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Remnick On NBC News: We Ignore Russia At Our Peril

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Last night's "NBC Nightly News" had a rare treat: New Yorker editor David Remnick, seldom espied anywhere on the tube other than on Charlie Rose, let alone playing pundit. On nights like last night, however, Remnick is called upon to discuss an area of his particular expertise: Russia, which he knows well after having been the Washington Post's Moscow correspondent and won a Pulitzer Prize for his subsequent book, Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire.

The segment was about chess master Gary Kasparov, Russian opposition leader who was imprisoned this weekend after a demonstration in Moscow, and Remnick had some very interesting things to say about Kasparov's power (not political, but intellectual, with the scary power to spread ideas), how he might threaten Putin (see aforementioned spread of ideas), and what Putin Russia was like (as it turns out, not so big on the spread of ideas). However, the REALLY interesting stuff wasn't on the broadcast, but the extended web version, teased by Brian Williams at the end of the segment. That was the stuff about how we ignore Russia at our peril. Maybe a bit ironic that it was the extra stuff tacked online, but we'll get to that.

First, Kasparov. Here's how Remnick neatly summed it up in a last month's New Yorker:

As the most conspicuous leader of Drugaya Rossiya (the Other Russia), an umbrella group of liberals, neo-Bolsheviks, and just about anyone else wishing to speak ill of Vladimir Putin, he is in nominal charge of opposition politics in a country that, in actuality, has no real politics except for that which takes place in the narrow and inscrutable space between the ears of its President.

Okay, so — that's how Putin is Kasparov's problem (Remnick elaborates in full on the Nightly clip here. Makes Deep Blue seem like a cakewalk). After framing Putin's opposition to, well, opposition and how he's managed to entrench himself against challengers, the segment ended with Williams promising "much more of our conversation" with Remnick on the web — and wow he wasn't kidding!

The good stuff starts at 1:49 — and it's no wonder they didn't put this on the news! Here's a representative sampling: "As Americans, as part of what's seen as Bush's America, we are not going to be very effective advocates, certainly not in Russia, in an era of declining American moral authority, which is one of the most unfortunate consequences of the Bush presidency." YIKES. Can you IMAGINE that going on the air? Good Lord, BriWi had difficulty even alluding to Trent Lott getting in "trouble" about "some remarks" about Strom Thurmond once upon a time (Oh, you mean when he lamented that Thurmond hadn't won the presidency on a segregationist platform? Oh, those remarks!) Remnick's succinct, brilliantly simple yet detailed explanation of Russia's critical importance felt like an indictment of the Bush administration, which, in addition to eroding U.S. moral authority also happened to ignore the fact that Putin's Russia has nuclear weapons, borders on Iran and is run by an autocratic, power-driven leader whose soul may not have turned out to be so easily assessed.

Remnick's stuff on this point was so good I transcribed it in full, but before that a quick counter to the argument that, sure it wasn't on the air but online is just as good: On air, the segment was seen by around 9 million people; online, total views for the Remnick web-only are at 797. Hopefully, now that ETP has transcribed it, we can get that number up to 800!

What's very important to understand, is: Not only does Russia have going for it an oil price nearing $100 a barrel and the high price of natural gas, it also has going for it the horrible decline of U.S. moral authority, that the price of this presidency, for all its errors, moral and otherwise, has been that the United States does not have the moral authority in a kind of worldwide discussion. So it is extremely easy and effective for Vladimir Putin to say, "Look, United States, don't lecture me on democracy — look at Abu Ghraib, look at Guantanamo, look at many other things" — and he can say that, by the way, with great effectiveness.

One of Putin's great tools as a leader — and he's extremely effective at what he's doing — is a sense of mystery. We're now in late November. and we still don't know anything about the shape of the ballot for December parliamentary elections, and we have no idea if anybody will be on the ballot against a either Putin or a Putin-handpicked candidate come March. Just have no idea. Imagine that. I mean, we've been talking about the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary for half of our adult lives. They have no idea. These aren't elections and they don't bear close inspection — whether there are monitors or no monitors — they don't bear close inspection as democratic elections. But again: As Americans, as part of what's seen as Bush's America, we are not going to be very effective advocates, certainly not in Russia, in an era of declining American moral authority, which is one of the most unfortunate consequences of the Bush presidency.

We should pay attention to what's going on in Russia for any number of reasons. First of all it's a gigantic country, with a gigantic land mass, with nuclear weapons, with enormous economic resources, its importance in geopolitical terms is fantastic — it borders on Iran and Central Asia, it borders Europe — it couldn't be more important. But our eye has been off the ball essentially for quite a long time (a) because the Cold War ended and (b) because we've been so obsessed, for obvious reasons, on South Asia and the Middle East .

It would be foolish to predict the future - I couldn't tell you and nobody could tell if he's going to remain president somehow, by constitutional means or extraconstitutional means, or whether he'll be Prime minister or whether he'll be a kind of puppeteer of Russian politics. What is certain is he will remain an extremely important figure, maybe even a singulary powerful figure, it just remains what are the means of doing that. And whether he's figured that out or not, he hasn't quite announced.

Oh right, one more irony: NBC News closed its Moscow bureau last year. ABC's was already closed; CBS has one, and hopefully they're not rushin' to close it. Not nyet, anyway. Yikes, sorry if my puns are making you Illyich! What can I say, Ivana make you laugh. Okay I'll stop now. Dos vadanya.

Update: Based on a few comments I've received, I should clarify: As mentioned, the segment was on Kasparov and how he might threaten Putin, not on Putin and how he might threaten the U.S., so it makes sense that Remnick's additional comments might not otherwise make it into a segment in a 22-minute broadcast.

Video: Remnick on Russian Politics [NBC]

Related:
The Tsar's Opponent: Garry Kasparov takes aim at the power of Vladimir Putin [New Yorker]