The global news network RT is the Russian government’s main weapon in an intensifying information war with the West—and its top editor has a direct phone line to the Kremlin
It was just past midnight on Feb. 28 in the Moscow studios of RT, Russia’s state-funded international television news network, when word of the assassination reached the staff: Boris Nemtsov, a leading figure in the fractious opposition to President Vladimir Putin, had been shot dead a short walk from Red Square. Later that morning, Putin’s spokesman set the tone for RT’s coverage. “What goes without saying,” said Dmitri Peskov, “is that this is a 100% provocation.” His implication was clear: the Nemtsov shooting was staged by Russia’s enemies, not to silence the victim but to discredit the regime he opposed.
Thus began the latest marathon of spin from the Kremlin’s most sophisticated propaganda machine, beamed out in a variety of languages—including English, Spanish and Arabic—to the potential audience of 700 million people that RT (formerly Russia Today) claims to reach in more than 100 countries. In the hours after the shooting, RT anchors and pundits cast the killing variously as a “huge gift to Putin haters”; possibly the work of “foreign assassins” to provide a “beautiful propaganda shot” for Western officials and media; and, repeating Peskov’s line, “a provocation against the Russian government.”
The coverage did not mention the fears Nemtsov, 55, had expressed in an interview less than three weeks before his murder that Putin could have him killed. It ignored the fact that Nemtsov was preparing to publish an investigation into Russia’s support for separatist rebels waging war in eastern Ukraine. It sidestepped the pattern of more than a dozen murders and violent attacks against Kremlin critics in the 15 years since Putin came to power. And on March 1, when a massive march began in Moscow to protest Nemtsov’s murder—with many carrying signs that read propaganda kills—RT was showing a documentary about American racism and xenophobia.
In his death as in his life, Nemtsov’s attempts to promote democracy and pluralism in Russia were nearly drowned out by the barrage of conspiracy theories and misinformation that has turned RT and the Kremlin’s other media outlets into one of the most powerful arms of Putin’s government—at home and abroad. As dissidents in Russia have been demonized by its relentless on-air attacks, so too has the West suffered in an increasingly one-sided propaganda war that has intensified since the conflict in Ukraine flared up more than a year ago. With RT in particular, Putin has created an alternate reality on TV and online—RT generates more YouTube views than any other news channel in the world—that resolutely casts Russia as victim and the West as villain. For Putin’s opponents, whether in Moscow, Kiev or Washington, the Kremlin media machine has real-world impact. It shores up support at home and creates dissent abroad. In the U.K., the channel is the fourth most watched 24-hour news station in the country, beating rivals like Fox News.