Opinia.US Truckee, CA, December 5, 2010 — A newly disclosed secret cable to the State Department in Washington shows that American diplomats in Moscow sometimes fall for Russian media disinformation and pass it on without questioning while adding their own pro-Kremlin commentary. Most diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, which have been released so far by WikiLeaks, seem, however, far more sceptical and critical of the Kremlin.
According to the text of the Poland-related cable disclosed by WikiLeaks, an unidentified U.S. diplomat in Moscow repeated Russian media reports and subsequent statements by Russian officials, which distorted comments about Russia and the Russian military made by Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski on his visit to the United States in November 2009. The Russian media reports referred to Minister Sikorski’s request for U.S. forces on the ground in Poland to “protect against Russian aggression” — a phrase he never used in his speech delivered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Unlike some of the other leaked cables from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, which show a healthy amount of scepticism on the part of U.S. diplomats about the real intentions and behavior of Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev, the cable’s author in this case repeated and did not question doubtful claims made by Russian media and government officials.
Any sophisticated journalist or diplomat, however, would have good reasons to doubt whether the Polish Foreign Minister could have made such a provocative public statement. In fact, the cable’s author mentions in passing without any comment that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the press that he did not believe that Sikorski had actually made the remarks. On the day the cable was written, Opinia.US was already reporting that comments attributed by the Russian media to Minister Sikorski were completely made-up.
Opinia.US reported in November 2009 that the Russian media used falsified quotes from Minister Sikorski’s speech in Washington, which were then repeated by irate Russian officials who attacked the Polish foreign minister for being anti-Russian. These attacks were then picked up by American and other Western media and, as we now know, by a U.S. diplomat, and broadcast to a much larger audience.
The Russian news agency responsible for releasing made-up quotes eventually apologized for its false reporting, as did the Russian Foreign Ministry, but not before negative media publicity around the world and diplomatic reports reaching Washington and possibly other world capitals.
This particular U.S. Embassy Moscow cable seems unusual, not only because it accepts at face value nearly everything that the Kremlin-controlled media and Russian officials were saying about Minister Sikorski’s non-existent comments, but also for its own unbalanced commentary reflecting the Kremlin’s position:
“Unfortunately, the Polish government had seeded some of this Russian response through their sponsorship of and statements in support of the EU’s Eastern Partnership Initiative (Ref C) [reference to a different diplomatic cable] and show of support to Georgia during the 2008 Russia-Georgia War. Further, the Polish MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] has established a Bureau of European Security, which Polish diplomats jokingly refer to as the ‘Office of Threats from the East.’”
The title of the report is also quite telling: POLISH PM SIKORSKI REOPENS OLD FIGHTS. It seems to suggest an attempt to identify Sikorski with Cold War mentality, which the Obama White House and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had criticized earlier while promoting a “reset” of relations with Russia. The author may have been trying to make herself or himself look good to her or his superiors in Washington but managed to make a mistake in the title of the cable: PM stands for Prime Minister, whereas Sikorski is Poland’s Foreign Minister. The leaked cable also includes the following final, and also unbalanced comment, suggesting that the Kremlin has every reason to be critical of Minister Sikorski while Poland has no reason to be afraid of Russia:
“Comment: The GOR [Government of Russia] will take some time to digest Sikorski’s comments, and evaluate whether or not to alter the current positive trend in bilateral relations. Russia has many levers, including delaying the approval of a pending gas deal (Ref D). Sikorski has given anti-western elements in Russia ammunition against improved Russian relations with NATO and even with the U.S.”
The cable was signed by the U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle who is an experienced career diplomat, but it does not necessarily mean that it was written or even seen by him prior to being sent to Washington, as most embassy cables are sent under the ambassador’s signature. Judging by the simplistic style and analysis, the cable’s actual author was more likely a junior diplomat, but we simply don’t know.
It could have been also a subtle and sophisticated way for a senior U.S. diplomat in Moscow who may favor the “reset” of relations and sides with the Putin/Medvedev team to get the State Department to put pressure on the Poles to soften their warnings about Russia and its military. Such a sophisticated scheme seems, however, unlikely, but the cable’s author’s use of the word “unfortunately” and a reference to Polish diplomats’ joke is a subtle way of conveying to Washington that the Russian media and Russian officials may have good reasons to be critical of Minister Sikorski’s comments and to attack Polish foreign policy.
