Opinion Original Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence: Why Is The New York Times Still Hyping ‘Russiagate’?

Veteran foreign correspondent Patrick Lawrence takes issue with this Sunday's New York Times Magazine.
Billie Grace Ward from New York, USA, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost

I have a perverse taste for books and newspaper pieces titled “The Untold Story of Whatever It Is That Hasn’t Been Told.” The cliché on the front cover or in the headline is among my favorites. And then what follows: It has been told before, or it is not worth telling, or—often the case—it is conjured nonsense, a mass of dots that don’t connect, which is why nobody previously thought to tell it. 

The Untold Story of Why Leaves Fall in Autumn. The Untold Story of George W. Bush’s Subtle Mind. The Untold Story of Antony Blinken’s Brilliant Diplomacy.  Yes, readers, I’ve read ’em all.

And now I have read “The Untold Story of ‘Russiagate’ and the Road to War in Ukraine.” Jim Rutenberg wrote it and The New York Times published Sunday, November 6. This is the tale, the tallest I have read in years, of how Russia’s long-alleged and long-disproven interference in the 2016 election in Donald Trump’s behalf was but a prelude to Russia’s intervention, with the connivance of Trump and his adjutants, in Ukraine. “Putin’s American adventure,” Rutenberg writes, “might be best understood as advance payment for a geopolitical grail closer to home: a vassal Ukrainian state.”

What a piece. Phony logic, omissions, false presumptions, and misrepresentations of this magnitude do not come along every day. There is enough fanciful mythmaking and fabulist lore in this yarn to interest the animated film editors at Disney. And the wedding-cake prose is over-the-top delightful.  

But this untold story is not the same as most others, I have to say. It isn’t at all fun, this one. If ever we needed an example of how journalists of Rutenberg’s kind bear responsibility for sending us down the sinkhole of Russiagate and going on to promote the perilous proxy war Washington wages in Ukraine in the name of imperial dominance, this is it. 

Neither do I like to see the gutter depths to which my profession has sunk. This is not fun, either. I do not like being reminded that the paper where I once worked has made itself nothing more than a servant of the Democratic elite that built the Russiagate edifice and now defends the late-phase imperium’s lust for war against nations that do not bow to it. 

Jim Rutenberg, to put this point another way and if my editors will permit the infelicity, is a reckless bullshitter. The four years of incessant, now-discredited falsehoods American media infused into our public discourse to keep the Russiagate narrative alive have led us into very dangerous circumstances. Let us now make them that much more dangerous: It is good for career advancement. 

I thought Russiagate was at last behind us and our polity might begin some long convalescence back to sanity. Nothing doing: Rutenberg has it that Russiagate, never mind the narrative teetered on a cliff for years and finally fell into the sea two years ago, implicates key Trump aides and indirectly the former president in the war that began last February. 

Here are two passages that appears high up in Rutenberg’s long story:

To a remarkable degree, the long struggle for Ukraine was a bass note to the upheavals and scandals of the Trump years, from the earliest days of the 2016 campaign and then the presidential transition, through Trump’s first impeachment and into the final days of the 2020 election.

And a little further on:

But to view the record left behind through the blood-filtered lens of Putin’s war, now in its ninth month, is to discover a trail of underappreciated signals telegraphing the depth of his Ukrainian obsession—and the life-or-death stakes that America’s domestic travails would have for some 45 million people nearly 5,000 miles away.

Do you understand what Rutenberg is saying here? Do you get the line of logic? After several readings, I don’t, either. I finished this piece concluding there is no line of logic to get. 

As soon as I saw Rutenberg’s byline I figured we might be in for sheer hocus-pocus of this kind. As alert readers may recall, it was our Jim, The Times’s media correspondent at the time, who announced in July 2016—on page one, if you please—that his newspaper would no longer observe the conventions of objectivity now that Donald Trump had risen in national politics. “Let’s face it,” he wrote. “Balance has been on vacation since Mr. Trump stepped onto his golden Trump Tower escalator last year to announce his candidacy.” 

I gave the Times credit for honesty in that case. But I have never since understood why I am supposed to take seriously anything this or any other Times reporter writes if it concerns Donald Trump. Rutenberg’s stuff, like much else that appears in The Times, is useful only as an indication of what we are supposed to think of this or that development; never can we assume we have read an accurate account of developments.

