Sunday, January 13, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Military PR Now and Then

Paul Goble

Baku, January 14 – Three news reports on Saturday – one about an FSB landing on Mount Elbrus, another about movements in the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and a third about the death of the solider who raised the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in 1945 – highlight the central role of public relations in the work of Moscow’s force structures.
First, according to various Russian news agencies, a source in the force structures of the North Caucasus reported that a week ago, the FSB’s aviation arm had landed that agency’s director on the top of Mount Elbrus to demonstrate Moscow’s growing ability to put forces anywhere in that region to counter terrorism.
Second, the same day, the press service of the Black Sea Fleet announced that the rocket cruiser “Moskva” had left Sevastopol for the Straits of the Bosphorous and Dardanelles in order to join up with other Russian ships in the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean and thus underscore the recovery of Russia’s blue water navy.
And finally, on Saturday as well, in Pskov, was laid to rest the first or at least one of the first Soviet soldiers to raise the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945, an action that as a result of a much-duplicated photograph still symbolizes for many in Russia and the end of World War II in Europe.
Commenting on the first two of these events, Anatoliy Baranov, the chief editor of the Communist-oriented Forum.MSK portal, said that both of these events reflected the Putin regime’s increasing tendency to substitute clever public relations gambits for real actions (
Although media coverage of the FSB action stressed that “there were no analogues of such an operation in the world,” Baranov said he could think of one: the planting of the Nazi flag on precisely the same place during World War II and the subsequent replacement of that flag with the banner of the Soviet Union.
Such “symbolic and propagandistic actions” have their place, he continued, but they must not be a substitute for genuine efforts. Unfortunately, the current Russian government neither understands that nor has “an ideology adequate” to the job of helping point it in the right direction.
As a result, Baranov continued, some in Moscow “are beginning to talk about the Straits [of the Bosphorous and Dardanelles] with the tonality of the times of [nineteenth century tsar] Aleksandr III” rather than think about the real challenges that the Russian Federation and its force structures face in the 21st century.
That observation leads him to reflect on the announcement of naval activity in the Black Sea region. “We all understand that the single task of the Russian fleet today is to remind the world that it still exists,” despite the fact that Moscow had done nothing to help it survive, let alone modernize.
The only thing Moscow can offer to those who care about Russia’s navy is “government PR,” but this latest announcement, Baranov continues, calls attention to the fact that unless something is done, Russia will lose its base in Sevastopol in less than a decade.
Russia must do whatever it takes to keep that base because it does not have time to build a substitute or to be a significant power in the region if it loses Sevastopol. “Let Putin marry Timoshenko or even Yushchenko,” Baranov says, “but relations of “Russia and Ukraine must be such” that Moscow will retain that naval base.
The third event, one that Baranov does not comment upon but that reflects an earlier example of Moscow’s use of public relations in the military sphere, took place in the northwest Russian region of Pskov: 86-year-old Hero of the Soviet Union Mikhail Minin was laid to rest after a long illness. (
According to Russian news agencies, he was the first or at least one of the first Soviet soldiers to raise the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin. Soviet sources at the time introduced a certain confusion on this point that has no historian has ever completely resolved to the satisfaction of everyone.
On the one hand, as the nine Soviet armies converged on Berlin, each of them had a special unit with a Soviet flag prepared to raise it over the Reichstag whichever one got there first. Minin was in one of these groups, but senior commanders insisted that men in their unts get credit as well (
And on the other, the famous photograph of this historic moment in fact “does not show Minin but a Georgian soldier,” “Pravda” reported, and in any case, the paper said, “was not taken at the actual event.” Instead, it was staged later for propaganda purposes (
But Pravda does not add what various Western historians have noted: even this PR picture had to be taken carefully airbrushed so that no one would see the many wristwatches the Soviet soldier had stolen in his march through Germany and was wearing on his outstretched arm.

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