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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

War Rages on the Info Front

Since the new year began, phrases like "the information war has been lost" and "we did not prepare public opinion properly" have come drifting over the walls of the White House and the Kremlin like wisps of portentous smoke.

The authorities have started turning their attention to what, objectively speaking, has been the only success of the Chechen war -- the courageous and objective coverage of it by the Russian media -- and tried to start turning that into a failure, too.

It is a two-pronged offensive, consisting of a stream of bizarre propaganda, and more concerted pressure on the media to relay it.

The attempt to sack press chief Sergei Gryzunov this week went to a classic Russian political scenario. First, someone high up decided it was time to sack Gryzunov, for being far too indulgent to journalists (he is one himself). Then someone tipped off Gryzunov himself, who went public and won a reprieve. But half the damage had been done. As Gryzunov sits at his desk nowadays, he'll feel a lot more jumpy when the Kremlin vertushka rings. He won't stick his neck out so readily.

The same thing is going on with NTV television, where executives are showing signs of strain from a three-month telephone marathon. For weeks, virtually as soon as the evening news program "Segodnya" went on air and Tatyana Mitkova broke into her radiant smile, the telephone would start to ring. Someone very important in the Kremlin would tell them what a pity it would be if such a good channel lost its license because of its reporting from Chechnya.

In the past few weeks NTV has gone rather tame. Its flagship current-affairs program "Itogi" has treated us to bright-eyed Russian soldiers and dispatches from the Defense Ministry's own camera crews of "Voyen-TV." Suddenly, no more distraught Chechen civilians, defiant Chechen fighters, disillusioned Russian conscripts.

"Itogi" has even fired a few shots of its own in the disinformation war, with a report about the great mercenary myth.

The piece was filmed entirely in Moscow, as far as I could see, with long, lingering shots of intelligence agents in armchairs. One man told us solemnly that some mercenaries are being paid $1,000 a day by Dzhokhar Dudayev. Another armchair-bound expert reeled off a list of half a dozen countries from which these mercenaries come.

My ears pricked up. At last, I thought, "Itogi," asserting its leadership in Russian telejournalism, would parade before us a lineup of these hardened fighting men from around the world who have been defying the mighty Russian army.

But nothing of the kind happened. The armchair experts talked a little more, and the reporter concluded, blushing only slightly, by telling us he had information about the legendary "white stockings," the Latvian women snipers who have been talked of, but never seen, all the way from Karabakh to Sukhumi. But he said this needed "clarification."

Last month, in Nazran, in Ingushetia, I met Maria Kirbasova, the remarkable and fearless president of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. She had just left Grozny, after spending a month in its cellars. She was constantly in the company of Chechen fighters, trying to win the release of captured Russian soldiers, and she described how these fighters were sharing "one machine gun between two."

"What about the mercenaries?" I asked.

She'd met one, she said. My interest stirred, but as she went on I realized that in fact I had met him too.

His name is Sashko. He is blond, about three feet wide, and he has a broken nose. He comes from Ukraine, and he has devoted his life as a volunteer -- not a mercenary -- to fighting Russians wherever he can find them, in Moldova, Abkhazia (where he fought against the Chechens), and now in Grozny. During the first week of December he was all but camped in the government press office, merrily giving interviews.

Sashko said 200 other Ukrainian volunteers were on their way to Grozny, but somehow they never showed up. He is the one and only confirmed foreign fighter that either Kirbasova or I have ever met.

All the same, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev again said this week that his men have been up against 6,000 mercenaries. The official media dutifully relayed the information, and I imagine a few people out there in Tulskaya Oblast actually believe him. A few more points to the government propaganda machine.But where are they, Pavel? I think we should be told.