A View from Moscow: Russian Liberal Paper Praises Center Initiative
Nezavisimaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper in Russia with pro-Western leanings, has published a glowing review of Bolshaya Igra (The Great Game), one of the Center for the National Interest’s most important Russia-related initiatives, co-hosted by Dimitri Simes, the Center’s president and CEO. Here’s a link to the article along with an English-language translation:
Political chat-shows are currently a core component of the federal TV channels’ output. Against this backdrop, the First channel raised eyebrows by launching a qualitatively new political show, ‘Bolshaya igra’ (The Great Game), which challenges the method of debate currently dominating our screens. The program is designed for a TV audience that has grown tired of the ‘circus’ of endless political jousting. The First channel has captured the mood of viewers who want to see an intellectual debate, rather than witness the same old bickering between experts and presenters whose expertise is self-proclaimed. It would appear that this target audience is the one that is most involved in political life. In other words, the First channel has made a program whose viewers include some of the people actually taking serious political decisions.
A whole new language
The presenters and guests on ‘The Great Game’ talk about high-level politics and international problems, breaking stereotypes at every turn. The show features a serious and, oftentimes, ferocious dialog between two presenters, each with a radically different viewpoint, two different views: one from Moscow and one from Washington. But ‘The Great Game’ is a forum for discussion, not for a pitched battle where anything goes. Here, it is the opinions that clash with one another, rather than two hostile sides. The participants try to bring us around to their view, rather than seeking to unmask or, worse, humiliate one another.
During the broadcasts one often encounters things that seem paradoxical for television in this country: the Russian officials occasionally agree with the opinions of the American presenter, while the renowned American experts sometimes shares the stance taken by the Kremlin. For example, when Dimitri Simes expressed the view that Petro Poroshenko had exploited the act of provocation in the Kerch Strait to cause significant damage to Russo-American relations, his words were backed up by the Russian president’s press-secretary, Dmitry Peskov; similarly, when Vyacheslav Nikonov said that the nuclear weapons monitoring program needed to be maintained, despite the Trump administration’s position on the matter, his opinion was supported by Richard Burt, who was the head of the USA’s delegation at the START-1 talks in 1991. The presenters themselves regularly take each to task, meanwhile, such as on the occasion when they had to clarify the differences between the concepts of ‘truth’ and ‘expediency’ in relation to Moscow and Washington.
Consequently, viewers are treated to an intellectual confrontation that reaches its climax at the end of the show.
Partners and rivals
The presenters themselves serve as a challenge to the customary stereotypes. They are not moderators, nor are they mere presenters: to a certain extent, they are participants in the great game. On the one hand, there’s Vyacheslav Nikonov – part of a political dynasty (his grandfather was none other than Vyacheslav Molotov, chairman of the Soviet of People’s Commissars of the USSR, and Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union), chairman of the State Duma’s committee for education and science, a member of the presidium of Edinaya Rossiya‘s general council, dean of the state governance department at Moscow University, and the author of more than 1100 publications, including 24 books. Nikonov is well-known in Russia not only as an influential politician and media personality, but also as a highly-qualified expert. This is what makes him so effective as a TV presenter. Nikonov is able to discuss the issues of the day knowing whereof he speaks, on an equal footing with his American counterparts.
On the other hand, there is Dimitri Simes, an American political scientist, and former adviser to Richard Nixon during Nixon’s final years. In Washington, Simes is the director of the Center for the National Interest, created under the Nixon administration, and is the editor of the illustrious journal National Interest. In 2016, at an event organized by the Center for the National Interest at the Mayflower hotel in Washington, the then-candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump, made his first speech on foreign policy. Among those present that day were many representatives of the political and diplomatic elite, including Russia’s ambassador to the USA, Sergei Kislyak, who was among those Simes introduced to the future head of state. This led to Simes being the subject of a 10-page section in the report by the special prosecutor Robert Mueller on Russian interference in the US elections. No connections with the Kremlin or any ill intent were discovered, however. The special prosecutor’s report read as follows: “The investigation did not uncover any evidence whatsoever that, during the election campaign, any messages whatsoever were conveyed to the Russian government, or from it, through the Center for the National Interest, or through Dimitri Simes.”
It is worth noting that on July 25, 2018, the US’s former defence minister James Mattis, the man known as ‘Mad Dog’, quoted an article by Simes while presenting the National Defense Strategy, and agreed that “even the noblest intentions can have immoral results when policy fails to match reality.”
With the help of presenters who were participants in a multitude of historically significant events, ‘The Great Game’ shows the viewer the secret levers of global politics, and the motives behind the decisions that are taken. The experts invited onto the show understand that the presenters they are going to be talking to are politicians by profession. This inevitably gives rise to a new quality of debate.
‘The Great Game’ can also boast worldclass exclusives: the show’s moderator, the TV presenter Marina Kim, racks up thousands of airmiles in order to obtain unique material. In March, she interviewed the president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, and managed to speak to the opposition leader Juan Guaido on the same day – she was the first person from Russian TV to secure an interview with him. Moscow’s official stance on Venezuela is known to all, but for all that, both interviews were broadcast on the show.
