Russia Today, the Legacy of Mikhal Lesin

Over 4,500 people die in Washington D.C. every year, but most of them are no Mikhail Lesin. Lesin, found dead in a Dupont Circle hotel room 5 November, was the Russian Mass Media Minister from 1999 to 2004, a Putin aid, and an executive of Gazprom-Media. Perhaps more importantly, Lesin is credited by RT (originally known as Russia Today), a Russian English-language media outlet backed by the Russian government, as its inspiration.

Image courtesy of Jürg Vollmer © 2009, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Jürg Vollmer © 2009, some rights reserved.

RT, created in 2005, boasts a ‘global reach of over 700 million people’ with a YouTube presence reaching over 3 million subscribers. With such a wide audience, RT wields considerable power and has the ability to shape the minds of millions—which indicates a worthwhile investment on behalf of the Russian state. Given the financial investment in RT by the Russian state, which has been estimated from $230 million to $300 million per year, it should come as no surprise that the Russian state expects a return on its investment. In the case of RT, this ‘return’ is the network’s willingness to toe the party line, effectively serving as a means of conducting information warfare for the Russian government.

Perhaps the blanket assumption that RT simply spouts the rhetoric of the Russian government because it receives state funding is a bit asinine. After all, RT’s rebuttal to claims of being state-controlled does have a valid point: outlets like the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and RFE/RL are considered credible despite their government funding. However, the actions of RT—and of those who work for the network—do generally support the view of the network as state-controlled.

In an article published in the World Affairs Journal, Peter Pomerantsev quotes the managing director for RT, Alexey Nikolov, as stating that ‘there is no such thing as objective reporting.’ This mantra is readily apparent through RT’s content, with the network playing host to both conspiracy theorists and members of the far left, the far right, and, more generally, anyone offering a critical take on the West.[1]

In addition to its questionable choices in programming, RT’s façade as an unbiased news outlet has been threatened by public relations incidents drawing attention to the network’s recurring distortion of facts. In one such incident, journalist Liz Wahl resigned on air, claiming that she could not bear the moral burden of working for a network ‘funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin.’ Julia Ioffe, writing in 2010, interviewed RT correspondents as part of a broader piece on the network, finding that RT staff were fed their coverage of the Russo-Georgian War from Moscow and were reprimanded if they strayed from the official story regardless of its relation to the events going on around them.

In short, RT lends equal credence to fact and fiction so long as each serve the network’s ends—the promotion of Putin and the disparagement of the West. In this sense, RT’s loose conception of ‘the truth’ creates a world where, in the words of Pomerantsev, ‘nothing is true and everything is possible.’ Pomerantsev links RT’s methods to the KGB’s ‘active measures,’ which involved the creation of elaborate falsehoods designed to create divisions in the West—the difference being that RT has substituted quantity for quality, pushing out streams of “cheap, crass and quick” stories.

The funding devoted to RT, its dedication to whitewashing the Putin regime, and its tendency to support any opinion or theory critical of mainstream Western attitudes are all indicators of RT’s subordination to the Putin regime. This subordination of what is ostensibly a freethinking media network is one factor contributing to Russia’s ability to present a single unified political view. New York University professor Mark Galeotti sees this as Russia’s greatest strength vis-à-vis the West, as the democratic process in Western states inhibits their ability to take a strong stance against Russia, especially over the conflict in Ukraine. It stands to reason then that the disinformation propagated by RT and other Russian media networks aims to exploit and widen these democratic divisions.

The Institute of Modern Russia has drawn attention to the importance of soft power in Russian media through its report, titled, “The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money.” This report highlights the role of RT in Russia’s soft power strategy, focusing on its role in Russia’s unique approach to soft power. Unlike Nye’s original concept of soft power being based on attraction, soft power is conceptualized by the Putin regime as a wider toolbox for manipulation. This unique interpretation of soft power—and the Russian abandonment of Nye’s original concept—can be seen through the decision to rebrand Russia Today. The rebranded network—christened RT in 2009—shifted its aim to providing international audiences with a positive view of Russia and, more simply, to portray the West in a negative light.

A major component of this endeavor to cast the West in a negative light relies upon the merging of fact and fiction in the exploitation of issues in the United States and other Western states. The use of the RT network to draw attention to income inequality in the West so as to criticize Western society can be easily seen through their coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which they present as the ‘U.S. version of the Arab Spring’ and as having changed the course of US history. This capitalization on problems in the West (both real and fictitious) is used to cast doubt, as “The Menace of Unreality” argues, on whether the West itself truly believes in its values. The genius behind this strategy is that this doubt empowers voices of dissent, no matter their political affiliation, while offering no real platform for change. This allows each group to interpret their own particular ideology as the superior to that endorsed by the mainstream, impairing the ability of the West to take a concrete stance against Russian action.

To date, the West has yet to develop an effective method of countering the disruptive influence of the RT network and comparable outlets for Russian disinformation. Though Lesin has passed on from this world, the network he inspired lives on, having evolved into an indispensible implement of Russian foreign policy.

[1] A much more extensive account of the outlandish items RT passes off as news can be found in a report titled “The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money” published in association with the Institute of Modern Russia.