Modern Russia’s military industrial complex is yet to produce an epochal technology compatible to USSR’s Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite launched in 1957. In the meantime, Russia’s generously funded international broadcasting complex, in many ways surpassing the Soviet foreign propaganda apparatus in its heyday, has already launched their own Sputnik, “a major new media brand with modern multimedia centers in dozens of countries.”
Sputnik News Agency and Radio is produced by Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today, in Russian), Russia’s foreign broadcasting giant, and conceived as the country’s primary global media brand targeting foreign audiences. Sputnik agency will be running news feeds in Arabic, Chinese, English, and Spanish. The organization operates dozens of multimedia international hubs with 30-80 employees in many of them. The Sputnik news website is divided into international, UK, and US sections to cater with more precision and relevance to (inter)national target audiences. In 2015, the organization aims to make its radio broadcasting available in 30 languages, for a total of over 800 hours a day—almost thrice the Soviet foreign radio service’s daily volume at its peak—covering over 130 cities and 34 countries.
“Patriotically minded people”
Russia’s international broadcasting architecture, to recap, received a major overhaul in December 2013. Taking Russia’s media community by complete surprise, President Putin issued an executive order to restructure the country’s foreign broadcasting efforts by rebranding a major national news agency RIA Novosti into a predominantly foreign broadcasting outlet Rossiya Segodnya. The new media conglomerate would unite under its roof, among others, the Voice of Russia radio service and RT global television channel, consolidating Russia’s push to influence the global media agenda.
The choice for Rossiya Segodnya’s Director General fell on a controversial, yet unquestionably loyal, TV presenter Dmitry Kiselev. At the time of the appointment, Putin explained his decision by saying that “there should be patriotically minded people at the head of state information resources, people who uphold the interests of the Russian Federation.” Following Russia’s move into Crimea, the EU put Kiselev on the sanctions list as a “[c]entral figure of the government propaganda” and, at the height of the Russia-West confrontational exchange past summer, the presenter boasted of Russia’s capabilities to turn the USA into radioactive dust.
Kiselev’s patriotic fervor has been evident from—literally—day one. In his first impromptu meeting in the newsroom, shakily shot with a smartphone camera, the new Director General candidly shared his editorial vision with staffers. Most importantly, a journalist of a state-owned media must love their country and cover it accordingly. Russia’s international image, said Kiselev, is in the hands of foreign media, which, more intentionally than not, misrepresent the country and thus breed hostility towards it. Kiselev also urged his employees to see their work as a higher mission of battling societal disconnect, which has permeated Russian society since the breakup of the Soviet Union, by trying to unite people around a positive agenda.
Sputnik’s editorial policy, then, comes as no surprise. During an ambitiously titled New Era in International Broadcasting presentation (video) at Rossiaya Segodnya’s offices in downtown Moscow, Kiselev outlined the three foundational pillars of Sputnik’s vision: a multipolar, multicolored, and multicultural world. In such a world, “Japan is Japanese, China – Chinese, Turkey – Turkish, [and]Russia – Russian,” while strict adherence to the international law assures a just world order. At the same time, not naming a specific country, Kiselev asserted that “The world has grown tired of one nation considering itself exceptional and bound to lead.” Moreover, he continued, that nation aggressively propagates a unipolar world structure that leads to “blood and human suffering.”
Sputnik’s op-ed headlines available on the launch day leave little doubt as to which country Kiselev had it mind: “US Ebola Policy Could Have Darker Motives,” “Dysfunctional America,” “Presidential Crimes: Then and Now,” or “The Empire of Chaos and the War on Drugs.” In this, Sputnik is following in the footsteps of its sister outlet RT, which has over the years perfected the tone of impassioned anti-Americanism with a touch of sensationalism. The editorial strategy fits well into Russia’s post-2012 official discourse, following Putin’s return to presidency, that has amplified the notion of sovereignty and opposition to a unipolar international architecture. The political narrative has also been increasingly coated in layers of cultural and nationalist rhetoric of Western moral decay and Russia’s return to conservative, traditional, and Orthodox values.
Together with augmenting its international broadcasting capabilities, Russia has been—also since around 2012, before the escalation surrounding the Ukrainian crisis—determinedly shrinking the influence of international, mostly American, media and cultural organizations. It was Dmitry Kiselev who, in response to the Voice of America’s application to renew their broadcasting license, replied with a blunt “We are not going to cooperate anymore,” explaining that VoA had been “a mere spam on [Russia’s] frequencies.” Over the past months and years, the same fate befell USAID, American Councils, and the largest U.S.-Russia student exchange program FLEX. Following Russia’s hastily passed law that limits foreign capital in media companies to 20% and other increasingly rigid regulations, CNN decided to leave Russia before the end of this year.
