Staunton, November 25 – During the Cold War, people in the West sometimes bitterly joked that their countries sent diplomats to the Soviet Union which treated them like spies whereas the USSR sent spies to Western countries where they were treated like diplomats. Something similar could be said about journalists.
Unfortunately, that continues to be true; and if anything, it is now worse because those who suggest that Moscow is using journalists in this way are invariably dismissed as unreconstructed cold warriors who are unwilling to recognize that the world has changed and that Russian journalists abroad are just what they claim to be, journalists.
Many of them are, but a significant fraction of them aren’t. And those that aren’t hide behind that fact and routinely use the access and freedom of action accorded to journalists to gather information, public and otherwise, and to identify and recruit those prepared to work against their own countries on Moscow’s behalf.
If during the Cold War, most people in the West at least suspected that Soviet journalists in their midst might wear more than one hat because the behavior of such people was often anything but reassuring and because Western institutions devoted significant attention to these people lest they damage the countries in which they were working.
Now, the Russian journalists working abroad are often far more polished than their Soviet predecessors; and the number of Western institutions, public and private, tracking what they do and gaining broader attention to what can only be described as subversive activities is far smaller.
That makes the work of the Dossier Center especially valuable. Created by Russian exile Mikhail Khodorkovsky as part of his effort to expose the way in which Soviet-style criminal structures have taken over the Russian government, it has in recent years prepared reports on the way in which Russian “journalists” abroad are often something else.
Its latest report focuses on the structures Moscow has created and the people it has dispatched under journalistic cover to the Baltic countries, three NATO countries where its agents both gather information and recruit people in ways that can be used to destabilize these states and use their status to get in contact with others in the West (dossier.center/pribaltika/).
The report, which was prepared by Dossier together with Tallinn’s Eesti Ekspress and the Siena investigative journalism center in Vilnius, highlights three things. First, Moscow’s efforts in this regard are large and continuing and involve a significant fraction of Russian journalists who come to or work on the Baltic countries.
Second, this world is inevitably and by design murky, extremely difficult to describe with the kind of multiple sources most Western outlets demand and thus gives Moscow the kind of plausible deniability that it needs to continue to use journalists for other purposes.
And third – and this makes the new Dossier report especially important – Moscow is using its beachhead in the Baltics not only against the peoples and governments of these three countries but also as a jumping off point for penetrating Western countries, including the United States and its political elites.
In such cases, the details are everything, and Dossier’s 4200-word report should be widely translated and attended to by all those concerned with the ways in which Vladimir Putin, himself trained as a KGB officer, has built on and gone beyond the activities of the organization from which he emerged. A minimal concern for self-defense requires no less.