Neocons 2.0: The problem with Peter Pomerantsev
"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out." —White House official, 2004
In his opening statement last month before a US Congressional Committee hearing titled "Confronting Russia's Weaponization of Information," the Russian-born British author Peter Pomerantsev served his Republican-led audience a piping hot serving of neocon alarmism.
Quoting "the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), General Philip M. Breedlove," Pomerantsev described Russia's 2014 takeover of Crimea as “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare." To which Pomernatsev added his own chilling warning:
"To put it differently, Russia has launched an information war against the West – and we are losing."
The hearing was put on by Orange County neoconservative Republican Ed Royce; the purpose of the hearings was to drum up fear about Russia's "unprecedented" information war on the West — a propaganda battle which obviously exists, but whose dimensions and dangers are being cynically exaggerated — and then convert that fear into budget money for US propaganda and NGOs to subvert Kremlin power.
What made Pomerantsev's lobbying appearance with the neocons so disturbing to me is that he's not the sort of crude, arrogant meat-head I normally identify with homo neoconius. Pomerantsev's book, "Nothing is True and Everything is Possible", is the most talked-about Russia book in recent memory. His many articles on the Kremlin's "avant-garde" "information war" and its "political technologists" have been hits in the thinking-man's press: Atlantic Monthly, London Review of Books...
His insights into the strategic thinking behind the Kremlin's "information wars" are often sharp and illuminating; and yet there's always been something glaringly absent in Pomerantsev's writings. Not so much what he puts in, but all that he leaves out. Glaring omissions of context, that had me start to question if Pomernatsev wasn't manipulating the reader by poaching the rhetoric of leftist critical analysis, and putting it to use for very different, neocon purposes . . . as if Pomerantsev has been aping the very sort of "avant-garde" Kremlin political technologies he's been scaring the Ed Royces of the world with.
And then of course there's the larger nagging question—what the Hell is a presumed journalist/writer like Pomerantsev, who claims to have been most influenced by literary figures like Christopher Isherwood, doing lobbying the US and UK governments to pass bills upping psychological warfare budgets and imposing sanctions on foreign countries? Where does the independent critical analysis stop, and the manipulative lobbying begin?
* * * *
The term “political technologist” (политтехнолог) first appeared in the Russian press in 1996, to describe Boris Yeltsin’s team of American and Russian political spin doctors who stage-managed his campaign to steal the Russian presidential elections that year.
The political technologists were given a seemingly-impossible task: make Yeltsin’s pre-ordained election victory look just plausible enough to be hailed by the West as a triumph for democracy, while domestically, imposing on Russians a sense of overwhelming fatalism so complete that they wouldn’t rise up again in arms as they had in 1993.
The reason this looked near-impossible on paper was that Yeltsin went into the election campaign with a rating hovering between 3%-5%, reflecting what must be the single most disastrous presidency of the 20th century: Under Yeltsin, Russia’s economy collapsed some 60%, the male life expectancy plummeted from 68 years to 56, millions were reduced to living on subsistence farming for the first time since Stalin as wages went unpaid for years at a time. Russia was on its way to going extinct—but about 3-5% of the population (plus or minus 3%) was making out like bandits. Probably because they actually were bandits.
Enter the “political technologists”—Americans led by Dick Morris’ former partner Richard Dresner, and Russians at advertising behemoth Video International, led by Mikhail Lesin and former KGB spy Mikhail Margelov — who took credit for pulling off a credible stolen election for Boris Yeltsin. Time magazine wound up crediting the Americans with “Rescuing Boris,” which was turned into a B-movie, “Spinning Boris,” directed by "Turner & Hootch"'s Roger Spottiswoode.
