Named by Maria Butina as one of her handlers, Simes exposes his allegiances to Trump & Russia.
This piece was originally published on EU Today.
Last week, a Russian-American historian Yuri Felshtinsky published a detailed investigation into the connections between Maria Butina (who was arrested for her activity as a “foreign agent”) and those who she named as her handlers in the United States, namely, the Director of the Center for the National Interest, Dimitri Simes and professor at the American University, Anton Fedyashin. According to Felshtinsky himself, the publication of the article about Simes has “created dramatic consequences”: its hero fled to Moscow in a hurry, where he became a moderator of a political program “Big Game” on an official Russian TV Channel along with Vyacheslav Molotov’s grandson Vyacheslav Nikonov.
Indeed, the above-mentioned program can easily be found on the website of the “First Channel”. We were curious about what exactly a person who is supposed to defend American national interests on the main Russian propaganda TV channel does there. Let’s try to understand this using an example program from September 26, which is fully devoted to Donald Trump‘s speech at the UN General Assembly.
In general, it should be said that the “Big Game” differs significantly from the usual prime-time Russian political programs – or at least from the broadcasts of Vladimir Solovyov. It contains practically no insults or fights, and political radicals like Zhirinovsky as well as “whipping boys” from among the “system liberals” do not take part in the discussion. The “Big Game” is rather an emphatically intelligent and well-coordinated chorus of “full-time analysts” whose goal is not to amuse or mobilize the viewer, but to painstakingly explain to him who exactly among the Western leaders is beneficial to the Kremlin and why.
Previously, such a discourse, although occasionally used in domestic Russian propaganda, was not used there too often. Beyond its borders, Russia, of course, constantly supports politicians loyal to it, using for this purpose propaganda mechanisms, troll factories, “active measures” for disinformation, all available agents of influence, hackers and even mafia leaders who are ready at any moment to lend money to an unscrupulous candidate. Russia will support this candidate throughout his career, using the already mentioned mechanisms, as well as diplomatic channels and media with the status of “business” or “official” publications, like the newspaper “Vzglyad”. It is this media, in particular, which regularly quotes Trump’s passages regarding CNN as a source of “fake news”, translates his Twitter messages about “lying, out-of-control media “, and also prepares its own “analytics” for how “CNN is on the verge of collapse.” The foreign policy-oriented “analytical centers” adhered to the same position.
However, inside Russia such publications seemed to be the exception against the backdrop of anti-American hysteria created “for domestic consumption,” where for simplicity the US actions are often equated with the actions of its president. The “Big Game” in this sense became something of a meeting of domestic and foreign propaganda – a platform for explaining to the Russian man on the street why supporting Donald Trump benefits Russia.
Since the very idea that an American president can be “good” for Russia still sounds incongruous to the Russian viewer, the co-hosts of the program had to assume the roles of “good and bad cops”. The role of “good cop” when it comes to Trump, of course, went to Simes, while Nikonov periodically “kicked” Trump for his aggressive foreign policy – in the best traditions of Russian patriotism. Vyacheslav Nikonov was accompanied by Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Peter Tolstoy, and Simes – by producer Karen Shakhnazarov.
In particular, Simes began praising Trump for isolationism in the US foreign policy, as opposed to Obama, who, he said, “imagined himself to be the master of the world” and “tried to isolate Russia.” At the same time, Simes does not hide the fact that he prefers Trump only because he is better for Russia than the previous US president. In particular, when Nikonov cited a quote from the Washington Post criticizing Trump, Dimitri Simes immediately burst into tirade that this publication is not only the “mouthpiece of anti-Trump forces” but also called Vladimir Putin a murderer, a war criminal, a poisoner and a tyrant, and therefore their opinion does not count. After that, I think, we can dispense with the last doubts about whose “national interests” Simes defends.
Karen Shakhnazarov echoed the American guest and quite frankly stated how exactly Trump pleased Moscow.
“As soon as Trump came to power, I predicted that he would d/o what happened to us after the perestroika – he would annul the US as a global empire… The empire had to settle conflicts, sometimes to the detriment of its own and its allies’ interests, but Trump abolished America as a global empire and declared it a national state. This is a revolution in the international politics,” he said. As a positive moment, Shakhnazarov noted the destruction of international institutions by Trump.
“International institutions paved the way for America as a global empire. Now they are not needed,” the producer proclaimed, adding: “Trump is in a sense similar to Yeltsin when he abolished the Soviet empire. Yeltsin was also in conflict with the imperial Soviet elite, who saw him as their gravedigger.”