There are two possible explanations how media disinformation originates in Russia. It could have been a mistake by a careless or overzealous Russian reporter. Another explanation points to a carefully organized disinformation campaign designed to undermine Poland’s credibility in Washington and around the world by portraying Polish officials as anti-Russian and irresponsible.
Even if the Russian Foreign Ministry has to apologize later for repeating inaccurate statements, the public relations damage is already done and can never be fully reversed. The costs to the real perpetrator are low or non-existent since the original source of disinformation will not be identified. As we now see from the leaked cable, the lie introduced into the public domain can also influence U.S. foreign policy if American diplomats fall for it, which in this case, at least one diplomat who wrote the cable and those who cleared it, apparently did.
One way Russian intelligence operatives use to pass on disinformation is to cultivate junior and less sophisticated U.S. diplomats who then report false facts and misleading claims to Washington. These operatives may pose as journalists, diplomats, academics, or other experts.
A former U.S. diplomat speculated that this method may have been used to get the Obama White House to pick the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland to announce the cancellation of the Bush missile defense system.
The historically symbolic timing of the announcement would have increased a sense of insecurity in Poland and convinced the Poles that the United States under President Obama has abandoned its ally as it did at the end of World War II under President Roosevelt. Russian diplomats, the Kremlin-controlled media, and Russian intelligence operatives in Poland could then exploit this both real and psychological Polish vulnerability to force a change in Poland’s foreign policy away from Washington and in favor of Moscow. This in fact has happened to some degree as Polish officials seem highly confused by the Obama Administration’s foreign policy and uncertain about their strategic options.
It is also doubtful that such sloppy and biased diplomatic reporting, as seen in the cable from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow about Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski, would have occurred if it were not for President Obama’s well-known preference for a “reset” in relations with Russia, which he has tried to achieve — so far without success — by depriving Poland of some of the U.S. missile defense plans and guarantees extended to Warsaw and other U.S. allies in Central Europe by the George W Bush Administration.
The author of this cable may be, however, an exception in her or his pro-Kremlin bias. Most of the other cables released so far by WikiLeaks show U.S. diplomats in Moscow pointing out, albeit in subtle ways, that President Obama’s hopes for a Russian quid pro quo in dealing with Iran, Afghanistan and other international issues are based on highly naive assumptions.
This report can be republished with attribution to Opinia.US.
Below is a copy of one of Opinia.US November 2009 reports which sets the background for this story.
Opinia.US SAN FRANCISCO — A member of the Russian parliament has criticized Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski for his comments during his visit this week to Washington, but the Polish foreign ministry has disputed the accuracy of Russian news reports quoting Sikorski’s statement. The point of dispute is whether Sikorski has publicaly asked for U.S. troops to be stationed in Poland, and what he actually said. There is little doubt that Poland wants more American soldiers on its territory as a protection against Russia. Sikorski met in Washington with Obama administration officials, but his scheduled meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was postponed when she decided to extend her diplomatic trip to the Middle East.
According to the Polish foreign ministry, the Russian news agency Interfax dispatch of November 5 2009 attributed “to the Minister comments which, in fact, he never made: ‘We would desire to secure American troops, deployed in our country as a shield against Russian aggression.’” The Polish foreign ministry said that this appears to be an intentional manipulation. “The passage at issue is in the form of a quotation, so there can be no question of it being distorted through an inaccurate interpretation or a lack of journalistic diligence. It would have been easy to check if the quoted statement had ever been made by examining a recording of the conference,” the Polish foreign ministry said.
During a panel discussion in Washington on Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Radoslaw Sikorski spoke about recent Russian large scale military exercises near Poland’s borders, which alarmed Polish officials. This is what he said in response to a question about security assurances from the Obama administration in light of the potential threat to Poland from Russia.
