U.S. Newspaper Op-Ed’s Call To Bomb Crimea Bridge Sparks Kremlin Ire — And Criminal Probe
It’s not every day that the Kremlin singles out a U.S. newspaper for opprobrium. Nor is it every day that Russia’s main investigative agency launches a criminal investigation of the paper’s editor.
The Washington Examiner has found itself in that very position.
Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin inaugurated the opening of a major new bridge connecting the annexed Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea to Russia.
The multibillion-dollar bridge boosts the Kremlin’s efforts to circumvent a de facto Ukrainian blockade that has been in place since 2014, and to help integrate the peninsula into Russian commerce.
The marquee moment of the elaborately choreographed event on May 15 saw Putin himself at the wheel as he led a procession of trucks across the 19-kilometer bridge spanning the Kerch Strait.
The project has been condemned by the United States and the European Union, both of which hit Russia with economic sanctions for the annexation of Crimea.
On the same day as the bridge opening ceremony, the Examiner published an opinion piece that called on Ukraine to use air strikes and “destroy elements of the bridge.”
“Because of its significant length, the Ukrainian air force could strike the bridge while mitigating the risk of casualties by those traversing it,” wrote columnist Tom Rogan.
‘Poor Quality Journalism’
That caught the Kremlin’s attention.
“You could only consider this as insane, most likely. It’s an ugly manifestation of poor quality journalism and it makes sense for law enforcement agencies, including those in the United States, to pay attention to those calls,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying on May 17 by Russian news agencies.
The Examiner, which is based in Washington and publishes a weekly magazine in addition to its website, met Peskov’s criticism with another column on May 17 by Rogan, who said that he and his family had received death threats.
His column also mocked Peskov with a reference to reports that he was the owner of a fantastically expensive wristwatch, something that Russian anticorruption activists have highlighted as a symptom of rampant government corruption.
“Calling for another nation’s right to defend its territory, it seems, is not a popular refrain in Russia,” Rogan wrote.
On May 18, the federal Investigative Committee — Russia’s equivalent to the FBI– joined the fray, announcing that it had opened a criminal investigation into the Examiner’s chief editor, Hugo Gurdon, accusing him of spreading “terrorist propaganda.”
For his part, Gurdon responded that the Investigative Committee lacked any credibility, pointing out that the committee’s chief, Aleksandr Bastrykin, was put on the U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions list for alleged human rights abuses last year.
“The piece that Tom Rogan wrote was an entirely legitimate commentary about the way a sovereign nation should defend its territory against an invading power,” Gurdon told RFE/RL. “He even advocated that it should be done in a way that avoids casualties.”
Meanwhile, according to Rogan, the backlash he faced included Russian “bots” — automated social media accounts — attacking him online. It also apparently included pranksters who impersonated Ukraine’s foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, and convinced Rogan that his position had the support of the senior Ukrainian official.
Klimkin denied that the conversation had taken place, posting a bemused message on Twitter responding to a now-deleted Tweet.
Just read @TomRtweets tweet. Funny. I’ve never spoken to the man and sincerely the article isn’t worth commenting. Not sure wether he wants to present me as a hero or a criminal 🙂 in fact,it doesn’t matter. Looks like another Russia-led provocation https://t.co/2TwVz6z4xX
— Pavlo Klimkin (@PavloKlimkin) May 18, 2018
Rogan, who acknowledged the prank, said it’s not first time his writing has drawn the ire of the Kremlin, or Russian state-run media, and he observed that independent Russian reporters routinely cope with harassment and pressure from authorities.
— Tom Rogan (@TomRtweets) May 18, 2018
“The operative point is that it says a great deal about the nature of the regime, that they are so obsessed with a not-that-famous opinion writer writing a piece, and it scares them –, the discourse does,” he told RFE/RL.
“My mother complained to me that she won’t be able to go to the Hermitage now” he added, referring to the famous St. Petersburg art museum.