Traveling recently in what might be called “new frontline” states—Estonia, Ukraine, and Moldova—I was struck by the depth of concern I encountered about Russian propaganda. And not just propaganda aimed at the Russian population and neighboring countries. At a conference in Tallinn, a Politico reporter and experienced Russia hand who had just covered the parliamentary elections in Britain told me voters he’d interviewed in Wales and Scotland had brought up clearly identifiable pieces of propaganda spread by Russia’s state-owned global television and radio network, RT. In the United States, the State Department and Congress have been sufficiently concerned about the Kremlin’s worldwide propaganda offensive to advocate increases in budgets for U.S. public diplomacy, which includes international broadcasting.
And for good reason. The Russian propaganda machine is being credited with almost magical powers of penetration and persuasion. NATO’s military commander, General Philip Breedlove, has called it “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen.” David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, who covered the last years of the Soviet Union for the Washington Post, calls RT “darkly, nastily brilliant, so much more sophisticated than Soviet propaganda.”
Indeed, the global reach of Russian propaganda is impressive. RT, the flagship operation, broadcasts news and talk shows in five major languages with a potential audience of over 700 million people in 100 countries. It also garners a significant following on YouTube. In December 2014, RT announced that its family of YouTube channels had racked up 2 billion total views, besting such media titans as CNN and Al Jazeera by sizable margins. Launched last year, the Sputnik news network plans to broadcast in 30 languages in 34 countries.
Then there is the shadow army of Kremlin-paid Internet “trolls” who closely monitor social media as well as major Western news sites, ready to pounce on critics of the Kremlin. The aim of the Kremlin’s messaging, as one expert put it, is “not to persuade (as in classic public diplomacy) or earn credibility but to sow confusion via conspiracy theories and proliferate falsehoods.” These outlets echo Kremlin narratives, while using conspiracy theories and anti-Western rhetoric to appeal to segments of their audience that are skeptical of official narratives, notably the far left and the far right.
Sold as an “objective” alternative to Western media expressing the Russian point of view, this is propaganda in the guise of factual reporting. “Question more” is RT’s official slogan. Naturally, RT never identifies itself as created and funded by the Russian government.
The overarching objective seems to be less to bolster the “Russia brand” than to degrade the reputation of the West and thus deny it the moral high ground. Yes, we are corrupt, yes, we are authoritarian, incompetent—but look at your own governments! At least we don’t lecture others! You won’t catch us pontificating about “democracy” and “human rights.”
Thus, when the CEO of the French oil company Total, who had vociferously opposed economic sanctions on Russia, was killed when his plane slammed into a snowplow operated by a drunken driver at a Moscow airport, Russian commentators asserted that he had been assassinated by the CIA.
Or try looking for information on the web about the growing presence of Russian nationals among ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq. You’ll find your way quickly to one of Russia’s most popular Facebook-style sites, VKontakte.ru. There you’ll see, pictured in the sidebar at the top of the page, a cartoonish Uncle Sam holding a baby jihadist clad in the familiar black uniform with a Kalashnikov on its back. The caption: “ISIS is a creation of America’s two-party system.”
This effort is generously funded. This year the Kremlin bankrolled RT to the tune of $400 million, while the global news agency Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) received $170 million. For comparison, Voice of America’s budget this year is $212 million and that of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty $104 million—in a country whose GDP is nine times Russia’s.
Generously funded, slick, and unconstrained by moral scruples, Russian propaganda nevertheless owes some of its ostensible success to a powerful factor not of its own making.