You can convince people by words. And we’ve just had a very good trip by the Vice President [Joe Biden]. And the words are convincing. But the point is — well, I’m a former defense minister — and what really convinces are the capabilities. And as I mentioned in my introduction, we’ve just had the largest Russian military exercise on the NATO border, on our border, in 20 years, using 900 tanks.
NATO planners used to say that God created Poland for tank warfare. And so these tanks that were exercising were 250 kilometers of flat ground from our capital city. We don’t know what kind of message the Russian Federation was trying to send to us, but you can imagine what we heard. And, as Zbig Brzezinski said — and he wasn’t the only one — what really reassured Germany, for example, during the Cold War was not Article 5 [NATO Treaty], which is in fact, you know, quite vague, but the presence of 300,000 American troops in Germany. Now, we have, I think, at the latest count, six American troops — one, two, three, four, five, six — outside the [U.S.] embassy. [Laughter] If you had, on the one hand, 900 tanks, and on the other, six troops, would you be convinced?
While the Polish foreign ministry statement focused on an apparently inaccurate quote in the Interfax news report, there is little doubt that Polish government officials would like to see more U.S. troops in Poland as an extra protection against Russia, and that this has been a subject of behind-the-scenes negotiations with Washington.
Revealing their ambition to influence and control military and foreign policy of former Warsaw Pact nations, Russian officials object to such talks between Poland the the U.S. Responding to the Interfax news report, a member of the Russian parliament said that Sikorski’s statements are “absolutely unacceptable.” Konstantin Kosachev threatened that Sikorski’s comments may lead to cooling of Russian-Polish relations.
Konstantin Kosachev, who heads the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian State Duma, was quoted by the Russia Today international television channel as saying that “Sikorski de facto calls on the US to review agreement between NATO and Russia, which provided that no large military contingent will be deployed on the territories of new NATO members.”
According to foreign minister Sikorski, there are now only six U.S. soldiers based in Poland. There is no doubt that the Polish side would like to see this number increase in light of the Russian attack on Georgia last year and the most recent Russian military maneuvers near Poland’s borders.
Polish and British media reported that Polish news magazine Wprost disclosed it has seen documents which show that troop exercises near Poland’s border in September portrayed Poland as “a potential aggressor.”
According to the Polish news magazine, 30,000 Russian troops practiced not only defensive manoeuvres but also rehearsed landings on the beaches of Kaliningrad – a Russian controlled corridor linking it with the Baltic Sea – which was used to simulate Poland’s northern coast. Russian aircraft also practiced the use of nuclear weapons in the attacks, the magazine reported, but these reports could not be independently verified.
Mainstream media in the U.S., including The Washington Post and The New York Times, have not reported on the Russian military maneuvers. The Obama administration had no reaction — something that would be almost automatic during previous administrations. There was also no report by the Voice of America English service, which also ignored Sikorski’s visit to Washington. VOA has not been broadcasting radio programs to Poland for a number of years. In fact, most of the international coverage of Sikorski’s visit to Washington came from the Russian government-funded Russia Today television channel.
During his stay in Washington, Sikorski was interviewed by Associated Press but few U.S. newspapers and other media outlets used the AP news story based on the interview. He was also interviewed by Foreign Policy magazine.
This is how foreign minister Sikorski explained his current thinking about the Obama administration missile defense plans for Central Europe and about Poland’s view of Russia.
Radoslaw Sikorski: The administration has now explained its position more thoroughly, and we are now satisfied and want to go where the U.S. is leading, toward a more adaptive and more proven system. [The new system] will take longer to construct, but will create fewer tensions in our region. I think we’re now on the same page with the U.S., and we are ready to address the details and the amendments to the agreements I signed with the previous administration.
Sikorski also responded to a question whether the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia is worthwhile?
Radoslaw Sikorski: I would only advise that the more you talk to Russia, the more you should talk to Russia’s neighbors, who sometimes feel vulnerable, particularly after what Russia did in Georgia a year ago. We would like relations between Russia and the U.S. to be better than they are. We don’t want to be a front-line state. Russia is our second largest trading partner. If there were a return to confrontation, we would be much more adversely affected than the United States. The trick is to persuade Russia that she can be a significant partner without using 19th- or 20th-century instruments that have been tried with such tragic consequences.