (officially) versus just 63 in Russia (again officially).
Despite CEPA heavily promoting the event through its social media, a mere 45 people are currently watching, on Youtube. While there are more on Zoom itself, this gives an idea of how limited the think tank racket's reach is outside the circle which feeds off it.
9.39am: Yaffa makes a fair argument that human contacts between Russia and rest of Europe number far more than those with China. In response to Polyakova's hints about some sort of Soviet style 'cover up,' he insists that in 2020, it would be basically impossible to keep something like this secret, given how much Russians use social media.
There are now 49 eyes on proceedings.
9:44am: Like a dog with a bone, Polyakova isn't easily deterred from trying to get someone to say that Moscow aims to conceal evidence of wider infection numbers. Yaffa notes how countries everywhere are missing cases. He does caution about how Russia's has a history of shifting stats, but repeats that to manage it on a mass scale when so many people are paying attention is “unrealistic.” The writer tells her again that there's no evidence to suggest wards are full of coronavirus patients. Indeed, he notes how the fact half of positive cases in Moscow are under 45 suggests they are actually testing well, like Germany, and far better than Italy which only tests people when they are really sick.
9.48am: The host just won't let it go. She's still pressing about a cover up — ludicrously comparing it to Chernobyl — and now puts it to Tucker, the token defence media representative who has no obvious expertise on Russia. He references Moscow's deliveries of supplies to Italy and the US as having “large propaganda value," which is true, but then refers to the same unverified La Stampa report Polyakova used as her source. What neither of these pseudo-Sherlocks register is how come if the Italian equipment is 80% "useless," there have been no similar complaints about the Russian gear flown to New York? Now, he's on to RT. He says this network elevates "fringe voices" (which largely translates as people the US mainstream ignores because their views are 'inconvenient' to its narrative). There's then a bizarre part where he seems to suggest RT ran an article saying Covid-19 was a US-made SARS-like 'bio weapon' based on comments from Philip Giraldi, an ex CIA officer. What RT actually did was report that Hossein Salami, head of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards made this allegation, whereas Tucker makes it sound like Salami got the idea from reading RT!
RT's article didn't endorse Salami's theory, nor did it cite Giraldi (as Tucker erroneously claims, labelling it "typical RT fashion"), it merely outlined the facts of what was said by the Iranian Major General.Iran's Press TV — which has nothing to do with RT — used a statement from Giraldi in its coverage. Tucker then launches into some nonsense about 'active measures.' Yawn.
9:56am: Now Polyakova is taking questions. So perhaps the subject may move on? Sadly, no. Rather conveniently, the query is about the Russian aid to Italy. The questioner says the only quotes about how useful Moscow's dispatch to Italy actually is come from solely "anonymous sources." This is not true. Tucker answers that there is no evidence from Italy, because officials have not spoken. This is also incorrect. On March 25, the Italian Ambassador Pasquale Terracciano thanked Russia for its assistance and said the donation included about 600 medical ventilators. "It is very important that all this medical equipment includes 600 ventilators, which are critically important at this stage of the epidemic," he posted on the Italian embassy's website.
9:58am: Almost a half hour in and Polyakova has finally switched her attack. Now she wants to know about the quality of Russian coronavirus testing. Vasilyeva replies that the tests used have been approved by the World Health Organisation and that the government is now using private labs as well. CEPA's boss ventures that "people" say the year's May 9 Victory Day parade — celebrating the 75th anniversary of Soviet Russia's defeat of Nazi Germany would have been a "coronation of Putin." Now, I work on the Russia beat every day and I haven't heard anyone offer this opinion. A quick Google search finds that one person has used the phrase in media: Anton Troianovski of the New York Times (on March 28). Perhaps it's the topic around the CEPA water cooler.
10:05am: Polyakova is pressing again about a cover up on Coronavirus figures in Russia, as if the agenda wasn't clear already. It's also starting to look like most of those watching are conspiracy theorists. Yaffa again explains that while the Kremlin doesn’t know the true extent, the same applies to the White House which can't accurately state the overall numbers in the United States. He's looking rather tired of this now and repeats that if hospital beds were full, and a lot of people were dying on ventilators, it would be all over social media.
