January 11, 2016 No.

Adding Russian To MEMRI's Priority Languages

Russia has been a great power for centuries, and for much of that time it has looked south and east, to the Muslim world and to the Middle East. From the ancient image of a golden Tsargrad, to the many wars with the Ottoman Empire, to support for abused Orthodox Christians, to the Communist revolution and Soviet support for Arab Socialist and Nasserist regimes, Russia's role has been consequential.[1]

Russia's growing military intervention in Syria has created a new defense and geopolitical challenge for both Israel and America. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter described it as "pouring gasoline on the fire of the Syrian Civil War."[2] This challenge involves not only Syria, Iran, and Hizbullah - all in the resistance axis - but also Iraq. Even before the latest Syrian intervention, some in the region continued to look to Russia, with a leading Fatah official going on Russia Today in Arabic to denounce the U.S. as the "head of the snake."[3] While some predict that Russia's economic system will collapse in the near future due to overwhelming political and other pressures, there is no doubt that today Russia matters.

This military intervention could also relaunch a new form of the U.S.-Russia Cold War - which, judging from Russia's strategy and propaganda, is already underway as far as Russia is concerned. Should Sunni allies of the U.S., such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or the Gulf states, proceed to equip the rebels in Syria with shoulder-fired missiles for use against Syrian or Russian aircraft, the Cold War could erupt in the region. And Israel, while not directly involved in the Syria crisis, is nevertheless a U.S. ally, and would be drawn in, one way or another.

Russian citizens, in the form of thousands of volunteers from the Caucasus region, are already fighting in the ranks of the various jihadi groupings in the Middle East, especially the Islamic State (ISIS) and Jabhat Al-Nusra. ISIS also seeks to radicalize even more Russians, through propaganda videos and outreach in that language.[4]

In recent years, Russia has begun to emerge as a new global rival to the U.S., challenging its presence and policies both through propaganda and military means, and supporting the enemies of the U.S. This has happened in Europe (in Ukraine and beyond), Latin America, the Arab and Muslim world, and globally. These policies are backed in Russia by an ongoing massive effort to indoctrinate its public towards hatred and enmity towards the U.S. that is unprecedented since the collapse of the Soviet Union.[5]

Much of the American public is mostly unaware of this; those who do know about it may underestimate the nature of the problem. An information void of this magnitude does not allow for the formulation of an effective policy against it. It is absolutely timely to apply the MEMRI model in regard to Russia: monitor the media, translate it and analyze it, and disseminate it. This is especially important as Russia seeks to, as U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ed Royce (R-CA) noted, "weaponize information" in the service of its various foreign policy goals.[6]

Bridging The language Gap

No sound policy in democratic countries can be built on an information void. To be sure, democratic governments have their own classified sources of information, and there are well-established public experts on Russia. But in order to have public support for any given policy, this knowledge void has to be addressed with at least four main audiences: media, academia, legislatures, and the public at large. Only when these audiences in democratic societies have the informational basis to decide to support a certain worldview can policies be successfully formulated and implemented.

Open source materials such as newspapers, broadcast media, and social media constitute the building blocks for policy formulation. Broad sectors of public opinion, even in narrow categories such as academia or legislatures, can often encounter a void of information on specific subjects that can inform audiences.

For the past 18 years, MEMRI has sought to fill that void in regard to the Arab and Muslim world, by providing timely and impactful open source material in English to Western audiences about the reality of the Middle East. This material has served in shaping policy and enriching the public debate on issues of concern, such as terrorism, the rise of Islamist extremism, and the struggle of a wide range of Muslim reformers in the region to be heard.

Following the public and official discourse within Russia related to the West, and to the Middle East, is now an important and timely complement to that which is taking place in Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish. More than an area of geographic focus, MEMRI is a concept: concentrating on a rising source of conflict and unmasking and analyzing it through those public voices - media, textbooks, sermons - that help in understanding the basic reality of a political development. Russia and voices in Russian certainly deserve that attention.


*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice-President of MEMRI; Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI.



[1] "Russia Enters the Middle East," Walter Laqueur, Foreign Affairs, January 1969.

[2], September 30, 2015.

[3] MEMRI TV Clip No. 4700, Fatah Official Abbas Zaki: The U.S. Is the Enemy, the Head of the Serpent Russia Today TV, December 31, 2014.

[6], January 8, 2016.