The way Dresner and the Americans told it, it was the Americans who first introduced focus groups into the campaign; who invented fake pro-Yeltsin crowds at rallies, rustled out of government-owned factories and coerced into attending pro-democracy Yeltsin rallies; and it was good ol' USA advisers who took credit for convincing Team Yeltsin to take total control over the Russian media and convert the only cultural unifying medium into a kind of virtual reality apparatus, deployed to brainwash the public into fearing a victory by Yeltsin’s opponent—the cowardly, dumb-as-nails Communist Party leader, Gennady Zyuganov—who, if Russia's 1996 TV media onslaught was to be believed, would plunge the country into a bloody civil war, leading to GULAGs, cattle wagons, and family members hanging from lamp posts. Every fantastical historical nightmare was exploited and exaggerated to frighten the public into a different mindset, and a totally distorted grasp of reality.
This required taking full control of Russia’s television networks, radio, and media, which until 1996 had been relatively free and chaotic in editorial interests. Key to this was how Yeltsin co-opted the once-independent national network NTV, owned by oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, which had been a fierce critic of Yeltsin's slaughter in Chechnya. That problem was solved by Yeltsin promising to give Gusinsky valuable banking and national TV licenses and other properities; Gusinsky agreed, and he put NTV at Yeltsin's service, and seconded NTV's top executive to lead Yeltsin’s TV campaign coverage.
As Dresner had advised it in a memo to the Yeltsin Team:
“It was ludicrous to control the two major nationwide television stations and not have them bend to your will.”
“...Wherever an event is held, care should be taken to notify the state-run TV and radio stations to explain directly the event's significance and how we want it covered."
In the end, Yeltsin won by old school fraud — in Chechnya, for example, where Yeltsin’s war had killed 40,000 people and displaced half the population, elections showed 1,000,000 Chechens voted (even though less than half a million adults remained in Chechnya at the time of voting), and that 70% of them voted for Yeltsin, their exterminator. That helped deliver the numbers that the West needed to see—enough for the New York Times to declare it "A Victory for Russian Democracy"—parroting the laughably cheerful assessment of President Clinton and his team.
But the more important task of creating domestic acceptance through a new post-Soviet brand of sophisticated, virtual reality propaganda, beamed onto a bewildered Russian viewing public, is what helped ensure that Yeltsin’s stolen election wasn't followed by unrest. The public was inundated with 24/7 alarmist propaganda about impending bloodbaths should Yeltsin lose; they had no idea that the man they voted for had essentially died from yet another series of massive heart attacks between rounds one and two of voting.
What surprised even Dick Morris’ spin-doctor buddies was how effective they were in fooling the raw Russian public into believing that their crude propaganda efforts, distorting reality to falsely portray opposition candidate Zyuganov as a genocidaire-in-waiting, was not propaganda at all. In the late Soviet times, most Russians knew that the far cruder Soviet propaganda was propaganda—but this was something new, the ability to wildly distort reality, paint your political opponent as the greatest monster in history, and have it accepted as news because it looked much more modern than the crude old Soviet propaganda productions.
As Time magazine wrote:
“What really caused surprise was the public's reaction to the biased reporting. "We focus-grouped the issue several times," says Shumate. The results were contained in a June 7 wrap-up memo on TV coverage. Only 28% of respondents said the media were very biased in Yeltsin's favor--a group that consisted mostly of Zyuganov's partisans. Twenty-nine percent said the media were "somewhat biased," but they broke in Yeltsin's favor. Amazingly, 27% said they thought the media were biased against Yeltsin.
The Russian media was never the same again. After the elections, a Petersburg journalist denounced the aftermath in an article, “The Virtual Reality of the Elections.” A general sense of unreality and nihilism spread throughout the creative class in the aftermath of Yeltsin’s victory. Falsifying reality and staging politics became the new avant-garde, attracting figures like Vladislav Surkov—the “political technologist” behind Vladimir Putin’s curtain.
The most popular comical novel of the late 1990s/early 2000s, Viktor Pelevin’s “Generation ‘P’”, tells the story of a second-rate poet who goes from selling vodka in a Moscow kiosk in the early 1990s, to working as an advertising copywriter and "political technologist" in the belly of Russia's PR industry beast. Pelevin’s book, released in 1999, describes a world in which all Russian politics and consumer reality is created on Silicon Graphics workstations in secret TV studios, all with the aim of increasing advertising revenues.