The duality of increased global information presence and domestic limitations is fully in line with Russia’s latest Concept of the Foreign Policy from 2013, which is reflective of the post-2012 political thinking: “Russia will seek to ensure its objective perception in the world, develop its own effective means of information influence on public opinion abroad, strengthen the role of Russian mass media in the international information environment providing them with essential state support, as well as actively participate in international information cooperation, and take necessary measures to counteract information threats to its sovereignty and security” (Emphasis added).
The Information Race
Restricted politically and financially by the current hostile atmosphere and sanctions, Russian leadership is evidently fighting back with information instruments that its opponents find challenging to counteract. Unlike financial flows, halting information flows is much less feasible technically and dangerous politically and morally, for the fear of violating the freedom of speech paradigm. Although the Cold War framework, as applied to the present Russia-West tensions, is inadequate and tiresome both analytically and discursively, certain similarities are impossible to ignore in the launch of the two Sputniks.
The 1957 Soviet satellite brought about the Sputnik crisis, a period of public shock and fear in the United States due to the illusion of a profound technological gap between the superpowers, and ultimately led to the Space Race. Sputnik News, and the rest of Russia’s recent information-related steps, also seem alarming to many, although they come amid the Information Race that has already been underway for some years, dramatically exacerbated by the Ukrainian crisis. The looming escalation is another feature that unites the two. Kremlin reportedly revised and increased the financing of Russia’s international broadcasting for 2015-2017. In 2015, RT’s budget will swell by almost a third and Rossiya Segodnya’s, which produces Sputnik, by 176%.
Reported on with barely hidden skepticism in its infancy, RT and more broadly Russia’s information power abroad is increasingly recognized—and not without a reason. While many Western media giants are shrinking in size and budget, Russia’s foreign broadcasting, being among the top ideological priorities, is enjoying global expansion with plentiful funding. In October, RT became accessible for free to 80% of Argentinians, the first foreign TV channel available on national television in a Latin America country. In what The Guardian labeled “a new soft power onslaught,” in November, RT launched UK-specific 24/7 broadcasting, and a brand news London studio to go along with it. In its first week, RT UK boasted half a million viewers. Already broadcasting in English, Spanish, and Arabic, RT is also soon to expand into French and German. And, of course, there’s the record-breaking RT YouTube news channel, the first to reach one billion views.
Identically following RT’s editorial policy, the slick, global, and Kremlin-backed Sputnik is likely to enjoy popularity among its target audiences. The questions of who these audiences are in the West and what exactly the social and political effect of Russia’s broadcasting is, are more complicated and need to be answered with nuanced research. What is clear is that, besides high quality production and rich resources, Russian global voice’s quickly growing popularity rests on the message that it conveys and that apparently resonates. The sentiment is anti-American, anti-corporate, and anti-establishment, whether discussing failures of the US prison system, oppression of Central American indigenous peoples by energy corporations, or providing such influential oppositional figures as the Wikileak’s Julian Assange with their own weekly show. The narrative, in essence, offers an alternative media agenda and worldview so drastically different from the mainstream.
This alternative voice is not without its paradoxes. For one, Russian leadership blames Western soft power for appealing to the discontent—within Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere—in order to incite internal upheavals. Yet, an inflammatory editorial tone is arguably the very basis of Russia’s broadcasting in the West, attracting fringe audiences on both the left and the right. Sputnik, RT, and other instruments in Russia’s arsenal also manage to cleverly portray, or disguise, their efforts as subversive to the global and national elites, capitals, and powers; all this while being the brainchild of the world’s most powerful person and operating on budgets of hundreds millions of dollars, guaranteed by natural resources exports of Russia’s quasi-state oil and gas corporations. This is not to mention that these very political and corporate powers have bulldozed the domestic media landscape over the past 15 years in a concerted effort to rid it off substantive oppositional voices. But the context gets lost behind impressive studio decorations, computer graphics, and attractive presenters–speaking in your native language.
It may be that Russia’s international outlets are preaching to the choir, those already disenchanted with the Western media and policies. The preacher, nevertheless, is increasingly articulate, sophisticated, and vocal, and the choir – more numerous, singing in new languages across new countries. Outgrowing its clumsy beginnings, the country’s outlets are progressively moving from the margins and towards the mainstream. Criticisms of outright propaganda, poor journalism, or overwhelming anti-Western bias still apply, but Russia’s global media can no longer be derided and ignored – it has become too loud for that.
Stanislav Budnitsky is a doctoral student at the School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada). His research spans global media, soft power and public diplomacy, and geopolitics of the Internet, with a focus on Russia and the post-Soviet space. Stanislav was a 2013-2014 Fellow of the Stanford University’s U.S. — Russia Forum and regularly contributes to the USC Center on Public Diplomacy.