She’s has songs written about her. She’s had Photoshopped images of her go viral. She’s had a verb named in her honor. In some parts of the Russian-language blogosphere, she’s become a minor celebrity.
Not in a good way.
Jen Psaki is the face of the U.S. State Department, seen in daily briefings fielding questions from reporters from around the world, trying to articulate U.S. foreign policy.
She’s also the target of a relentless and unrivaled swirl of derision, mockery and outright insults coming from Russian bloggers, newscasters and state-run media, which operate under the thumb of the Kremlin.
"I take it as a badge of honor,” Psaki told VOA’s Russian Service. “It is funny and entertaining that there has been a lot of time spent dedicated to Photoshopping pictures and different attacks on me over the course of time.”
“I am in a good company: U.S. officials. In fact, many women who are U.S. officials over time who also have been victims of the same Russian propaganda machine, so I take it all in stride,” she said.
That one of the top public officials of the U.S. government is being mocked isn’t new. What’s new is how personalized and vitriolic the attacks are, coming mainly via services such as Twitter and LiveJournal.
The campaign appears to have gotten at least a wink and a nudge, if not imprimatur, from the Kremlin. It also reflects the harsh rhetoric and accusations that have been slung back and forth by Washington and Moscow on the crisis in Ukraine.
Moscow asserts that the government that took over after Viktor Yanukovych's ouster as president in February was populated by Nazis and radical nationalists, and that Washington was directly backing it. Washington, for its part, has asserted that Moscow is directly funding and managing the insurgency roiling eastern Ukraine.
What is Psaking?
Dmitry Kiselyov, the man who anchored Russia’s dominant news program on the state-run TV broadcaster before being tapped as the Kremlin’s main propaganda chief, has helped popularized the term "psaking.”
In a recent broadcast, he asserted that: "People say [psaking] when someone makes a dogmatic statement about something they don’t understand, mixes the facts up, and then doesn’t apologize."
Much of the derision has focused on Psaki’s misstatements and slips of tongue, most of which have been minor. For example, at a press briefing April 10, she answered a question about Russian natural gas transport, saying that gas largely flowed from Europe to Ukraine and Russia.
She immediately corrected herself, and her comments were ignored by the majority of the media. Russia bloggers, however, piled on, saying it demonstrated the ignorance of the U.S. government.
The state-run English-language TV channel RT has created a slideshow dedicated to what it has called Psaki’s misstatements. Dmitry Rogozin, a firebrand who was formerly ambassador to NATO and is now a vice prime minister, tweeted that the Psaki press briefing "lacked a laugh track." He followed up with a derisive tweet addressed to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, saying, "Please tell Lavrov to bring Psaki some textbooks.”
Some bloggers even asserted Psaki had been fired by the State Department for the gaffes, setting up the Twitter hashtag #SavePsaki to sarcastically support her. She was not fired.
Russia’s top diplomat to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, offered semi-diplomatic commentary when asked directly by a state TV reporter if he knew her whereabouts.
“I don’t know where Psaki has gone off to,” he told the Rossiya TV reporter, but said he hoped she would "appear again… I’ve always found it very interesting to listen to her.”
History of diplomatic derision
Psaki isn’t the first U.S. government representative to be on the receiving end of Russian mockery—official or unofficial. Michael McFaul, who was ambassador to Moscow from 2012 to 2014, was stalked by Russian state TV reporters and routinely lambasted on Twitter, LiveJournal and other Russian blog sites.
In the VOA interview, Psaki appeared to suggest that the personal vitriol was being organized or, at least, endorsed by the Kremlin.
"I do think that there is a question that I think those who are involved and are behind these attacks should think about: that is, whether these are the actions of a world superpower, which Russia is," she said.
"Should they be exerting their attention towards these personal, these inaccurate attacks toward me and other United States officials?" she asked. "I think it's pretty clear what's behind this: the disagreement over the Ukraine and our policies on Ukraine."