In one scene, the protagonist is taken to the main studio where 3-D holograms of Russia’s Duma deputies are churned out according to scripts, and presented to the public as functioning democracy. His ad agency boss explains how this virtual reality democracy works:
“[T]hat's what we call the Duma 3-Ds. Dynamic video bas-relief — the appearance is rendered always at the same angle. It's the same technology, but it cuts the work down by two orders of magnitude. There's two types - stiffs and semi-stiffs. See the way he moves his hands and head? That means he's a stiff. And that one over there, sleeping across his newspaper — he's a semi-stiff. They're much smaller — you can squeeze one of them on to a hard disk.”
“But it's such a massive scam.”
“Aagh, no . . . please, not that. By his very nature every politician is just a television broadcast. Even if we do sit a live human being in front of the camera, his speeches are going to be written by a team of speechwriters, his jackets are going to be chosen by a group of stylists, and his decisions are going to be taken by the Interbank Committee. And what if he suddenly has a stroke — are we supposed to set up the whole shebang all over again?"
Even the notoriously drunken buffoon Yeltsin is a computer graphics invention, using an old studio actor who'd done Shakespeare on stage, hooked up to wires and force-fed cheap vodka so that he'd be authentically drunk during filming:
"Listen, why do we show him pissed if he's only virtual?"
"Improves the ratings."
"This improves his ratings?"
"Not his rating. What kind of rating can an electromagnetic wave have? The channel's ratings. Never tried to figure out why it's forty thousand a minute during prime time news?"
* * * *
Which brings me back now to Pomerantsev's book, “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible,” and his thesis driven home in articles and in the halls of US-UK government power: That Putin’s brand of totalitarianism represents something absolutely new, innovative and uniquely threatening — an avant-garde totalitarianism for which we in the West are nearly helpless against; a totalitarianism constructed entirely out of virtual reality, political technologies, and distorted realities, beamed through televisions and the Internet, brainwashing the Russian public and anyone else who crosses their information-beams in ways so sophisticated and disruptive, everything we hold dear is doomed to collapse before it.
I wish I was exaggerating his thesis, but there you have it.
Pomerantsev’s book is purportedly an inside look at how the Kremlin propaganda machinery functions, from a British repat who purports to have spent a decade working inside the state propaganda apparatus. But his book is oddly vague on details — just one of its problems. I’d never heard of Pomerantsev while working there; he claims (and I’m sure it’s true) that he spent a few years working for the quasi-western TNT network, where one of my own best friends worked as a top producer for several years. I asked recently him if he or his TNT contacts remembered Pomerantsev there because I'd never heard of him in my years in Moscow; he hadn't either. I don’t doubt he was there; but there is a vague, foggy, masked quality to his writing and to his approach to most things, including his intimate vignettes in his book: people without last names or recognizable faces, characters whose canned descriptions seem lifted from writers’ workshop classes rather than from experience. Much of his book reads as an intimate personal “memoir” of his life in the 2000s, and yet it's peopled with Russian caricatures from the 1990s: mobsters, whores, suicidal runway models, hedonistic New Russians, even a scrappy World Bank do-gooder from western Europe. It's hard to believe anyone would paint a World Bank or IMF representative as the scrappy underdog in Russia, unless perhaps that painter has a personal stake in painting them that way. Which, it turns out, Pomerantsev does: He is listed as "Senior Fellow" at a neoliberal think-tank called the Legatum Institute, founded by a highly secretive billionaire vulture capitalist notorious for always remaining in the shadows.
This is what makes Pomerantsev a particularly complicated and interesting character-study for me. Because on the one hand, his book's thesis — Kremlin political technologists manipulating a virtual reality via television on a vast new scale — has a lot of truth to it, and is worth studying. But the other part of the thesis, that this is something completely new and invented by Putin, is so patently false it makes a mockery of his own reader. It isn't just that Kremlin reality-distortion and political technology began under Yeltsin with the full backing and advice of the West; it's that our own governments are guilty of this as well, as anyone who remembers the fake WMD scare to invade Iraq can tell you.
