In Russia, the motherland of conspiracy theories, almost no one believes that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are free agents acting on a desire to crack official secrecy and broaden the horizons of public awareness.
Although the more than a quarter-million secret US diplomatic cables spilled into cyberspace by WikiLeaks on Sunday include just 3,337 reports prepared by the US Embassy in Moscow, many Russians are already viewing it as part of a plot by American hardliners to discredit President Obama and, perhaps, to undermine his fragile efforts to “reset” US-Russia relations.
In Russian political culture, the secret services, Kremlin leaders, and business oligarchs have long practiced the dark arts of kompromat, spreading misinformation to blacken opponents’ reputations and influence public moods. So they suspect that there has to be something or someone with a hidden agenda standing behind WikiLeaks.
“I have no doubt that this was a prepared operation, probably by [the] US secret services," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. “I find it improbable that US authorities couldn't deal with one guy (Mr. Assange) if they really wanted to. No, this is clearly being done as an instrument of destabilization," he says.
The most popular theory is that the massive outing of classified State Department communications is designed to make Obama look weak, inept, and unable to control his own government machinery.
“This will obviously damage Obama and his policies,” says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow business daily Kommersant. “Obama made a strong emphasis on international affairs, outreach to the Muslim world, and resetting relations with Russia. These leaks show that many diplomats take a privately cynical view of those goals, or are actually working at cross purposes to them. All these disclosures will be a serious blow to America's new image in the world, and will only undercut Obama.”
Mr. Strokan adds that coming just after the mid-term elections in the US, the leaks are likely to benefit Obama’s Republican opponents.
Few controversial revelations about Russia
The cables released so far contain few controversial revelations about Russia, and there was little sign on Monday that the Kremlin-dominated local media were eager to sift through any of that material.
They include revelations that US diplomats were worried about the “special relationship” that former Russian president and current prime minister Vladimir Putin enjoyed with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, which was marked by “lavish gifts,” preferential awarding of energy contracts, and the participation of a shadowy Russian-speaking Italian intermediary. The cable complains that Mr. Berlusconi “is increasingly becoming a mouthpiece for Putin” in Europe.
Several cables from the past three years are devoted to Russia’s shifting policies on Iran, including speculation about whether Moscow would back tougher UN sanctions or go ahead with controversial sale of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles.
In many cases, the experts consulted by US diplomats, including Mukhin, were the same ones routinely used by journalists, and conclusions in the private dispatches often differed little from those being published in major US newspapers at the time.
"Virtual mafia state"
But some meant-for-official-eyes-only speculation peppered throughout the cables is likely to raise hackles in Moscow.
For instance, one dispatch notes that relations between organized crime and Russian officialdom are so tight that the country had become “a virtual mafia state.”
Another, cited by the German newsweekly Der Spiegel, says that President Dmitry Medvedev's wife, Svetlana, has become the subject of “avid gossip” for stirring up tensions between her husband’s supporters and those of Mr. Putin. The dispatch goes on to report that the Russian first lady had “already drawn up a list of officials who should be made to ‘suffer’ in their careers because they had been disloyal to Medvedev.”
But is it all part of an anti-Obama plot?
“No one can say whether it was planned, or whether Obama is the intended target," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading foreign policy journal. "But there is no doubt that this is a huge gift to his Republican critics, who have accused him of being careless with US national security. Now they can say that he isn't even able to control the daily bureaucratic work of his diplomatic service without seeing it splashed all over the Internet. I'll be very surprised if Obama's opponents don't make maximum use of this.”