It was a report guaranteed to inflame Kremlin supporters: the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Tefft, attending a Moscow rally of opposition activists, like a shepherd keeping watch over his antigovernment flock. It even included a photograph purporting to show Tefft at the event.
But there was one major problem with the report by the Kremlin-loyal national television network REN-TV: Tefft was not at the protest in Moscow’s outer Marino district. And the image showing Tefft talking to reporters against the background of the September 20 demonstration was a fabrication.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow responded snarkily to the report on REN-TV’s website, saying Tefft had spent the day at home and publishing photoshopped images showing Tefft speaking to the same reporters against the background of famous historical events -- including U.S. General Douglas MacArthur’s return to the Philippines in 1944 and the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969.
Russia’s state-owned and government-loyal media apparatus has long portrayed Russia’s opposition as fifth columnists who do Washington’s bidding, and responses to REN-TV’s posting of the article on Twitter fit this narrative.
“The U.S. is explicitly and openly controlling paid-for opposition events. That’s who Navalny is working for!” one Twitter user responded, in a reference to leading Kremlin critic and anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, who was among the rally's organizers:
Following the U.S. Embassy’s response to the article, REN-TV on September 21 slowly walked back its report. First, it edited the report to state that it is “unknown whether these images are real or a common photo montage.”
A cached version of the original report is still accessible. It reads: “No matter how hard the American diplomat tried to get lost in the crowd, the media asked him why he showed up to this event. The short answer: He came to look at the development of democracy in Russia and judge its scale.”
Later in the day, REN-TV followed up with an item conceding that the photograph was a fake circulated on Twitter and apologized.
The image of Tefft used in the photo mashup was taken from an interview he gave on February 28 at the site near the Kremlin where Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was shot dead the previous day:
Putin and his supporters have accused the United States of orchestrating the ouster of governments and installing pro-Western leaders in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union over the past 15 years, allegations Washington calls baseless.
Tefft, in particular, has been vilified in Russia as a “diplomatic diversionist” who foments unrest in what Moscow perceives as its sphere of influence, including Georgia and Ukraine.
REN-TV is majority-owned by National Media Group, a pro-Kremlin media conglomerate controlled by Yury Kovalchuk, one of numerous influential businessmen and officials sanctioned by the United States in response to Russia’s role in the Ukraine conflict.
The U.S. Treasury Department calls Kovalchuk the "personal banker" to senior officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.
National Media Group’s board of directors is chaired by former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabayeva, who has long been rumored to be romantically involved with Putin -- a suggestion that she and Kremlin officials have dismissed and declined to comment on.