The New York Times magazine’s Jim Rutenberg reports on RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War. Disturbingly: How the Kremlin built one of the most powerful information weapons of the 21st century — and why it may be impossible to stop._
… 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 [rebranded from its founding as Russia Today] 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.
How did Russia get positioned to operate that way?
The answer is simple - motives, means, equipment and people. They funded and built a network that aspired to be the Russian equivalent of American broadcast journalism like CNN.
How Russians became broadcast journalists
[In 1999], with the Russian economy rebounding thanks to strong oil prices, Mikhail Lesin and Alexei Gromov, Putin’s press strategist, secured the approval and financing to start the network, which they called Russia Today. To run the new operation, they hired a 25-year-old TV reporter named Margarita Simonyan.
When she took the helm of Russia Today the following year, Simonyan modeled the new network on CNN and the BBC, and she hired TV consultants from Britain to help give Russia Today a modern cable-news look and feel. (The RT studios in Moscow, when I visited them this spring, were as state-of-the-art as any I’d seen in the United States.) “Nobody in Russia had experience of that kind,” Simonyan told me. “Twenty-four-hour news had not been established yet.” One of her employees, Andrey Kiyashko, who started at RT in his late teens, told me: “CNN, BBC — we were watching it and taking notes on how to be broadcast journalists.”
… The main Russian international news service, RIA Novosti, hired journalists from The Moscow Times, Agence France-Presse and Reuters, following the philosophy that Russia served its interests best by providing traditional warts-and-all news, with a Russian voice and perspective. “There was no talk about censorship,” Nabi Abdullaev, a former Moscow Times deputy chief editor who oversaw RIA Novosti’s foreign-language news service, told me. “All they wanted from me was quality professional standards in reporting; that was it.”
Weaponizing Russian media
But that all changed shortly after Putin’s presidential re-election in 2012. The following year, with no warning, Putin signed a decree effectively bringing together RIA Novosti and Voice of Russia, the broadcast service previously called Radio Moscow, under the umbrella of a new organization called Rossiya Segodnya. The Kremlin appointed as its manager Dmitry Kiselyov, state television’s most popular host, known for homophobic rants and his taste for conspiracy theories. Kiselyov went to greet the shocked staff a few days later, delivering a speech that one staff member surreptitiously recorded and posted to YouTube.
“Objectivity is a myth,” Kiselyov said. “Just imagine a young man who puts an arm around the shoulder of a girl,” he went on, “and tells the girl, ‘You know, I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time that I treat you objectively.’ Is this what she’s waiting for? Probably not. So in the same way, our country, Russia, needs our love. If we speak about the editorial policy, of course, I would certainly want it to be associated with love for Russia.” Journalism, he said, was an instrument of the country.
Three weeks later, Kiselyov announced that Margarita Simonyan would serve as the new organization’s editor in chief. Simonyan renamed RIA Novosti’s international branch Sputnik — “because I thought that’s the only Russian word that has a positive connotation, and the whole world knows it,” she told me. Kiselyov presented it as a defensive weapon, saying it was for people “tired of aggressive propaganda promoting a unipolar world” from the West. Meanwhile, Simonyan made new plans for RT that included expansions in Britain and Germany. Together, RT and Sputnik would be the nucleus of an assertively pro-Russian, frequently anti-West information network, RT in the mold of a more traditional cable network and Sputnik as its more outspoken, flashy younger sibling.
… In early 2013, Valery Gerasimov, a top Russian general, published an article in a Russian military journal [in which he wrote] "There were new means through which to wage war that were “political, economic, informational,” and they could be applied “with the involvement of the protest potential of the population.” Russia’s military doctrine changed its definition of modern military conflict: “a complex use of military force, political, economic, informational and other means of nonmilitary character, applied with a large use of the population’s protest potential.”
Military officials in America and Europe have come to refer to this idea alternatively as the “Gerasimov doctrine” and “hybrid war,” which they accuse Russia of engaging in now. When I asked [Dmitri] Peskov [Putin’s press secretary] about those charges, he shrugged. Everyone was doing it, he said. “If you call what’s going on now a hybrid war, let it be hybrid war,” he said. “It doesn’t matter: It’s war.”
So basically what has happened, and is happening, is that Russia has taken advantage of American democratic inventions in order to inflict harm on America. They started with a cable news network emulating CNN. Then they moved on to social media - Twitter and Facebook. This is no longer about Russian pride. It is about waging war.
You should read about the fascinating research on Russian use of our social media. One of the more interesting observations is this - from the “founder and chief executive of a social-media marketing and analytics firm called Graphika”.
What was more interesting was who [in 2016] followed RT. It drew substantially from all quadrants of Kelly’s fake-news universe — Trump supporters and Bernie Sanders supporters, Occupy Wall Streeters and libertarians — which made it something of a rarity. “The Russians aren’t just pumping up the right wing in America,” Kelly said. “They’re also pumping up left-wing stuff — they’re basically trying to pump up the fringe at the expense of the middle.”
So the Russians are incorporating our polarization into their playbook.
And about our defense? I do not detect any urgency regarding safeguarding our elections - at least any public signs of it. Supposedly, an infrastructure initiative would include strengthening our cyber defenses (e.g., our power grid), but that is not at the top of the Trump administration’s priorities.
Attacks on our democratic institutions and our infrastructure will continue. 2016 was but a trial run. Russia understands our weaknesses and will exploit them. Russian politician: US spies slept while Russia elected Trump.