The U.S.-Russian Information Gap

Spats on Syria at the G-8 highlighted how the Western and Russian media have different interpretations of the same world.

U.S.-Russian and wider Western-Russian differences over Syria’s civil war appear to have largely defined this week’s G-8 summit in Northern Ireland and in some respects symbolize a broad and possibly growing rift between them. President Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin publicly acknowledged their disagreements on Syria while speaking to the press after a two-hour meeting; this followed European and Canadian criticism of Moscow’s position on the conflict. But why are American and Russian perspectives so different on so many issues? And can Washington and Moscow work together?

America’s debate over policy toward Russia tends to focus on two sources of divergence between the two countries—interests and values. And there are indeed gaps between U.S. and Russian interests and values both within their respective borders and internationally. What is critical in assessing the policy implications of the “interests gap” and the “values gap” is an honest appraisal of the distance between the two sides and relevance of the gaps on any specific issue to cooperation in other areas.

For example, U.S.-Russian differences over Russia’s governance are a much greater obstacle to, say, a joint election-monitoring mission in the former Soviet Union than they are to Moscow’s logistical help with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Likewise, U.S. and Russian anxiety regarding the Taliban might facilitate cooperative assistance to the Afghan military, but would likely not particularly help efforts to work together in other areas.

Increasingly, however, it appears that there may be a more fundamental gap underlying the interests gap and the values gap. This could best be termed the “information gap”—and without bridging it to some degree, cooperation will remain quite difficult.

The information gap results from the fact that U.S. and Russian leaders and societies receive information from broadly different sources and, as a result, often operate on the basis of divergent information that contributes substantially to their different perspectives. With respect to Syria, for example, U.S. media have focused overwhelmingly on the Assad regime’s brutality, mounting civilian casualties, and suffering refugees inside Syria and in neighboring countries. This fuels anger at the Syrian government and a desire to help Syria’s rebel forces. Conversely, the Russian media has concentrated on atrocities committed by rebel forces as well as the extremist elements within the opposition. This produces similarly predictable but contrary outcomes.

Importantly, very little of what is covered in one country appears to be ignored in the other. The real gap is one of priorities. Thus, when Iraqi officials arrested five men linked to Al Qaeda in Baghdad and seized chemicals that could be used to produce sarin gas and other poison gases, it received wide attention in Russia and a top parliamentarian suggested that the discovery indicated that Al Qaeda-connected Syrian rebel forces could have acquired sarin gas from extremist groups and used it inside their country to discredit the Assad regime and win Western sympathy and support. But the Iraqi announcement received very little attention in the United States and, with the exception of specialist-oriented blogs, was generally not linked to Syria’s sarin gas.

Some will argue that the “information gap” is largely a result of the Russian government’s influence over the Russian media and that if Russian journalists were fully free to pursue their own desires, they would approach the news in a manner more similar to their American colleagues. There is probably a degree of truth to this, at least with respect to government-controlled television, but it would be a mistake to wish away the differences between the U.S. and Russian media in this manner—first, because it ignores how the Russian media really work and the considerable freedom that exists, and second, because it relieves all of us as Americans from turning a critical eye toward our own media and their role in major national decisions. This thinking also ignores profound differences between American and Russian society.

The U.S. government is certainly in no position to direct media coverage, but it would be quite naïve to discount the impact of profit-driven television, newspaper and new media executives, shrinking newsrooms, “infotainment,” and similar trends. Moreover, the same noble instincts that lead many to pursue careers in American journalism seem often to produce a reflexive sympathy for any underdog that generates a familiar and repetitive narrative and limits thoughtful reporting and analysis. Remember how little media scrutiny was directed toward the Iraqi opposition—upon which the Bush administration relied for critical intelligence regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction—before the U.S. invasion in 2003.

The U.S.-Russian information gap affects how each side defines its interests and interprets its values in any given situation. At the same time, in the context of mutual mistrust, it shapes how each assesses the other’s statements and conduct. With respect to Syria, press reports make clear that Russian officials were quite skeptical of the evidence their U.S. counterparts provided to demonstrate that the Syrian government had used sarin gas against the rebels; believing that the rebels had access to the gas, and that Washington was seeking justification for greater involvement rather than clear proof of what took place, it is hardly surprising that they should take this view.

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