The dark malefactors in Rutenberg’s piece, which is now published in the Sunday Magazine dated November 6, are Paul Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik. These names will be familiar to those who suffered through the years of Russiagate fabrications. The former is a public relations man who had a profitable practice in Kyiv. In the course of things, he advised Viktor Yanukovych, the duly elected president of Ukraine before he was ousted and hounded into exile during the U.S.–cultivated coup of February 2014. Manafort went on to serve briefly as an unpaid strategist in Trump’s presidential campaign. 

Kilimnik was born in Ukraine during the Soviet era, served as Manafort’s man in Kyiv for some years, and helped get the flacking done for Yanukovych. Now we must step carefully, for we are about to be disinformed.  

Rutenberg either reports or insinuates eight times in his piece that Kilimnik is a Russian intelligence agent. And—key to Rutenberg’s tale—it was as an agent that he played a key role in Russia’s intervention during the 2016 elections. Yes, Rutenberg includes a brief, boilerplate denial on Kilimnik’s part, but only to continue, in time-tested Times tradition, to report as if Kilimnik is lying and we can safely take him to be a Russian spook.

This is shamelessly insidious. As Aaron Maté, an independent journalist, pointed out in The Grayzone last year, no U.S. agency identifying Kilimnik as a spy—and there are several—has ever presented a shred of evidence to support these assertions. “Despite his supposed central role in the Trump–Russia saga,” Maté reported, “Kilimnik says that no U.S. government investigator has ever contacted him.” This includes investigators from the FBI and the special investigation run by Robert Mueller.

This is how Russiagate worked: Make it up and never stray near available facts. 

Here is Kilimnik, in an interview with Maté, on why his identity as a Russian agent was necessary to make the Russiagate fictions work: “They needed a fucking Russian. I happen to be that fucking Russian.” 

It is a good thing Rutenberg starts in with his disinformation early in his piece. It prepares us for what this unethical hack is about to serve up in many thousands of words.

Here is the crux of Rutenberg’s thesis. 

By July 2016, Manafort and Kilimnik were discussing something called the Mariupol plan, named—by whom and when, I wonder—for the Ukrainian port Russia later took over in its intervention. It seems these two, both of whom had a sound grasp of Ukraine’s political, social, and ethnic dynamics, thought the nation’s best path forward would be to make the eastern provinces an autonomous region. It was taboo to use the term at the time, I recall, but the thought was to federalize Ukraine to preserve its unity.

There are a few things to note here. 

One, by mid–2016, Petro Poroshenko, who replaced Yanukovych as president, was two years into a ground, artillery, and rocket campaign against Ukrainians in the eastern provinces in response to their objections to the coup two years earlier. This campaign—western Ukrainians bombarding eastern Ukrainians—lasted eight years, until Russia’s intervention, and would claim 14,000 lives; 80 percent of the casualties were from the eastern provinces. 

Two, by the time Manafort and Kilimnik were talking about autonomous regions, Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France had signed two accords, the Minsk I and Minsk II Protocols, calling for none other than a federalized Ukraine with the express purpose of holding the nation together. Moscow strongly backed these accords in the name of Ukrainian unity. Kyiv continued shelling its own citizens and did nothing to implement them, and Paris and Berlin did nothing to urge Kyiv to stop the shelling and abide by its commitment.

Three, Ukraine is among those nations that sit on the fault line between East and West. Eastern Ukraine is Russian-speaking, Orthodox Russian, and bound to Russia by way of shared historical, cultural, and familial ties. The west of the country is, naturally, tilted toward Europe and is heavily influenced by vigorous anti–Russian sentiments. I have never heard of a national structure for Ukraine that makes more sense than a federalized state. The Minsk Protocols were written to accommodate these realities. 

Four, when Kilimnik and Manafort began talking about an autonomous region in the east, the shared thought was that they could resume working for the exiled Yanukovych: Business seems to have been business for these two. The deposed president’s Party of Regions had deep roots in the eastern provinces; he seems to have entertained the idea that he could lead the newly autonomous east in a federal system. 

I have just set down four perfectly legible facts. The extent to which Rutenberg mutilates these facts to the point we cannot recognize them is quite beyond belief. 

The Kyiv regime’s daily bombardment of its own citizens goes down as “Kremlin-armed, –funded and –directed ‘separatists’… waging a two-year-old shadow war that [by 2016] had left nearly 10,000 dead.” This is an outright lie.

