This morning’s BBG Watch headline, “Voice of America gives Kerry 69 words on Ukraine and Russia, Voice of Russia 144 and separate report, Al Jazeera 254 words,” tells it all: Voice of America is incapable of reporting news under its congressional Charter.
VOA did not have a correspondent at the White House when President Obama made a statement Friday on Ukraine and Russia and when he spoke by phone on Saturday with President Putin. BBC and Deutsche Welle immediately posted video of President Obama’s Friday statement; Voice of America did not. For many hours, VOA did not have a separate news report on the presidential statement.
President Obama’s Saturday phone call with Putin also did not get a separate news report from VOA for hours, and never made to the VOA English news homepage. VOA also did not report on Secretary Kerry’s Saturday statement on Ukraine until Sunday morning. There were no references to the U.S. President or Secretary of State on the main VOA news homepage on Saturday as a major geopolitical crisis was unfolding. Imagine that. RT and Voice of Russia had dozens of new reports and commentaries on their home pages on Saturday, almost all them dealing with Ukraine and justifying the Russia aggression. It took VOA most of the day to produce barely a few short reports.
Including otherwise good news reports on Ukraine and Russia from RFE/RL on VOA websites does not help VOA and U.S. taxpayers who pay for VOA’s international media outreach because RFE/RL does not specialize in U.S. news and in reporting on U.S. foreign policy.
The Federalist explains how Voice of America got where it is now.
International Broadcasting Bureau – Vigorously Branding Dysfunctional and Defunct – Information War Lost: The Russian Front: The Crimean Offensive 2014
By The Federalist
Okay. Show of hands. Where did “The Charge of the Light Brigade” take place?
Answer: The plain before the Russian defenses on the Balaclava Heights in the siege of Sevastopol (the spelling Sebastopol was formerly used) during the Crimean War.
For hundreds of years and longer the Crimea has been an integral part of Russian and Ukrainian history.
Sevastopol is home to the Russian Federation’s Black Sea Fleet. It is also a home port to the Ukrainian Navy. The Russians have a lease agreement with Ukraine on their base through 2042.
Strategically, the Russians need warm water, deep sea access for its naval forces. That means the Black Sea Fleet and by extension, the Russian Fifth Eskadra, their Mediterranean Sea deployment. Passage must be negotiated through the Bosporus Straits and the Dardanelles, controlled by Turkey under international agreements guaranteeing free passage.
In so many words, this is a dicey piece of strategic real estate which everyone in the region takes seriously.
No one should be surprised by the Russian military deployment into the Crimea in these early days of March 2014. But then, you have to know Russian history and the Russian psyche. You particularly have to understand and anticipate the actions of Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation.
Mr. Putin is a no-nonsense kind of guy. Every move is calculated as if he is focusing on a chess board, facing off against an opponent.
One can draw a reasonable conclusion that Mr. Putin is not easily intimidated. This particularly applies to one adversary in particular:
Barack Obama, President of the United States.
Let’s put it bluntly: Mr. Putin has Mr. Obama’s number.
These two individuals don’t have much in the way of what you would call a “community of interests.”
Mr. Putin perceives Mr. Obama as weak. And it is this perception, fed largely by the actions of Mr. Obama and his administration, that figures into Mr. Putin’s risk calculus. He most certainly knows that the United States is not about to take demonstrative military action in the current situation. Mr. Putin most certainly knows it would be ludicrous to seriously contemplate such an action at this stage of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Mr. Obama has made some vague declaration that there would be “consequences” for Russian military action in Ukraine. That didn’t stop Mr. Putin and thus puts the onus on Mr. Obama to deliver said “consequences.”
At the end of the day, perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a negotiated settlement between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. An armed confrontation would go badly for Ukraine: it has less than a projected 200-thousand men at arms to square off against the Russian military juggernaut.
And we are mystified by Western media descriptions of “unidentified gunmen” in the Crimea.
Ladies and Gentlemen, those are Russian troops. Period. They are arriving in military convoys and adopting defensive formations when they disembark.
This is kind of reminiscent of that odious term, “Arab Spring.”
Make no mistake about it, the status quo has changed.
We don’t have to go all the way back to the Crimean War or longer to understand the Russian approach to statecraft in support of its national interests. Let’s take a short trip back to the first decade of the 21st century to the year 2008:
- 2008 was the year the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) as part of its “strategic plan” terminated Voice of America (VOA) Russian Service direct radio and television broadcasts to Russia. Russian audiences of any consequence essentially evaporated.
- With the VOA Russian Service disposed of, the Russian government invaded the Republic of Georgia and two disputed provinces in late summer 2008.
- In 2012-2013 the next chapter in this story unfolded with the IBB decimation of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Russian Service. Only a monumental effort led largely by former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member Ambassador Victor Ashe and other external elements intervened to salvage the service.
- And let’s not forget there was supposed to be a “Russia Review” conducted by then-IBB deputy executive director Jeffrey Trimble. It didn’t happen and is not likely to happen. Current BBG members need to know why.
These may appear to be minor incidents to what is currently being played out in the Crimea. But that only applies if your thinking is non-Russian.
As far as the Russians go, it’s all movement on the chessboard. In the case of the IBB, effectively taking its overseas broadcasts to Russia out of the equation and rendering the agency effectively neutralized as far as its VOA component is concerned plays right into larger Russian priorities.
Let us also note that the VOA Russian Service has become dubious for other reasons:
- It reported a fake interview with a leading Russian dissident.
- It claimed to break exclusive news in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013 which essentially was a forgettable interview (contrast this one, lone interview with extensive reporting by the Boston Globe some of which was segmented in broadcast interviews by WGBH in Boston and heard on Public Radio International’s “The World” radio program).
- The VOA Russian Service erroneously translated portions of the biography “Duty” by former US secretary of defense Robert Gates, seriously changing the meaning of important passages in the book pertaining to Eastern Europe.
Last But Not Least
The editors of BBG Watch have been meticulously documenting the disintegration of timely reporting of breaking news by the VOA, particularly as applies to its English news broadcasts and more chronically, its English-language website.
More than that, in what is likely to be a defining moment in the Obama legacy, while events in the Ukraine have been unfolding, the agency has had to scramble in its staffing of key posts around Washington, DC.
Sonja Pace, head of the VOA Newsroom has retired.
Dan Robinson, senior VOA White House correspondent, retired on Friday, February 28. Sources report that the agency is migrating the agency Pentagon correspondent to the White House. This essentially leaves one important post uncovered or jerry-rigged for coverage.
Staffing and resourcing during crisis events in the VOA Central Newsroom is described by sources as “bare bones.”
Among those analyzing the agency’s performance under VOA director David Ensor and VOA executive editor Steve Redisch has now come the phrase:
Voice of America: Overtaken By Events.
The United States has surrendered the initiative to the Russians time and again, failing to understand Russian national interests and seize upon events.
At the same time, thanks to the dysfunctional and defunct strategic plan adopted by the IBB – which it continues to pursue to this day – the agency has surrendered the initiative to other international broadcasters in providing timely and accurate news and information to global publics.
And it gets worse:
Not only have the Russians learned to mold their strategic thinking based on lack of effective action by the United States. Other adversaries are likely to be studying the Russian model as well, or at least are molding their own strategic calculations. They may well develop the strategic interpretation:
“Leading from behind” is synonymous with turn and run.