Although the latter probably did it unwillingly...
So what is the deal here? The BBC aired documentary series entitled 'Putin, Russia, and the West', about Russia's international role in the Putin period apparently. (1) What followed was a chorus of liberal condemnation, The Guardian Moscow plagiarist, Luke Harding, tells us everything, and being a lazy plagiarist, he gets things wrong obviously. He tells us that Russian liberals were claiming that the documentary was 'too pro-Putin' for their taste, but let me first focus on this passage, as I think it is the main reason why they started to search for flaws in the film:
Critics of the series, however, are incensed by an interview with Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief of staff. In it, Powell admits that a spy "rock" found in a Moscow park was used by British intelligence officers – a claim originally made by Putin in 2006, to the embarrassment of Downing Street.
Last month a pro-Kremlin journalist, Arkady Mamontov, used the Powell footage in a 30-minute programme shown on Russian state television. Mamontov claimed that Russians working for non-governmental organisations were agents of British intelligence – a smear, activists say, to discredit opposition groups. The rock was shown next to Big Ben, together with clips of "British spies".
Actually, the story was and is more about Mamontov and Russian liberals here, than it actually was about Kremin and the FSB. The latter two have had credible evidence that the Russian liberal opposition is getting support from foreign governments, and they have enacted laws to curtail this kind of support from abroad, they were doing their job. It of course meant that the Russian government was condemned by Westerners melding in Russian affairs, and their liberal pets in Russia, but it does not make Russian government claims any less true, or Russian government actions any less right. It is hard to claim that Russian government is paranoid and authoritarian when you have the opposition vising the US Embassy in Moscow in droves. It should also be noted that Russia is still rather lenient when it comes agents of foreign governments. The stuff Russian liberals often allow themselves to do in Russia would mean jail time in the US.
In 2006, Mamontov served as a voice for the FSB. He has aired a short film called 'Shpiony' or 'Spies' about members of the British diplomatic staff, who used their positions as a cover for intelligence activity, using a device masked as a rock for exchange of information. The communication system worked in the following way. A device containing a wi-fi and a memory storage was hidden in an object resembling a rock, which was placed in a public place, a park or a boulevard for instance. The workers of the British Embassy would pass along that device and upload encrypted data from their PDAs. Then someone else would pass along and download that data.
The Guardian articles would have you believe that Mamontov was trying to justify Kremlin's tightening of screws on NGOs. In fact, as is explained in the films, the Russian secret service was keeping an eye on British activity for a while, recording it on cameras that it installed around the place the exchange of information was taking place. When they gathered enough material, they approached the British diplomats, and asked them about it. They said that if the British do not admit to their activities, and do not promise to cease this activity, the material the FSB holds is going to the media. When there was no reply from the British side, the FSB went to Mamontov with the material.
What happened then was a chorus of displeasure from the Russian liberals, not at all dissimilar to what we observe now. They even organised a demonstration whereby they would carry rocks to the TV station where Mamontov works. The liberals have all said how it is silly the story is, how it is unbelievable, and FSB's work was put in question by these individuals. Simply put, business as usual. It is understandable, these people are payed for by the West, the evidence for this is overwhelming, and more stringent legislature means less money for them. In the film, certain individual operating with the stone, called Marc Doe, was linked to financing of Russian NGOs, and attempts to influence the legislature, and legal practice in Russia.
But then came 2012, moment of truth, and Russian liberals were put to shame. Mamontov has aired a sequel to his 2006 film, (I include that film after this post for those that understand Russian) and Russian liberals were busy attempting to clear their names. I again quote from Harding's article:
Writing in Monday's Moscow Times, the columnist Victor Davidoff said the timing of the Powell revelation was "suspiciously good for Putin",following unprecedented protests against his rule and ahead of next month's presidential election.
More damaging, perhaps, is the link Davidoff draws between the Kremlin's highly paid US PR firm, Ketchum, and the film. The series consultant, Angus Roxburgh, worked for Ketchum between 2006-2009, advising Peskov on how to improve Russia's dire international image. In his book to accompany the series, The Strongman, Roxburgh writes that the Kremlin invariably ignored his advice.