It should be noted that for Russian elites, especially its propagandists, who along with Putin call the collapse of the USSR “a great geopolitical catastrophe”, a “gravedigger of the Soviet empire” is clearly not a positive characteristic. In fact, Shakhnazarov openly called Trump the destroyer of the modern American model of existence, blatantly predicting a positive outcome for Russia from his actions. Simes vigorously agreed with him, and even the most radical participant in the discussion, Peter Tolstoy, admitted that Russia “has always had an easier time conducting dialogue with the Republicans than with the Democrats, because Republicans don’t have a global idea of molding the world into America’s image.” Also, Tolstoy, recognizing the danger of the destruction of institutions, noted that it provides an opportunity to make situational deals with the Americans.
Vyacheslav Nikonov, meanwhile, continued to maintain the image of the “bad cop,” assuring that the globalist policy is continuing, and hoping only that the US will end up in international isolation as a result. Simes, continuing to play the role of Trump’s attorney in this show trial, went on to bombard the “defense witness” – the representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, who joined the discussion live from New York – with leading questions.
“Don’t you think that in Trump’s message there is a glimmer of hope for an improvement in relations with Russia?” – he asked gingerly, again recalling Barack Obama‘s tough approach to Moscow, which Simes described as “a declaration of war.” In response, Zakharova complimented Trump quite cautiously, mentioning the eagerness with which the American president praised North Korea, despite the fact that North Korea’s policy has not changed. In Zakharova’s tone, there was an obvious hint that Russia should have been in place of Korea.
In general, all the participants eventually agreed with Simes and Shakhnazarov that Russia is satisfied with Trump, although neglecting to mention that it was their active support for Trump that led not only to several new rounds of sanctions, but also to the exposure of a decades’ worth of Moscow-based efforts to build a network of agents and lobbyists in the United States. And that, most likely, it is because of numerous investigations and scandals around this network that Simes now has to defend the good name of Vladimir Putin not as a member of the American establishment, but in the Moscow television studio.
In conclusion, Vyacheslav Nikonov predicted the conflict between the US and Europe over the Iranian nuclear deal and urged Russia “to do everything to preserve the Iranian nuclear deal with Europe.” This passage was also very cynical and frank: recognize that Trump’s conflicts with European countries play into Moscow’s hands and lead to the isolation of the United States, praise and support Trump, and then continue to aggravate the split he created on the side of his opponents. However, this is not the first time that Russian analysts openly admitted that Trump’s conflicts with European allies play into Kremlin’s hands.
Another interesting fact is that in 2008-10, a certain Michael Semkin served in the center of “National Interest” as a personal assistant to Simes. As Semkin himself points out on his page in Linkedin, he was responsible for scheduling the leader’s meetings, organizing summit meetings, and planning and organizing visits to Russia by high-ranking delegations from the United States. After working for Simes, Semkin quickly made a successful career in the field of personnel recruitment. From 2010 to 2013, he worked as an advisor to the General Director of the “Personnel Empire” holding and advisor to the president of the Association of Personnel Consultants, and now he is an executive director of the non-profit partnership Labor Market Experts.
Of course, an expert in the field of personnel does not sound as scary as a current intelligence officer or propagandist. Formally, the structures in which Semkin works are not state-run, although among their partners are state universities, individual departments and even the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation. On Semkin’s page, there is a recommendation of one of the clients, who calls the former assistant to Dimitri Simes “an effective specialist in the field of public relations and state structures”.
On the one hand, there is nothing criminal about this, but on the other hand it is somewhat strange that for several years the personal assistant to the head of the American center, whose mission it was to defend the interests of the USA, was a Russian professional who specialized in personnel recruitment for Russian state structures. At the same time, he was responsible not only for interaction with Russia, but also, as already mentioned, for planning and organizing meetings, as well as preparing visits to Russia by the “high-ranking delegations from the United States.”
This moment looks particularly interesting considering that another curator named by Butina, Anton Fedyashin, according to the materials from Yuri Felshtinsky, was associated with another “personnel specialist”, director of the Russian Cultural Center Oleg Zhiganov, who was expelled from the United States along with the 60 Russian diplomats accused of espionage. According to the FBI, Zhiganov continued activities of his predecessor, Yuri Zaitsev, who, under the guise of student cultural exchanges, selected objects for subsequent recruitment as potential agents – that is, in general, he also created an “empire of personnel”. In short, these connections, together with the facts that came to light today and Simes’ position raise many questions.
It also raises questions about why all of a sudden Russian propaganda needed to convey the idea of the importance of Trump to the Russian man in the street. On the one hand, this may mean that all the propaganda resources are being mobilized before the upcoming elections to the US Congress. On the other hand, Russian television may serve as a place for the “honorably discharged” among the exposed Russian Trump lobbyists, who for one reason or another became uncomfortable in Washington.