You might forgive Pomerantsev's omissions if he wasn't so perceptive and intelligent, or if he was an obvious old-school neocon meat-head, from whom one expects nothing at all. His descriptions of Kremlin propaganda, and the “political technologists”’ mastery of stage-managing a virtual reality designed to keep Putin in power and project a sense of stability, are important for anyone interested in politics and perception-management. His descriptions of avant-garde art connoisseur-turned-Putin political technologist Vladislav Surkov, “the political technologist of all Rus,” is even brilliant at times:
“Surkov has directed Russian society like one great reality show. He claps once and a new political party appears. He claps again and creates Nashi, the Russian equivalent of the Hitler Youth [!] . . . As deputy head of the administration he would meet once a week with the heads of the television channels in his Kremlin office, instructing them on whom to attack and whom to defend, who is allowed on TV and who is banned, how the President is to be presented, and the very language and categories the country thinks and feels in.”
And yet what strikes me about this is how deeply rooted this is in the western-backed Yeltsin era, and how similar this reads to Pelevin's comic novel about the late Yeltsin-era political technologists:
“Have you seen Starship Troopers? Where the star-ship troopers fight the bugs?”
“It's the same thing. Only instead of the troopers we have farmers or small businessmen, instead of machine-guns we have bread and salt, and instead of the bugs we have Zyuganov or Lebed. Then we match them up, paste in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour or the Baikonur launch-pad in the background, copy it to Betacam and put it out on air.”
Pomerantsev doesn't provide this sort of broader context, it turns out, because that would get in the way of where he wants to lead us — to alarmist conclusions, and a familiar old neocon agenda, which he peddles hard and crude at the end of his book, where he portrays Putin’s Russia as a direct existential threat to everything westerners cherish.
The real giveaway for me, which got me looking into who Pomerantsev works for, was his choice of heroes in the scary Kremlin information wars: western investors, and western global financial institutions. People like billionaire vulture capitalist Bill Browder, the bloodless grandson of former US Communist Party leader Earl Browder, who served as Putin’s most loyal attack dog while he was raking in his billions, but then transformed himself into the Andrei Sakharov of vulture capitalism as soon as Putin’s KGB tossed Browder out of their circle and decided to keep his share of the take for themselves.
Pomerantsev is so close to Browder, we learn from his book, that he even serves as one of Browder’s lobbyists before the British parliament to push through an anti-Kremlin sanctions bill, the Magnitsky Act, bankrolled by Browder’s ill-begotten stash.
I don’t have enough room here to give you a full picture of Bill Browder. But here are a few things to keep in mind:
- In a 1997 New York Times profile, Browder, who at the time aligned his investments with Yukos oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, defended the way Yukos stripped investors into one of its subsidiaries to enrich the Yukos parent company. Browder crowed: “When a company does terrible things to the subsidiary, I would rather be on the side with the power.”
- In 2003, Browder backed Putin's authoritarian power and his decision to arrest Khodorkovsky, saying, “A nice, well-run authoritarian regime is better than an oligarchic mafia regime — and those are the choices on offer."
- The day after Khodorkovsky's arrest, Browder scoffed: "People will forget in six months that Khodorkovsky is still sitting in jail."
- When Putin put Khodorkovsky on trial 2005, Browder attacked the jailed oligarch for the same asset-stripping Browder supported and profited from, telling the BBC: “Mr Khodorkovsky is no martyr. He has left in his wake aggrieved investors too numerous to count and is widely credited with masterminding much of the financial trickery that plagued the Russian capital markets throughout the 1990s.”
- That same year, Browder told the New York Times, “Putin cares about foreign investors; he just doesn't care about them enough to allow one oligarch to use his ill-gotten gains to hijack the state for his own economic purposes.”