57 now watching on YouTube. Ratings going through the roof, as Donald Trump might say. What's notable is that the questions from viewers seem to be from other folk working in the think tank racket.
10:09am: A query now about the situation with coronavirus in Russia. Yaffa says 60% of Tuesday's cases were recorded outside Moscow (it's actually 40%, but his overall argument is valid). He makes the fair observation that if it gets out to more remote regions, health systems may not cope. Vasilyeva notes that the Western-leaning opposition has been calling for harsher measures from the Kremlin for the first time ever and she also opines that Putin’s 'non working holiday' message (he has so far given a sizeable amount of Russians five weeks of paid leave) wasn’t the best communication, which is fair. The Telegraph reporter rightly mentions how some people thought it was a chance to go on vacation or enjoy barbecues. However, she is being a bit Moscow-centric when she claims Putin has left announcements on lockdowns to others as "he doesn’t want to be the bearer of bad news." In reality, it’s a bit more complicated: The President runs the whole country and leaving decisions to local governors makes sense given in a place as big as Russia one size will not fit all.
10:18am: General Ben Hodges asks about the Black Sea fleet. Hodges is a former commanding general of the United States Army (in) Europe, who was a senior officer during the illegal 2003 US invasion of Iraq. In retirement, he's found a comfortable gig as a CEPA lobbyist, and it's interesting that US media outlets don't seem concerned about a recently retired ex-high ranking military official being connected to a pressure group funded by defence contractors. On CEPA's YouTube page, he hosts a bizarre featured video where he declares: "I'm retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, I believe in Florida State Football, my family and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation."
Tucker doesn't give him much of an answer but talks about whether Covid is infecting the Russian military. But what would a US-based defence hack know about it?
Now 48 watching. Tucker must have bored the other seven.
10.25 am: Next up, Polyakova wants to know about the stability of “the regime" in Russia. At this moment, it's worth mentioning the first rule of Russia punditry or journalism: If an analyst, or hack, describes the Russian government as "the regime," their output is worthless, and can be immediately discounted. Anyway, Tucker says “it’s hard to speculate” (because he hasn’t got a clue). He implies Russia puts a lower value on “human suffering” than the US (tell that to the people of Iraq, and various other places). Yaffa believes that if technocrats and regional governors handle the pandemic well, it could set a precedent and make it hard for the Kremlin to re-centralise power subsequently. Then Yaffa goes for the jugular. He tells Polyakova (who made her think tank racket name helping the Atlantic Council push its 'disinformation' agenda) that we need a "new conversation" about the theme of 'misinformation.' Yaffa points out that the US President and the Fox News network are pushing far more falsehoods than Russia: only a few months ago labelling coronavirus a "hoax."
"Who is talking about a miracle drug?" he asks. "People drank aquarium cleaner and died." Yaffa then adds that no one has died because of RT or Sputnik.
I started by wondering why two journalists would want to get involved with the likes of CEPA, and I am now watching Joshua Yaffa land knock out blows on Polyakova and the entire contemporary touchstone of the anti-Russia think tank movement. The only shame is that CEPA is so irrelevant that a mere 47 others are witnessing his tour de force on YouTube. Polyakova doesn't engage with Yaffa's argument. Instead, she concludes by mentioning how people in Russia and other post Soviet states will have an advantage in coping with the economic and logistical disadvantages of lockdown, because they are used to shortages from the 1990s and more mentally attuned to their effects. Which, in fairness, is hard to dispute. For the over 30's, at least.
With that, it's all over. If it were a boxing bout, Yaffa would have won easily, sending his opponent crashing to the canvas before the final bell. Also, that kind of excitement would probably have attracted more than 57 people viewers at the peak. However, in the vast nothingness around the think tank racket, not many can hear you scream.
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