How Russia is trying to sell its war with Ukraine through RT

One headline on the state-sponsored Russian media outlet RT this week stood out among the others.   

“No place for emotions in nuclear decisions — Kremlin,” the headline at the top of the website’s front page read on Monday.   

The headline ran days after Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the possibility of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and after he said the U.S. had set a precedent for their use with the World War II bombings of Japan.   

The report was about whether Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechen Republic, was using emotion in suggesting that Russia should use “low-yield nuclear weapons” against Ukraine. It quoted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying there was no place for emotion in the decision.  

The headline is one of a slew on RT that highlights how the Kremlin is using state-backed media to promote its own narratives on its war with Ukraine in the West.

Disinformation and Russian propaganda experts say the narratives in RT show how heavily Putin is using pro-Kremlin megaphones to attempt to reach a Western audience to counter what is being reported about Russia in independent media and to fight back against condemnations pouring in from American and European political leaders. 

“The main message they are trying to get out [to the West] is that Russia is a defender of traditional values. And if you notice, in Putin’s speech announcing his annexation of Ukrainian territory, one of the points he made is against the LGBT community and trying to harp on that theme which connects with many of the conservative movements in the West,” said Robert W. Orttung, a research professor of international affairs at George Washington University.

“He sees himself as already at war with the West. … Anything he can do to undermine unity with the West and create division, in his mind will undermine Western military efforts to counter the Russian invasion,” Orttung said.   

The deputy editor-in-chief of RT said in response to criticism of the news site that it is simply offering Western, English-speaking audiences a different point of view.  

“All it takes is for RT to put forward a divergent point of view to send the mainstream media into hysterics in its comfortable echo-chamber,” the editor, Anna Belkina, said in a statement to The Hill this week.  

Initially founded in 2005, RT has worked to target viewers in the United States and other English-speaking countries who are distrusting of traditional Western media sources. 

On its website, the outlet says it remains available around the world in six languages: English, Arabic, Spanish, French, German and Russian, and features a multimedia agency RUPTLY that provides livestreaming, video on demand, archive footage and broadcast services.

It is difficult to quantify how large RT’s reach in English-speaking countries is today, though it has certainly lost a significant footprint in the Western world since the war in Ukraine began.   

The European Union banned RT and Sputnik, another Russian state media outlet, earlier this year for publishing what it called “systematic information manipulation and disinformation.” 

RT America ceased production and laid off most of its staff in March after it was dropped by DirecTV amid longstanding scrutiny over its content relating to the coronavirus, cultural issues and American elections. 

Social media websites like Twitter and YouTube have also banned RT content citing similar concerns. 

When Russia’s offensive in Ukraine began earlier this year, media personalities on RT cast doubt on whether the U.S. should support Ukraine while other state-sponsored media in Russia painted its citizens as under threat from Ukraine and the West.

“State-funded RT is a crucial element of Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem. It serves as a global courier of the Kremlin narratives under the guise of international media operating in several languages,” said Eto Buziashvili, a researcher at the Atlantic Council focusing on Russia.   

“The purpose of RT is to support Kremlin political and military objectives,” Buziashvili said. “The narratives spread by the RT differ depending on these objectives and include: sowing confusion via spreading mutually exclusive narratives, discrediting opponents and particularly the West, threatening, setting pretext or false flags for justifying Russia’s next steps, among others.”   

Putin’s propaganda effort both abroad through RT and within Russia usually has a few goals, said Emily Harding, a former CIA analyst who is now deputy director and senior fellow at the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.   

“It’s the ‘people are saying’ kind of narrative. And they try to question the way the West does things. They call into question NATO, European unity. How the West are the corrupt ones, not Russia,” she said.   

Experts say the element of distraction and deflection are key to RT’s strategy and come out of Putin’s larger propaganda playbook.   

On Monday, RT published a series of articles defending Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk from what they described as “pro-Ukraine bots” on Twitter after the tycoon was blasted online for a proposed “peace plan” that included Ukraine giving up territory that Russia had just annexed in a ceremony on Friday roundly criticized by the West.  

Articles published on the RT website Tuesday included one highlighting a U.S. Treasury official describing how the Group of 7 large economies will “Target Russian Oil” and another feature story outlining how sanctions against Russia have “crippled the global tourism industry.”

Another article RT published this week blasted “western media” for reporting “Russia blew up Nord Stream.”   

“But why would Moscow destroy pipelines it spent billions of dollars building?” the same headline asked.   

“The NordStream sabotage conspiracy theory plays on a familiar Kremlin trope: that the United States was responsible for a dark, clandestine plot. Moscow aims to dent the credibility and soft power of the United States by painting it as violent and hypocritical,” said Jessica Brandt, policy director for the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution.   

“It is also using this opportunity to ding President Biden as part of a bid to amplify domestic partisan splits within the United States on the eve of the midterms,” Brandt said. “And then of course, there is deflecting blame for what appears likely to be its own misdeed.”  

Tags Ramzan Kadyrov Russia Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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