CRF Blog

RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War

by Bill Hayes

In RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War for New York Times Magazine, Jim Rutenberg looks at how Russia built a powerful mechanism of information warfare.

In early January, two weeks before Donald J. Trump took office, American intelligence officials released a declassified version of a report — prepared jointly by the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency — titled “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections.” It detailed what an Obama-era Pentagon intelligence official, Michael Vickers, described in an interview in June with NBC News as “the political equivalent of 9/11.” “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election,” the authors wrote. “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency.” According to the report, “Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

The intelligence assessment detailed some cloak-and-dagger activities, like the murky web of Russian (if not directly government-affiliated or -financed) hackers who infiltrated voting systems and stole gigabytes’ worth of email and other documents from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. But most of the assessment concerned machinations that were plainly visible to anyone with a cable subscription or an internet connection: the coordinated activities of the TV and online-media properties and social-media accounts that made up, in the report’s words, “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine.”

The assessment devoted nearly half its pages to a single cable network: RT. The Kremlin started RT — shortened from the original Russia Today — a dozen years ago to improve Russia’s image abroad. It operates in several world capitals and is carried on cable and satellite networks across the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. RT and the rest of the Russian information machine were working with “covert intelligence operations” to do no less than “undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order,” the assessment stated. And, it warned ominously, “Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the U.S. presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against U.S. allies and their election processes.” On Sept. 11, RT announced that the Justice Department had asked a company providing all production and operations services for RT America in the United States to register as a “foreign agent” under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a World War II-era law that was originally devised for Nazi propaganda. Also on Sept. 11, Yahoo News reported that a former correspondent at Sputnik was speaking with the F.B.I. as part of an investigation into whether it was violating FARA.

Russia has dismissed the intelligence-community claims as so much Cold War-era Yankee hysteria. Margarita Simonyan, RT’s chief editor, told me the allegations against the network smacked of “McCarthyism.” Still, Russian officials are remarkably open about the aims of RT and Sputnik: to “break the monopoly of the Anglo-Saxon global information streams,” as Putin himself put it during a visit to RT’s Moscow headquarters in 2013. Russia’s argument about RT’s rightful place in the American media landscape is not all that different from the one Roger Ailes made when he started Fox News: If you thought Fox looked conservative, he would say, maybe it’s because you were liberal. In Russia’s case, it’s: If RT looks biased, it’s because you live in a bubble of Western arrogance and hypocrisy. You’re the one who’s biased.

Plenty of RT’s programming, to outward appearances, is not qualitatively different from conventional opinion-infused cable news. RT America’s current roster of hosts includes the former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges, Larry King and the former MSNBC star Ed Schultz, who told me that the network allows him to cover news that may not otherwise “get the proper attention that we think it deserves.” (And, he added, “the health care is outstanding.”) Its fans point to its coverage of political perspectives that aren’t prominent on mainstream networks — voices from the Occupy movement, the libertarian right and third parties like the Green Party. The network has been nominated for four International Emmy Awards and one Daytime Emmy.

This makes RT and Sputnik harder for the West to combat than shadowy hackers. You can tighten your internet security protocols to protect against data breaches, run counterhacking operations to take out infiltrators, sanction countries with proven links to such activities. But RT and Sputnik operate on the stated terms of Western liberal democracy; they count themselves as news organizations, protected by the First Amendment and the libertarian ethos of the internet.

So over the past decade, even as the Putin government clamped down on its own free press — and as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, the U.S.-government-run broadcasting services, were largely squeezed off the Russian radio dial — RT easily acquired positions on the basic cable rosters of Comcast, Cox, Charter, DirecTV and Fios, among others. The network’s offshoots — RT UK, RT Arabic, RT Deutsch, RT Español — operate just as freely in other countries (though British regulators have reprimanded RT UK for content “materially misleading or not duly impartial”). Macron might have grumbled about RT to Putin, but France is not standing in the way of RT’s plans to start a new French channel. [more]