Menacing Unreality, and Linking Back to Baku

Among the masterful examinations, parsings, and findings in Michael Weiss’s and Peter Pomerantsev’s new report on Russian disinformation comes a section with which I am, (un)fortunately, intimately familiar. Describing the opacity of Western think-tank funding, Weiss and Pomerantsev cite one case – one individual – in particular:

The investigative spadework done by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s Robert Coalson forced The New York Times to append an editorial note to the bottom of an op-ed written by Brenda Shaffer entitled “Russia’s Next Land Grab”—she meant Nagorno-Karabakh—explaining that Shaffer had worked as an advisor for “strategic affairs” for Rovnag Abdullayev, the president of the state oil company of Azerbaijan. “Like other Op-Ed contributors,” the Times’ editors admitted, “the writer, Brenda Shaffer, signed a contract obliging her to disclose conflicts of interest, actual or potential. Had editors been aware of her ties to the company, they would have insisted on disclosure.” (In another layer of irony, as Coalson observed, the same newspaper had conducted its own investigation into Azerbaijani money and influence-peddling in Washington designed to shore up support for the oil-rich dictatorship as “an important security partner.”) In a letter to the paper, Transparify’s Till Bruckner argued that “the NYT may be unwittingly aiding and abetting the very manipulations of public opinion and government policies that it publicly deplores.” The Times has promised to be more rigorous in exploring the interests of its contributors.

Shaffer, of course, became the subject of a recent round of the news-cycle fodder, declining in somewhat spectacular fashion to answer my questions about her links to the Azeri state-backed fuel company. On its own, the event could have been a one-off – an unfortunate moment of control lost, of public embarrassment, of uncomfortable realization.

But the moment didn’t come in a vacuum, and the fallout’s still pushing forward. Not only did the Times issue a clarification on Shaffer’s op-ed, but, earlier this month, the Washington Post elected to attach a similar correction to one of Shaffer’s prior write-ups. Instead of the professor and visiting scholar she’d like to posit, Shaffer is, instead, the academic who has ignominiously forced both of the flagship American newspapers to issue corrections alongside her pieces. And now, she’s also a leitmotif within the most substantive public report to date on the Kremlin’s disinformaiton campaign, and the related monies corrupting think tanks and academic types alike.

Unfortunately, it appears Shaffer hasn’t taken her discomfiting call-outs to heart. According to the agenda for this week’s religious tolerance conference in Baku, Shaffer will be speaking – without any hint of her relation with the main engine of Azerbaijan’s economy well-being. Just like her time at Columbia, Shaffer has opted to obfuscate her relationship with Baku.

Hopefully this report – which deserves to be read in full – will be enough to tip the scales. But I’m not holding my breath.