Another of the show’s strongpoints is the caliber of the guests invited onto it. In the nine months since it first aired, it as assembled an impressive pool of experts: the president’s press-secretary Dmitry Peskov, the ministers Sergei Lavrov and Aleksandr Novak, the current and former ambassadors to the USA Anatoly Antonov and Sergei Kislyak, the leaders of parliamentary parties, and the directors of academic institutions. Officials currently serving in the Russian Foreign Ministry are regularly asked to come in: they have included the press-secretary Maria Zakharova, who showed a whole new side to herself, with her sparkling erudition and analytical talent; and Sergei Lavrov’s deputy, Sergei Ryabkov, who is responsible for American matters, including the IRNFT.
Why is it that people like this, with their packed schedules, are finding time to come on ‘The Great Game’? We can find an answer by taking a look at the time Sergei Lavrov came on the show. The minister was asked questions that he wasn’t expecting from presenters on a federal channel. While not overstepping the bounds of civility, they were tough questions, which forced the head of the Foreign Ministry (among other roles) to state his case as to why no ‘Russian meddling’ took place.
The guests appreciate the thoughtful tone of the show, with the presenters not simply asking run-of-the-mill questions, but really getting to the heart of the matter, albeit in a ferocious manner at times. They always keep it real – and how can things be otherwise, in true journalism?
‘The Great Game’ gets things right when it comes to foreign speakers, too. The show’s creators have managed to establish a strong link between Moscow and Washington. The discussions about the problems of modern international relations have featured American experts who have held serious positions in the administrations of US presidents – from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. Most of them are not exactly known for their fondness for Russia, incidentally – and that’s putting it mildly. For example, John Herbst, the former US ambassador to Uzbekistan and Ukraine, who is now the director of the ‘Atlantic Council’ Eurasian Center, has regularly come on ‘The Great Game’ to give his views. Though Herbst’s views sometimes verge on russophobia, they were always listened to. In an interview with the Washington Post, Herbst said that he valued the ability “to talk openly on Russian television about my views, without being censored.”
This is not to say that the presenters are loyal to each and every opinion. The very format of the show is designed to avoid aggression, to avoid making things personal. The experts don’t have to defend themselves from onslaughts by the presenters, and they can express the personal opinions that they, as analysts, have. The outcome is an interesting conversation that incorporates a whole variety of viewpoints. And if one looks carefully at how guests such as Herbst speak on the show, significant changes to his rhetoric can be seen. He feels at ease and starts to think about engaging in a dialog with the Russian elite, rather than simply resisting it at all times.
The problem of the lack of an alterantive point of view in political talk-shows is a pressing concern in other countries too, not just in Russia. The well-known political scientist Paul Grenier, who worked within America’s official power structures for many years, has said that there is no equivalent of ‘The Great Game’ in America: “In the USA we only hear variations of our own opinion.” In the American media more generally, a world in which praising Russian TV projects does not come naturally, feedback about the show has been positive. Politico, Bloomberg and The Washington Post have all written about ‘The Great Game’. The articles in question all stated, incidentally, that Russian television could not be trusted. There is, of course, a degree of prejudice in the USA about Russia’s federal TV channels. Even on these channels, however – and ‘The Great Game’ is a good example of this – there is now a greater diversity of views, particularly when it comes to the American establishment.
Something to shout about
The political circus on our television screens is not merely harmless fun. It causes nothing but confusion for some viewers, and encourages cynicism and distrust of power among others. For the less well-educated viewers, the scenes of mockery, and even, at times, of Ukrainians, Poles or guests who are purportedly Americans being dismissed from TV studios live on air, create a smug sense that the debate is being won all too easily. And this, on the one hand, prompts the government to take ill-thought-through actions, and on the other, provokes nationalistic annoyance, when it turns out that zany projects are impossible to implement in real life. For better-informed groups of viewers, particulalry among the liberal intelligentsia, such deliberate over-simplification only elicits a sense of emotional and intellectual alienation. As a result, people are distrustful not only of the federal channels, but also of the official stance in general. Finally, it is hard to imagine that representatives of the political and business elite see the cheap tomfoolery that is normally served up as a source of reliable information and skilled analysis.
There are too many identical shows on Russian television, wherein the ‘show’ element dominates: the presenters shout and holler, the guests presented as experts do likewise, and the ‘political scientists’ seen as most at fault are regularly sent packing from the debate amid much pomp and ceremony. Yet before the week is out, the same individual is back in the studio again, and the carousel goes round again. On ‘Russia 1’, the expert Greg Weiner (whose real name is Grigory Vinnikov) is regularly expelled and then brought back again; he is presented as being an American journalist, although he is better-known in the media as a travel agent. Nobody at the TV channel seems bothered by the contradictions of this particular personality. Moreover, clips showing ‘experts’ being thrown out of TV studios are used to advertise the shows.
No-one has as yet been bold enough to aspire to something different from this ‘gold standard’. At the First channel, though, they have taken the plunge, and the result is a qualitatively new product. The channel has already confirmed that ‘The Great Game’ will be returning for a new series at the start of the next TV season.
No word from Washington yet
‘The Great Game’ could become a unique forum for Russo-American interaction. For as long as people are still talking, the guns and artillery will remain quiet. The program has achieved a lot: above all, it has established sustainable dialogue between experts from Russia and the USA. However, it has not yet managed to attract government officials from Washington to engage in the debate. This speaks less to an oversight on the part of the program, than to the reality of Russo-American relations, or rather – the United States’s position. The administration’s refusal to send an official delegation to the St Petersburg International Economic Forum serves as further confirmation of this. It is hard to imagine such a stance resulting in concessions on the Russian side. On the contrary, it is a move that prevents the USA from having its voice heard in Russia. And whose interests is that likely to harm?