Universal's Jeff Shell Was Booted for "Lying Propaganda Campaign," Russia Explains

Jeff Shell - H 2014
Alex J. Berliner

Jeff Shell - H 2014

In what appears to be the latest result of tense diplomatic relations with Russia, the Kremlin-backed foreign ministry has released a statement clarifying why the Universal motion pictures head is now facing a lifetime ban from the country.

Russia’s foreign ministry has released a statement clarifying why NBCUniversal film studio chairman Jeff Shell was detained in Moscow for several hours Wednesday morning before being kicked out of the country.

"The reason is that Jeff Shell was recently put on a ‘stop list,’ which Russia is expanding, as it has repeatedly said, is in response to introduction by the United States of visa sanctions against Russian citizens," reads a statement published on the Russian foreign ministry's website late Wednesday.

"Sanctions always hit both ways," continues the statement. "Everyone who introduces sanctions against Russia should keep in mind unavoidable retaliation. In this specific case, we are talking about one of the organizers of a large-scale, lying, anti-Russian propaganda campaign, financed from the U.S. budget and therefore led by decisions made at the top of the U.S. government."

Russian media was quick to link the decision to denying Shell entry to Russia with his role as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all U.S. non-military foreign broadcasting in Russia, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Russian Service, which has a bureau in Moscow.

A source with knowledge of the events confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter that U.S. officials believe the episode was unrelated to Shell's role running the Universal film studio. The belief is that this action is retaliation for the U.S. maintaining a list of Russians who are unwelcome in the U.S. However, Shell's visa application was not flagged.

After Shell was stopped at the Moscow airport on Wednesday, he was escorted to a detainment room but was not questioned and Russian authorities did not search his luggage or take his phone. Communication was hampered, however, as officials at the airport did not speak English (with the exception of one, who was not fluent). 

Shell had come to Moscow from Prague, and initially the Russian authorities said they were sending him back to that country. But NBCUniversal executives reportedly stepped in and arranged for Shell to fly to Amsterdam, and the Russian officials allowed it.

Shell, a longtime Comcast/NBCUniversal executive who oversaw international television operations before being named in 2013 to run the Los Angeles-based Universal film studio, was planning to spend two days in Russia primarily to meet with Universal staff there. He is said to have planned a celebratory dinner for good results on Wednesday night.

Both Shell and NBCUniversal declined to comment.

The incident comes at time when diplomatic relations between Washington and Moscow are at a low point, following several recent retaliatory expulsions of diplomats. Although Shell is not a diplomat, his role as chair of the BBG ties him, at least tangentially, to the U.S. government and therefore — in the eyes of Russian authorities — he is a legitimate target for expulsion.

"I suspect it has little to do with Hollywood or the entertainment industry," says Robert English, director of USC's School of International Relations. "Russian authorities have not been happy with the slant of much Radio Liberty and Voice of America coverage, with some of the highly critical content of those stations under the BBG that broadcast into Russia."  

Expulsions of diplomats have long been employed by both Russia and the U.S. when relations are strained, with officials in both Moscow and Washington often seeing an opportunity to remove embassy officials using diplomatic cover for espionage activities.

“I presume this is part of the widening tit-for-tat row between Washington and Moscow," says Mark Galeotti, a commentator on Russian security issues and senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. "The USA has, after all, sanctioned some individuals associated with Russia's media, including its overseas broadcasts, and Shell is a suitable analogue. Given RFE/RL's tone on Russia, as well as its U.S. government funding, it's hardly surprising."

Shell's expulsion comes a day before U.S Secretary of State John Kerry is due to arrive in Moscow to discuss conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh (a disputed region between Azerbaijan and Armenia) with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Following Shell’s brief detainment, the pro-Kremlin news website Pravda.ru published a story under the headline "Chief U.S. Propagandist Denied Entry Into Russia For Good."

"It is strange that BBG is surprised at this border incident," reads the story. "In light of strengthening anti-Russian propaganda in the U.S., Russian authorities' decision to deny Shell entry into the country is totally legitimate."

The incident involving Shell follows a series of controversial episodes involving Russian and U.S. diplomats. On June 6, a U.S. diplomat was physically assaulted outside the U.S. embassy in Moscow by a member of Russia's security services.

Following the incident, the U.S. expelled two Russian officials, and Russia retaliated by expelling two U.S. diplomats.