Had it been published a few decades ago and not Thursday, Senator John McCain’s biting response to a controversial New York Times op-ed by Russian President Vladimir Putin could have raised a ruckus.
Addressing the Russian people directly in an editorial for news site Pravda.ru, the Republican from Arizona railed against “Putin and his associates” for trampling on democracy in Russia, and took aim at what he described as Moscow’s hypocrisy as it calls for a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis.
“I am not anti-Russian. I am pro-Russian, more pro-Russian than the regime that misrules you today,” McCain wrote. “They punish dissent and imprison opponents,” he continued. “They rig your elections. They control your media. They harass, threaten, and banish organizations that defend your right to self-governance.”
Telling his Russian readers that Putin “doesn't believe in you,” McCain concludes: "He doesn't believe that human nature at liberty can rise above its weaknesses and build just, peaceful, prosperous societies. Or, at least, he doesn't believe Russians can. So he rules by using those weaknesses, by corruption, repression and violence. He rules for himself, not you.”
They were fighting words from a high-profile politician known for his harsh criticism of the longtime Russian leader.
But it’s 2013, and the outlet McCain likely thought he’d be writing for — Pravda, once the official newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party, read by elites and the proletariat faithful across 11 time zones — just isn’t what it used to be.
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That’s because there is no Pravda, at least in a Cold Warrior’s understanding of the concept.
Today, there are at least two self-described successors to the Soviet-era editorial icon.
One is Pravda, the official print newspaper of Russia’s (not ruling) Communist Party, and the other is Pravda.ru, where McCain’s article ran, an online-only outlet that lies on the margins of Russian journalism.
If McCain had intended to match Putin’s high-profile plea for peace in Syria in one of America’s finest newspapers, choosing either one was not the way to go.
Besides the fact that both are rabidly anti-Western outlets, their editorial clout in Russia’s media landscape is minimal at best. Pravda, the Communist Party paper, is a propaganda organ. Pravda.ru, while carrying analysis from patriotic political commentators, contributes little to the debate on international relations.
The rough Russian equivalent to The New York Times, if that’s what McCain had aimed for, would have likely been Vedomosti or Kommersant, two respected business dailies known for their sharp reporting and solid sources.
Even the sensational Komsomolskaya Pravda, a daily tabloid with one of the largest readerships in Russia, would have been a better choice.
To better illustrate the outlet in which McCain attempted to provoke a serious debate on Russia’s political climate, here’s the opening paragraph from a recent piece on Pravda.ru’s English-language site about Russia’s Syria policy, headlined “Russia saves the world”:
“Only recently there was little doubt that the US will strike at Syria, especially after reports on the use of chemical weapons. While the world was preparing for a war, President of Russia proposed the only right solution that helped to avert bloodshed. He proved once again that Russia is a peacemaker in the true sense of the word.”
Some Russians found McCain's choice of publication simply bizarre.
Referring to a long-defunct newspaper once the official organ of the pre-revolutionary Russian Social Democratic Labor party, an article in the Komsomolskaya Pravda poked fun at the "iron man American senator's" selection.
"He could have written it in Iskra, but he probably couldn't find it," the paper wrote.
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Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on Thursday the president hadn’t yet read McCain’s response, but that he would.
But he cautioned against expecting any sort of response.
“McCain is well-known for not being a fan of Putin,” Peskov told Russian News Service radio. “Entering into polemics is unlikely — it’s the opinion of a person who lives across the ocean.
“As for what Russians deserve, they are able to answer that question themselves, and they do just that when they go to the polls. I don’t think the opinion of anyone across the ocean will play a role in the Russian people expressing their political preferences,” he added.
Other members of Russia’s political establishment were less diplomatic.
Robert Shlegel, a parliamentary deputy from the ruling United Russia party, openly mocked the senator.
“I’m McCain. And I want to rule the world,” he tweeted. “But so far, the only thing that’s working are dumb columns.”