Manafort’s thinking, as shared with Kilimnik, as to accommodating differences among Ukrainians to preserve national unity is reported in Rutenberg-speak this way: “For all the talk of extending a bridge to the West, Manafort soon began plying his battle-tested and poll-driven politics of division—exploiting fissures over culture, democracy and the very notion of nationhood to excite the Party of Regions base, the Russian-speaking voters in the east and south.” This is what I mean by mutilation. 

The problem with the Minsk Protocols was not that Ukraine ignored them after committing to them. Oh, no: It was “Putin’s maximalist interpretation of accords…  that tied a ceasefire in the east to a new Ukrainian constitutional provision granting ‘special status’ to the two main territories there.” Our Jimbo goes on: “Russia interpreted that fuzzy term as giving the territories autonomy—under its proxies—with veto power over Ukraine’s foreign policy. Ukraine viewed it as a more limited expansion of local governance.”

Unforgivable, this old chestnut. It doesn’t matter how Ukraine viewed the accords: It took not a single step to honor them. The U.S. has been using “Putin’s maximalist interpretation” to cover up Ukraine’s breach ever since its betrayal was clear. The terms of autonomy were spelled out clearly and had nothing to do with Putin’s interpretation. 

It is much worth noting that Poroshenko, who signed the Minsk Protocols for Kyiv, has recently acknowledged that Ukraine never had any intention of keeping its word: It was simply buying time, he said, to build fortifications along the line of contact from which to launch an all-out attack on the eastern provinces. Nothing on this from Rutenberg. 

On and on, this rubbish goes. We get, among much else, the familiarly dishonest cover-up of the Hunter Biden affair, wherein Rutenberg turns everything upside down: Biden wanted Viktor Shokin fired as Kyiv’s chief prosecutor not because he was about to investigate Burisma, the energy company from which Hunter Biden was drawing a large retainer, but because Shokin refused to do so. As a Polish émigré I once knew used to say, “Gimme break.”

In the bargain, we read yet again that in mid-2016, CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm, “had determined that Russian hackers had been responsible for breaching the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems.” No mention from Jim that in 2020, Shawn Henry, CrowdStrike’s chief security officer, testified in the Senate and retracted all claims that the firm ever had evidence of Russia’s involvement in what we now know was an internal leak, not an outside hack by Russia or anyone else. 

What a difference an oath makes, I always say. In this case it sent Russiagate’s cornerstone falsehood over that cliff I mentioned earlier.

Here is the weirdest part of Rutenberg’s tale. He proposes that Trump bears responsibility for licensing Putin to intervene in Ukraine because Manafort and Kilimnik wanted to sell him on the rather wispy Mariupol plan. I don’t get it and I don’t think Rutenberg does, either:

The Mariupol plan would become a footnote, all but forgotten. But what the plan offered on paper is essentially what Putin—on the dangerous defensive after a raft of strategic miscalculations and mounting battlefield losses—is now trying to seize through sham referendums and illegal annexation.

I’m always good for a nonsensical teleology. And then, icing on Rutenberg’s Danielle Steele prose:

And Mariupol is shorthand for the horrors of his war, an occupied city in ruins after months of siege, its hulking steelworks spectral and silenced, countless citizens buried in mass graves.

I get it, I get it. Mariupol the plan, Mariupol the ruined city: Straight-ahead evidence of… of I cannot tell what.

Having hacked for more years than I will ever tell you, I take a professional interest in why reporters such as Rutenberg file pieces this bad. Is it a good chess move in the career game? Was he put up to it? Is he some kind of driven ideologue serving the liberal cause? Is this, maybe, the best he can do? People frequently ask me these kinds of questions when they read something like this, but I find certain answers difficult. 

There is, of course, the obvious matter of the midterm elections this week and Trump’s apparent intention to announce he will run for president again in 2024—both of which have mainstream Democrats quaking. Best get going ASAP with another impossible update on the Russiagate theme. 

Rutenberg does have the nerve to describe this piece as “the second draft of history.” Wow. This leaves me with the strong impression that The Times, having made a spectacle of itself as it abandoned objective reporting only to be exposed as lying its way through the Russiagate years, may be nervous as to what the historians will have to say about it. 

They should be nervous. Due in part to the work of independent publications such as this one, the better historians will have nothing good to write into the record about what The Times has done to America’s public discourse and, not least, its legitimacy and credibility as the once-but-no-more newspaper of record. 

When you’re in a hole, the Brits say, the first thing to do is stop digging. Rutenberg and his colleagues on Eighth Avenue don’t seem to have got this yet. They’re still digging.

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Patrick Lawrence
Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon siteHis Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.

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