That’s the Bill Browder I remember. And ever since his KGB pals decided they’d had enough of him and chased him out to London a very rich vulture capitalist, Browder has styled himself as the Mother Theresa of global vulture capitalism—and he's thrown untold millions into promoting that public relations/lobbying effort, whose goal is to use human rights abuses he once covered for and profited from as a cudgel to force the Kremlin to become investor-friendly to vulture capitalists like Bill Browder again. To do that, he's exploited to the hilt the truly horrific murder of one of his lawyers, Sergei Magnitsky, at the hands of Russia’s brutal police. Magnitsky's death appears to be the first Russian death Browder ever cared about in his 15 years of milking the country dry during the tragically deadly 1990s and beyond.
That's the Browder I and every other journalist who worked in Russia I know remembers him. Contrast that with how Peter Pomerantsev—who admits to lobbying for Browder's bill—describes him:
“As I wait for William Browder to come in for his interview in Meet the Russians, I look at the newspaper cuttings that are all over the walls of his office on Golden Square: ‘One Man’s Crusade against the Kremlin,’ ‘The Man who Took on Vladimir Putin.’ Browder used to be one of the President’s more vocal supporters, back when he was the largest foreign investor in Russia. He’d come to the country in the 1990s, when most in Western finance said it was crazy to even try. He proved them all wrong. Then in 2006 he pissed off the wrong people in Russia and was banned from the country. . . .
“We arrive at Parliament. Browder is having a meeting with a member of Parliament in a corner office of Portcullis House overlooking the Thames. . . .
“A little later I’m invited back to Parliament for a presentation, ‘Why Europe needs a Magnitsky Act.’ The US version of the act is Browder’s greatest achievement.”
And then Pomerantsev introduces us to Browder’s exiled American lawyer, who scares Pomerantsev (and presumably the gullible reader) with his dire prediction about Russian state television laying waste to Western civilization like the barbarian hordes at the gates — specifically, the gates of upper-class London neighborhoods:
“We used to have this self-centered idea that Western democracies were the end point of evolution, and we’re dealing from a position of strength, and people are becoming like us. It’s not that way. Because if you think this thing we have here isn’t fragile you are kidding yourself. This," and here Jamison takes a breath and waves his hand around to denote Maida Vale, London, the whole of Western civilization, "this is fragile.”
It's as though Pomerantsev absorbed all the cheesy, schlocky Russian cultural melodrama he wrote about with so much contempt — although this "we didn't listen!" schlock could also have been lifted from any Hollywood B-movie disaster flick, from Soylent Green to The Day After Tomorrow:
Jason Evans: What do you think's going to happen to us?
Jack Hall: What do you mean?
Jason Evans: I mean "us"? Civilization? Everyone?
What I couldn't believe was that Pomerantsev went from putting that into the mouth of an understandably upset former business partner of the murdered lawyer, into Pomerantsev's own voice a few pages later:
For if one part of the system is all about wild performance, another is about slow, patient co-optation. And the Kremlin has been co-opting the West for years.
...The Kremlin is the great corporate reider inside globalization, convinced that it can see through all of the old ways of the slow West to play at something more subversive. The twenty-first century’s geopolitical avant-garde.
This was the point in Pomerantsev's book where I threw it against the wall, because I really don't like being played like this—and I decided to finally find out who Pomerantsev works for, and why the Hell he went through so much trouble to say something so crude and stupid.
And here, I’m afraid, is where things get really bad, in an awfully familiar way.
* * * *
Peter Pomerantsev describes himself today as “senior fellow at the Legatum Institute.” You may not have heard of the Legatum Institute; I hadn’t either, except for Legatum’s partnership with First Look Media billionaire Pierre Omidyar in a gruesome microfinance investment in India a few years back, SKS Microfinance. Omidyar and Legatum co-invested in Unitus Equity, which then invested in SKS Microfinance ostensibly to help the world’s poorest people in rural India. Instead, a few wealthy insiders cashed out to the tune of mega-millions for themselves, while ruthless SKS debt collectors bullied hundreds of rural Indian villagers into committing suicide by drowning, drinking jars of pesticide, and other horrific means. I knew Omidyar's role in that well, and his callous response to the mass-suicides ("take[s] such setbacks in stride," according to New York magazine's account). But I hadn't known anything about Omidyar's partner-in-crime, Legatum.