Percy told the Guardian that her production team had hired Roxburgh "to get a foot in the door", and to persuade the notoriously suspicious Kremlin that the BBC series would be genuinely fair-minded.
He wasn't involved in the editing, she said, adding that the BBC had "treated the Russian government in exactly the same way as the American government".
There are some weak connections made here. You have a man who once worked for a lobbying firm with connections to the Kremlin, and who was used by the producers to gain access to the Russian government, and this is somehow tied to the timing of the broadcast of Jonathan Powell's revelation. The timing was indeed good for Putin, but to think that Russian lobbyists have been able to influence former high-ranking British politicians, and a government owned broadcaster, and even the air-time schedule over at BBC, is little far fetched for my taste. But Davidoff certainly planted a myth here, this is what Anton Nosik wrote on his blog:
It seems the spy stone really existed!
It is frightening to think how much money from the [state] budged they had to run through various Ketchum PR, to in order convince ex-advisior of ex-prime-minister in the prime-time on BBC.
Back in 2006, Mamontov was run through the mud, it is therefore no wonder that when this revelation was aired on BBC, there was some sense of justice being served on his part. Think about it, Mamontov was called a guilible propagandist, and FSB was called incompetent, and now suddenly the Kremlin can pull off an operation like this to clear its name? Roxburgh reacted to the accusations that he had any influence on the film in a letter sent to The Guardian. I quote:
In his article about the fuss caused among Russian dissidents by the BBC documentary series Putin, Russia and the West (BBC accused of peddling Putin propaganda, 2 February), Luke Harding implies that I was used by the Kremlin, through its American PR firm Ketchum, to influence the film-makers and ensure that it was "pro-Putin". Yet in his review of my book, The Strongman, in the Guardian (14 January) Harding describes my stint as a Kremlin adviser as something positive, making me "especially well placed to tell the story of how the west's early enthusiasm for Putin turned sour". He describes my "lively and absorbing" book entirely favourably, apparently detecting no Ketchum bias whatsoever. Can he make his mind up please? Why would I endeavour to ensure the BBC film was pro-Kremlin, but not my own book?
I have not read a single review of the BBC series that agrees it paints Putin in a favourable light – rather the opposite. The claim made by Vladimir Bukovsky that Kremlin officials interviewed in the films received "guarantees" that the documentary would not be critical of Putin is utter nonsense. All were in fact asked to sign a standard BBC "release form" by which they waived their rights and allowed the film-makers to use their interviews as they saw fit.
What meanwhile occured in Russia was that Mamontov had a momentary ego trip, 'I win, you lose' kind of moment, and the Russian liberals were made to look like idiots in the sequel to his 2006 movie. But in all respect, Mamontov's ego trip was not that much of a big deal.
Using the paranoid, conspiracy theorist logic of Russian liberals, one could claim that McFaul summoned the Russian liberal opposition to the embassy at the behest of Putin, Surkov, FSB, American PR firms with Kremlin connections, or God knows who else the Russian liberals like to blame for their own failures. The whole country has seen that video of Russian liberals going to US embassy, this was much more damaging to their image than Mamontov being proved right, everyone has already forgotten about the latter. The words of Anatol Lieven from 2009, are still true today:
Tragically however, many Russian liberals in the 1990s-through the policies they supported and the arrogant contempt they showed towards the mass of their fellow Russians-made liberals unelectable for a generation or more across most of Russia; and to judge by these and other writings of liberals like the ones under discussion, they have learnt absolutely nothing from this experience. They think that they form some kind of opposition to the present Russian establishment. In fact, they are such an asset to Putin in terms of boosting public hostility to Russian liberalism that if they hadn't already existed, Putin might have been tempted to invent them.
Indeed, Putin, or whomever else for that matter, does not have to do anything against Russian liberals, simply allow them to speak, and write, and act, and have fun at their expense. Although, liberals can get rather obnoxious at times.
1) I do not happen to be in the UK at the moment, so I can't really tell what it was about, or how was it. If anyone has more information, please tell me about it.