Lubyanka Square. The FSB, former KGB, of Russia. Moscow

BBG Watch Guest Commentary

As the Kremlin orders USAID to pull out of Russia, accusing the U.S. government agency of giving support to anti-Putin groups, and the Russian Parliament tentatively approves a new law expanding the definition of treason, the President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), also a U.S. government-funded operation, has announced his decision to select Masha Gessen, an anti-Putin journalist and gay rights activist, to be the new director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service.

Casting security concerns aside, Steven Korn also announced that Ms. Gessen, who reportedly has a dual Russian and U.S. citizenship, will be based in Moscow rather than at the RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, the Czech Republic. He further announced that due to a new, even more restrictive Russian media law, Radio Liberty will no longer be able to broadcast on a leased medium wave (AM) frequency in Moscow, but that the Russian authorities have allowed RFE/RL to construct a larger news facility in Moscow, which will soon be opened. Even before Ms. Gessen came on board, RFE/RL has fired a large number of its employees in Moscow who presumably will be replaced. News reports have linked her to this firing, but she denies that she played a significant part in the decision. And in a strange turn of events, President Putin reportedly met with Ms. Gessen.

BBG Watch will examine these issues in a series of commentaries to be published this week. In Part One we focused on Ms. Gessen’s reporting on her meeting with President Putin. In Part Two and Part Three, we examine security issues surrounding Mr. Korn’s decision to expand the RFE/RL Moscow bureau and to base Radio Liberty’s Russian Service director in Russia. Alleged interviews with Gessen, which appear to be fabricated by the secret security service, possibly the FSB — formerly the KGB — and designed to embarrass her in Russia and abroad — are being circulated in the blogosphere.

In later parts, we will also examine the reported management turmoil at the RFE/RL headquarters in Prague under the new management team installed by Mr. Korn and will focus on the overall strategy for Russia being implemented by Mr. Korn and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) executive team in Washington.

Read: Part One: Newly-selected director of Radio Liberty Russian Service Masha Gessen met with Putin, denies role in mass firing of RL staffers

The following analysis was written by an anonymous Russia expert who points out that the advantage belongs to President Putin, not Masha Gessen, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, or the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Part Two: Newly-selected director of Radio Liberty Russian Service Masha Gessen will be target of KGB-style pressure campaign

Remember what Churchill said about Russia and the Russians:

“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Any Russian worth his/her salt would be proud of that description.

First and foremost, Putin is a KGB veteran. He is wily. He is clever. He is intelligent. He studies and knows his adversaries on any/every level.

Do not underestimate him or those around him.

If they hold true to form, they will compromise this person in some fashion. She has any number of issues on which that can be done: she has dual citizenship, she was born into a Russian Jewish family, she has a lesbian lifestyle and advocates for lesbian rights. On any one of these subjects, they will look for opportunities to compromise her. If compromise doesn’t work, coercion is another card they can play.

Certain people have a tendency to kill journalists in Russia. Get too close to someone with powerful interests on a particular subject, the
risks get elevated.

Also, the Russian government is putting into place various laws that will enhance their control over foreign media. I don’t know what the agency’s expectations are under these circumstances. If the bureau gets into controversial subjects, someone will be calling or otherwise leave a calling card of some kind, so to speak.

Advantage: Putin.

He will play to his strengths and exploit any weakness in others. Gessen has already publicly displayed her contempt for him. She is on his radar, of that one should be certain. If she does something ill-advised, she should hope that she catches Putin on a good day and all he does is have someone put her on an airplane, deport her and void her Russian citizenship. Closing the bureau would be the cherry on top, a little bit of Russian finesse.

The agency — the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) — seems to be run by a bunch of amateurs, particularly when compared to the Russians.

Remember, Russia Today is the top video news source on YouTube. Where is the agency? Nowhere. Worse, the agency is showing a defeatist, apologist tendency in its programming.

I see no known positives now or in the foreseeable future.