Legatum turns out to be a project of the most secretive billionaire vulture capital investor you’ve (and I’d) never heard of: Christopher Chandler, a New Zealander who, along with his billionaire brother Richard Chandler, ran one of the world’s most successful vulture capital funds—Sovereign Global/Sovereign Asset Management. That family of funds, based in the offshore haven of Monaco, operated until 2004, when the Chandler brothers, Richard and Chris, divided their billions into two separate funds.
Brother Christopher Chandler took his billions to Dubai, where he launched Legatum Capital, and, in 2007, the Legatum Institute, where Peter Pomerantsev serves as a Senior Fellow. The Legatum Institute's motto, displayed proudly on its homepage, reads:
“Prosperity Through Revitalising Capitalism and Democracy.”
A motto like could be read a lot of ways, but when its source is one of the world's most secretive high-risk billionaire bankers, it's downright creepy.
So secretive, that I only just recently learned that the Chandler brothers were the largest foreign portfolio investors in Russia throughout the 1990s into the first half of the 2000s, including the largest foreign investors in natural gas behemoth Gazprom. I frankly had no idea. And I’d be more embarrassed about not having heard of them, except for the fact that almost no other journalist or even banker I talked to for this article had heard of them either, excepting one from the financial press, who described the Chandlers as notoriously "difficult sources" and "contemptuous of scribblers." Not exactly the sorts of people you'd expect to selflessly push for transparency and human rights in countries where their once-lucrative investments went sour.
From what I've learned, the Chandlers make buckets of fast money by buying into totally depressed and corrupt emerging markets when everyone else is too afraid to, driving up the price of their assets by making a lot of noise about corporate governance and corruption, and then selling out when those investments tick up during what look like to outsiders as principled battles over corporate governance issues. In other words, a form of extreme green-mailing.
The Chandler brothers reportedly were the single biggest foreign beneficiaries of one of the greatest privatization scams in history: Russia’s voucher program in the early 1990s, when each Russian citizen was given a voucher that represented a share in a state concern to be privatized . . . and most naive Russians were fooled or coerced into dumping their vouchers for next to nothing, snapped up by clever vulture capitalists and factory directors from the inside. Institutional Investor magazine described how the Chandlers benefited by snapping up Russians' vouchers and converting them into stakes in some of the largest and most lucrative companies in the world:
By the end of 1994, the Chandlers had snapped up enough vouchers to buy a 4 percent stake in Unified Energy Systems, Russia’s largest electric utility; 11 percent of Mosenergo, the Moscow electricity distributor; 5 percent stakes in each of the three main production arms of Yukos Oil Co.; a 15 percent stake in Novolipetsk Metallurgical Kombinat, the country’s biggest steelmaker; and a small, undisclosed stake in Gazprom, the world’s No. 1 gas producer. The metric they used in each case was simple: The book value of assets vastly exceeded the companies’ market capitalizations. With more than $194 million invested at the time, the brothers say they were the largest foreign portfolio investors in Russia.
The article on the Chandlers has an illustration of two respectable, gray-haired brothers in fine tailored bankers' suits, sweating in fear before an angry Russian barbarian aiming an AK at them to keep them out of a shareholder's meeting—the perfect cover to Pomerantsev's book, if he'd been honest enough...
Their most public battle in Russia came in the late 1990s, when they lost a battle for control of Russia’s largest steelworks to Vladimir Lisin, now one of Russia’s most powerful oligarchs. At the time, Lisin accused the Chandlers’ secretive “Cambridge Capital” fund—one of many offshoots of their secretive Sovereign Global group—of being “speculative buyers . . . with no commitment to the long-term recovery of Novolipetsk, or the ailing Russian steel industry.”
