Senator John McCain’s rebuttal to Vladimir Putin’s New York Times op-ed article falls on deaf Russians ears.
Senator John McCain, contributor to Pravda.ru. Photo: Reuters
Senator John McCain confounded many last Thursday when he confessed to CNN’s Jake Tapper that he’d like “to have a chance to have a commentary in Pravda” in response to the most recent piece by New York Times op-ed contributor Vladimir Putin.
You could hardly believe Mr. McCain was being serious, especially because he cracked up before he even finished that phrase. A polemic in a paper like Pravda would have taken the emerging epistolary debate to a whole new level, not a very high one.
What you need to know about Pravda is that it’s in no way Russia’s New York Times – Pravda used to be the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the country’s most influential paper, but with the demise of the Soviet Union, Pravda lapsed into a rag for diehard Communists.
Still, a week after the aforementioned televised appearance Mr. McCain staggered everyone again by actually having an opinion of his published by Pravda, but not in print – for that he’d have had to meet a prerequisite stipulated by Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, which was to “reconsider his views and speak out for a peaceful settlement of the [Syrian] conflict.”
Mr. McCain’s eye-opener titled “Russians deserve better than Putin” was posted on Pravda.ru, a standalone website, which has no connection to the Soviet-era paper except for the name, which means “the truth” in Russian.
Addressing Russians through the website of the truth, Mr. McCain condemned Vladimir Putin’s regime for pretty much everything that it has been condemned for domestically and internationally over the past years, in particular punishing dissent, imprisoning opponents, rigging elections, controlling the media, harassing organizations that defend the right to self-governance, fostering rampant corruption, etc.
“I believe you deserve a government that believes in you and answers to you,” Mr. McCain wrote. “And, I long for the day when you have it.”
You can’t tell for sure where Mr. McCain was going with that sermon of his on a website where the most read articles include those with headlines like “What Americans respect Putin for” and “The West prods Ukraine into jumping from a rooftop.” You can’t tell for sure if he distinguishes between the three Russian truths. But what you do know is where Mr. McCain has landed with all that.
About one in ten comments out of some 2,700 to be found under the Russian translation of Mr. McCain’s piece could be called complimentary about him and the point he made. A large part of commentators believe that Mr. McCain has dementia, that he seeks Russia’s breakup, that America has a beam in its eye and therefore should not preach to Russia.
By the end of the day, three out of the five main articles on the main page of Pravda.ru were experts’ opinions on Mr. McCain’s opinion. Those were headlined “The senator stays in the past,” “Expert: McCain is 30-40 years late” and “Expert: A rhino has very poor eyesight, but given its mass it’s not its problem anymore.” Yes, the last one is, too, about Mr. McCain. It features comments made by Anatoly Vasserman, a star of the “Svoya Igra” (Your Game) TV show which is the Russian version of “Jeopardy,” who advises to the Kremlin.
“I think Senator McCain’s reply reflects texts written on the inside of his skull,” Mr. Vasserman told Pravda.ru. “That these points have never corresponded with anything in the real world is the problem of Senator McCain and those citizens of the United States of America who vote for him. I believe it’s very dangerous to be guided by distorted worldviews.”
“For the time being both Senator McCain and the United States of America can rely on their might, which allows for breaking through any barrier,” Mr. Vasserman added. “They say a rhino has very poor eyesight but given its mass it’s not its problem anymore.”
Other opinions were less serpentine. “McCain’s answer is trivial, banal and I’d even say not really smart,” said the head of general political science at the Higher School of Economics Leonid Polyakov. “McCain styles himself as a pro-Russian politician, because he claims to stand up for people’s interests and against a government of oppressors. It’s such a naïve structure, it borrows so much from the Cold War propaganda arsenal that it’s even hard to explain why the thinking of a senator of the United States of America is so primitive. He must take us for complete morons and believe that cheap tricks like that can change something here.”
Former rector of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry Alexander Panov believes that Mr. McCain addressed Russians because the U.S. is disgruntled with Russia’s growing authority and independence in the international arena.
McCain's column treated with a bit of irony
The state-run news agency RIA Novosti published three pieces of commentary, none of which eulogized Mr. McCain’s essay. The head of the International Affairs Committee of the lower house of parliament Alexei Pushkov called it “an unconvincing and ill-grounded justification for an orange revolution.”
“John McCain didn’t answer the important questions raised in Putin’s article, because he probably has nothing to say,” Mr. Pushkov told RIA Novosti. “Many would like to know what makes the U.S. start wars. However, John McCain doesn’t say a word about that.”
Dimitri K. Simes, the president of the Washington D.C. based Center for the National Interest, who worked with Mr. McCain, told RIA Novosti that the Pravda.ru op-ed should be treated with a bit of irony. “I know Senator McCain well and I respect him. I either say good things about people like McCain or say nothing at all. I’d rather not say anything about this article,” Mr. Simes said.
It would take you quite awhile to find a positive comment about Mr. McCain’s op-ed in the Russian media. One such media organization is Radio Liberty, which ran an interview with political analyst Yury Fedorov. “This manifesto is written better than many texts of Russian human rights activists. The McCain text outlines all of the problems faced by the Russian human rights movement and Russians in general,” he said.
However, Mr. Fedorov added, Mr. McCain’s ideas could be shared only by a small number of Russians, mostly Russian intelligentsia. “For ordinary people, concerned about material well being most of all, the value of human rights is a very ‘remote’ subject, unfortunately,” Mr. Fedorov said. “The McCain text was written by an American. He couldn’t have written it differently, because he believes in American values.”
In the English language press, McCain elicited more support than in Russia, but he was ridiculed for his choice of the messenger and rhetorical devices. “If McCain hoped that his article would make a splash in Russia comparable to the one Putin’s article made in the U.S., he must have been disappointed. Pravda.ru’s traffic was no greater than average,” Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky wrote in a piece headlined “McCain Misfires at Putin in Wrong Pravda.” “The Russian president may be an incorrigible dictator, but his publicists appear to have a better understanding of modern-day America than McCain does of Russia. Granted, it’s easier for Putin: There’s only one New York Times.”
The Washington Post’s Max Fisher said that, “If McCain meant his article as a tit-for-tat response to Putin’s column, then he may have missed the point of both the Russian leader’s op-ed and of public diplomacy in general.”
“Putin’s op-ed was an act of savvy if cynical public diplomacy,” Mr. Fisher said. “It was a big, splashy column with a relatively modest set of goals. McCain seems to have taken a very different approach. He appeared to have three goals with his op-ed, all of them pretty difficult and quite likely to backfire.”
Mr. McCain’s big mistake, in Mr. Fisher’s view, was portraying Russia as an economically weak and internationally isolated country. “Pause for a moment and imagine how you’d feel if you read an opinion column by a Russian legislator, in which he spoke directly to you and told you that your country is not very respected or successful, that it's doing poorly and destined for worse,” Mr. Fisher said.
In his view, telling Russians that “President Putin doesn’t believe in these values because he doesn’t believe in you” is a particularly tough sell to Russians, many of whom might be tempted to see an American hand in the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union, the 1998 financial crisis and the problems that have ensued.
“McCain’s big conclusion is that Putin doesn’t care about Russians or know how to solve their problems. But you know who does: Senator John McCain,” Mr. Fisher says. ““I am not anti-Russian. I am pro-Russian, more pro-Russian than the regime that misrules you today,” he writes. “Pro-tip: When you have to clarify that you don’t categorically oppose the entire nation that you’re speaking to, you’ve already lost.”