The Best Western Correspondent in Moscow

A latter-day John Reed who has lived to tell the story

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Fred Weir, of The Christian Science Monitor, has long seemed to me the most dependable and best-informed North American correspondent in Moscow. His reporting stood out on the agglomeration site Johnson’s Russia List, even before David Johnson offered a collection of fifty of Weir’s dispatches, 1999-2016, as a subscription premium.  Last week provided a striking example. The occasion was a Vladimir Putin press conference in Sochi, where the Italian prime minister was visiting.

The New York Times headlined:

Putin Butts In To Claim There Were No Secrets And Says He’ll Prove it

By Andrew Higgins

MOSCOW – Asserting himself abroad with his customary disruptive panache, President Vladimir V. Putin on Wednesday jumped into the furor over President Trump’s disclosure of classified information to Russian diplomats, declaring that nothing secret had been revealed and that he could prove it.

Mr. Putin, who has a long record of seizing on foreign crises to make Russia’s voice heard, announced during a news conference in Sochi, Russia, the Black Sea resort that has become his equivalent of Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, that he has a “record” of the American president’s meeting at the White House with two senior Russian officials and was ready to give it to Congress — so long as Mr. Trump does not object.

In contrast, the Monitor’s account tells a substantially different story:

As controversy swirls around Trump, Russia watches helplessly

Many in Russia had hoped that the new president could help smooth relations between Moscow and Washington. But as Russia-tied scandals paralyze Trump’s administration, now the Kremlin just want US-Russia diplomacy not to get worse

By Fred Weir

MOSCOW —When Russian President Vladimir Putin offered on Wednesday to provide Congress with a transcript of his foreign minister’s controversial meeting last week with President Trump in the Oval Office, it was not warmly received by US politicians.

But debating the legitimacy of the offer – nominally to prove that no classified information changed hands – may be missing the point, Russian foreign policy experts say.

Rather, its greater significance may be as a sign of just how alarmed Mr. Putin and the Kremlin are becoming about what’s happening in Washington.

Kremlin watchers say they feel like helpless observers amid the firestorm of the Russia-related scandals engulfing the Trump administration. While the Kremlin tries to advance what Russian observers say are sincere efforts to establish normal dialogue with a new US president, it is taken in Washington to be further evidence of political collusion between Mr. Trump and Russia.

There was no snappy language in Weir’s story, no sly equation of Sochi with Mar-a-Lago, no dwelling on Putin’s insulting diagnosis of the Washington outcry (“Either they don’t understand the damage they’re doing to their own country, in which case they are simply stupid, or they understand everything, in which case they are dangerous and corrupt”). Instead, Weir reminded readers of the context of the discussion – a Russian airliner lost to an ISIS bomb over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in November 2015. He quoted at length several Russian sources on their general perplexity at American developments, including Fyodor Lukyanov, a senior Russian foreign policy analyst:

We are very confused and even a bit terrified by what we see unfolding in Washington. The name of Russia keeps coming up, but we don’t feel like we have anything to do with this. This level of paranoia is beyond rational, and the only way we can make sense of it is that there is an attempt by political forces to play the Russia card as a weapon to destroy Trump.  It’s not that we especially want to save Trump, but the growing fear is that any chance of improved US-Russia relations will be vaporized in this war against him.

A Canadian citizen, Weir moved to Moscow in 1986 as a correspondent for the Canadian Tribune, a now-defunct weekly newspaper published by Canada’s Communist Party. He was a third-generation “red diaper baby,” nephew of an influential Comintern agent, a member of the party himself. He had studied Russia as a graduate student but had not contemplated living in the Soviet Union. Now Gorbachev had come to power, the first general secretary born after the 1917 revolution. Weir wanted to see the situation close up.

He traveled widely in the late Eighties for the Tribune, as the Soviet empire began to come apart. He wrote a book on Gorbachev’s reforms, conducted two cross- country tours of Canada as well, promoting his work and sampling opinion He witnessed the optimism of perestroika, the enthusiasm for open elections, the surfacing of ancient ethnic hatreds, as the Soviet regime loosened its grip. By the Nineties, the economy was falling apart, all but the “cooperatives,” the private firms Gorbachev had permitted to be formed.  Weir’s friends, members of the educated elite, had begun complaining of “the theater of democracy”

In an autobiographical account that he wrote in 2009 (“Forged in Fire:  Red Diaper baby in Russia witnesses the Rise of Vladimir Putin”), Weir wrote,

Sometime in the spring of 1991, I realized how far they had taken this.  I was invited to a garden party at the country home, of Andrei Brezhnev, nephew of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, in Zhukovna, an elite dacha settlement outside of Moscow. One of the guests, whom I had known for years as a functionary of the Komsomol (the Young Communist League) rolled up in a shiny white Volvo and told me he was now president of an export-import firm. Another, whom I’d often dealt with as an official of the Tribune’s fraternal newspaper, the Soviet Communist Party organ Pravda, boasted that he’d just been hired at a private bank. A third, even more surprising because he was the son of renowned Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, leaned over the table and handed me a card that announced him as an “international business consultant.”

Over the next few years after that gathering], Weir worked on a book with David Kotz, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst,  Revolution from Above: The Demise of the Soviet System and the New Russia (Routledge 1997), was revised and reissued in 2007 as Russia’s Path from Gorbachev to Putin.  The authors’ thesis – that the Soviet system had been overthrown by its own ruling elite – was novel and controversial when first proposed, but has come to be more widely accepted for having been borne out by events. Kotz’s own book about the United States, The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism (Harvard, 2015) has fared less well, though perhaps it is too soon to tell. (“The analysis offered in this book suggests that capitalism is not only in a period of structural crisis at this time but in a structural crisis that has no easy path to desirable resolution.  This historical turning point may indeed be a turning point for humanity.”)

Instead of morphing into a businessman like his friends, Weir became a mainstream journalist. He pieced together a living writing for the Hindustan Times; The Independent, of London; South China Morning Post; and, since 1998, as the Monitor’s correspondent.   (The venerable Boston-based daily discontinued its print editions in 2008, but maintains a string of excellent correspondents around the world for its digital operations;  its Moscow correspondents over the years — Edmund Stevens, Charlotte Saikowski, Ned Temko, and Paul Quinn-Judge — have been especially admired.) Married, with two children, Weir lives in a small village near Moscow. He is a latter-day John Reed who has lived to tell the story.  To read through his Monitor clips over the years is to glimpse the present day in the making.

It seems clear, not just from Weir’s reporting, that the Russian president doesn’t understand the situation that has developed in the United States.  Nor have Putin and his counsellors taken public account of their own part in making matters worse, by encouraging hacking of email and servers during the campaign.  It’s true that Democrats are using Trump’s longstanding and extensive conflicts of interest in Russia to attack the American president. Yet there were legitimate questions about various relationships during the campaign that led to the appointment last week of former FBI director Robert Mueller to oversee the Department of Justice investigation.

The fracas has to do mainly with Trump’s unsuitability to the job he sought and won – the dog who chased and  caught the car. As Slate’s Jacob Weisberg wrote yesterday, in the Financial Times, “The US president violates democratic norms and expectations around presidential conduct. And with each fresh outrage, the American system’s ultimate political sanction [impeachment] becomes more thinkable.” Trump has no powerful friends in Washington – only allies whose loyalty is tested with each new gaffe. It will take time, but, as of this week, a Pence administration seems almost inevitable.