The Chandlers’ method is fairly simple: Buy a chunk of a company in a corrupt, dysfunctional market, get on the board, make a big stink about corporate corruption, drive the price up, then cash out. This is what they did in South Korea in 2003, when they bought a stake in SK Corp—owner of the largest oil refinery and telecoms—fought a bloody boardroom battle leveraging real corruption to their personal gain, then cashed out with hundreds millions more in their Monaco accounts.
What the Chandlers did to cash out big in South Korea is what Pomernatsev is doing today with Russia: Talking a big disingenuous game about corporate governance, ethics, fighting corruption and so on . . . without in any way being the least bit forthright about his own agenda and how his people stand to profit from a seemingly principled struggled.
Here is how a South Korean economist, Won Kang, described what happened with the Chandlers’ Sovereign Asset play for SK Corp:
“Sovereign failed for two reasons: after all the rhetoric about good corporate governance, it could not design a specific roadmap to enhance SK Corp’s corporate value; after the rhetoric about transparency in management, Sovereign itself was not transparent. It refused to open up about its asset size and its ownership structure, thus triggering uncertainty and apprehension among minority shareholders, including foreign investors.”
Putin’s Russia is a harder place for vulture capitalists like the Chandlers and Browders to swoop in, extract a few quick hundred millions, and disappear with to Monaco or Dubai. Putin’s cronies don’t need them; they replaced them and pocketed the money for themselves. Therefore, Russia is a threat to western civilization.
In 2007, Chris Chandler, the billionaire behind Dubai’s Legatum Capital, launched the Legatum Institute, and staffed it with senior Bush Administration neocons. Legatum’s first leadership team was led by two former senior members of the Bush Administration’s National Security Council: William Inboden (who specialized in “counter-radicalization”) and Michael Magan, who also served as Special Assistant to President Bush. After Obama came to power, Legatum was headed by uber-neocon Jeffrey Gedmin, former director of the old CIA front Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (né “Radio Liberation from Bolshevism”), and one of the original signatories to the neocon heavyweight “Project for the New American Century” alongside Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and the rest of the Iraq war gang.
Nowadays, Legatum tries to be a bit more discreet about its White House national security/neocon connections, although Anne Applebaum’s blinding presence on the Legatum staff alongside Pomerantsev somehow slipped through.
Which brings me to the real heart of Pomerantsev’s work and agenda, the familiar, sleazy lobbying work he does, bridging the interests of global vulture capitalists like his boss Christopher Chandler with the interests of neocon regime-change groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, and more familiar neocon pro-war lobbyists like Michael Weiss.
In a 2013 white paper for the Legatum Institute, Pomerantsev explicitly called on Western governments to invest in anti-corruption NGOs, and leverage their moral and political advantages through anti-corruption NGOs in order to subvert Putin's rule:
“Ultimately, international networks of anti-corruption NGOs could play a similar role to that of human rights campaigners played in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“The debate about ‘corruption’ in Russia is not, therefore, just about slipping bribes or the odd bit of nepotism. It is a struggle to establish genuine democratic capitalism and to defy postmodern dictatorship. Instead of helping, the West is making things worse.”
By “democratic capitalism,” of course, he means “investment opportunities for my boss’s other Legatum— Legatum Capital.”
Last year, Pomernatsev co-authored another one of these slick Legatum white papers with an up-and-coming neocon from the late George W. Bush era, Michael Weiss. Together, Pomerantsev and Weiss summed up the threat Russia's avant-garde political technologies pose to world order, warning:
"the struggle against disinformation, strategic corruption and the need to reinvigorate the global case for liberal democracy are not merely Russia-specific issues: today’s Kremlin might perhaps be best viewed as an avant-garde of malevolent globalization."
That Pomerantsev would team up with a neocon as compromised as Michael Weiss is enough to call into question the value of everything he's written. During the late Bush years, Weiss worked for the neocon organ of Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard; afterwards, Weiss headed up a neocon PR project, "Just Journalism," which policed the English-language press for any journalism critical of Israel in the wake of its brutal war on Gaza in 2008-9. Then, as Syria descended into civil war, Weiss became one of the leading neocon warmongers pushing for America to invade Syria. Perhaps most troubling of all when it comes to Pomerantsev’s credibility — Weiss played a lead role in promoting the career of one of the most notorious academic frauds of our time, Elizabeth O’Bagy, the fake Syria “expert” whom Weiss teamed up with to argue for war in Syria. Apparently after O’Bagy was exposed as a fraud with no Syria credentials, Weiss skulked away, only to reappear with a new co-author—Peter Pomeranstev—and a new beat: Putin's Russia. Despite having zero Russia background and expertise, Weiss has successfully reemerged lately as a Russia expert on various TV news programs — the Elizabeth O’Bagy of Putin critics — and Pomerantsev’s role in this partnership appears to be laundering Weiss' credentials.
Last November, Weiss and Pomerantsev presented their white paper on Russia to the National Endowment for Democracy, the notorious Cold War arm of the US empire set up by Reagan’s CIA director Bill Casey. The event was moderated by the chief of another “color revolution” neocon outfit, Freedom House.
And just last month, Pomerantsev was in Washington lobbying — what else? — Congress on behalf of his billionaire vulture fund boss and the neocons they’re aligned with. You can see on Legatum’s website how proud Master Chandler must be of his shaggy-haired neocon’s lobbying abilities.
It just goes on and on and on — not just the neocon connections, but this specific subspecies of neocon: shaggy, scruffy-faced, Brooklyn hipster neocons. . . .
And at the very end of Pomerantsev’s book, in his acknowledgements, he thanks Ben Judah for giving him the final edit read-through.
Really? Ben Judah? Can’t the neocon veal pen try a little harder? This is just insulting. Judah, for those who don’t know, got busted last year forging what had been his biggest scoop ever for Politico magazine: Judah alleged, falsely, that Putin had secretly proposed to Poland’s president in 2008 to carve up Ukraine together. The Polish president whom Putin supposedly offered half of Ukraine to is now dead, so he couldn’t deny it. The point of Judah’s article was to “prove” that Putin had all along intended to invade and carve up Ukraine, rather than Putin reacting to the 2014 US-backed overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych. (Judah also took to the New York Times calling on the US to "arm Ukraine".)
Welp, wouldnchaknow it, Judah’s source for his Big Scoop was none other than the husband of Legatum Institute’s Anne Applebaum. His name is Radislow Sikorski, and he’s the looniest of Poland’s neocons. Nothing about Judah's scoop made sense—why would Putin offer such an inane plan to a NATO enemy? But the best lies aren’t the most complicated lies, they’re the lies people want to believe. And everyone wanted to believe Judah’s story—except Polish journalists, who saw through it. They did what journalists do and questioned Sikorski for more details. Sikorski stuttered and stammered and admitted he’d made it all up, and apologized. So did most media that ran Judah’s false story. Sikorski even disowned Judah and Politico. But you won’t find a retraction on Judah’s story. It’s still there, proud as a peacock.
This is the same guy whom Pomerantsev thanks for editing his book.
All of which leads to some unsettling insights. Well, one, actually: The neocons have adapted.
What threw me off was Pomerantsev’s aesthetics: the intelligent, at times humble, rhetoric. The shaggy hipster-agnostic look, a schtick Pomerantsev shares with his buddies Weiss and Judah. I guess if you’re going to be awful, you may as well look like the sort of Brooklyn hipsters who plague my waking hours.
I shouldn't have ever taken my eye off of Russia, as I have since the Kremlin closed my newspaper and ended my career there. This is what happens when you stop watching what crawls around the foreign policy establishment's Russia portfolio in your own backyard, my backyard. Lesson learned: you can’t ever turn your back in this godawful business.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]