What It Is, Why It Matters
By Anna Borshchevskaya & Catherine Cleveland
INFORMATION MANIPULATION is a key foreign policy tool that Russia utilizes to pursue its anti-Western agenda.
Dmitry Kiselyov, one of the Kremlin’s main propagandists, describes journalism as a warfare tactic: “If you can persuade a person, you don’t need to kill him. Let’s think about what’s better: to kill or to persuade? Because if you aren’t able to persuade, then you will have to kill.”
The Middle East is a growing arena of Moscow influence, and the Kremlin has invested heavily and consistently in reaching Arabic-speaking audiences. Indeed, Moscow devotes more resources to reaching the developing world, primarily Spanish as well as Arabic-speaking, than to reaching Western audiences.
Moreover, while Russia’s overall population is declining, its large Muslim minority is growing. This demographic shift has boosted Moscow’s need to engage with the Middle East, a development in which media has taken on a central role.
The Middle East media landscape provides Russian state with unique opportunities. A region with strong state-controlled media, weak independent outlets, and a burgeoning reliance on social media—along with a historical suspicion of Western news sources—has created useful openings that the Kremlin exploits to advance its agenda.
Russia presents its own media as a better alternative to other Arabic-language networks, and it has a more receptive audience in the region than in the West. Today, the RT Arabic and Sputnik Arabic websites are the two most visible outlets of Moscow’s propaganda influence.
Analysis of these sites shows both continuity with the Kremlin’s traditional propaganda goals and adaptation of tried-and-true methods to advance them. These outlets cultivate an image of Moscow as a great power in the Middle East and focus heavily on social media. Unsurprisingly, they also advance a divisive, conspiratorial, anti-Western ideology.
Deeper investigation, however, reveals a more nuanced approach aimed at building credibility with Arab audiences through coverage of human interest and domestic issues—especially in Egypt—and through efforts to develop relationships with other local and regional media.
As this Kremlin-funded information operation gains local traction and viewers, it increasingly poses a challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East.
RT and Sputnik RT English (formerly Russia Today, “Rossiya Segodnya” in Russian) is Moscow’s flagship propaganda outlet for reaching overseas audiences.
It officially launched in December 2005 as part of the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti. Headquartered in Moscow, RT’s slogan is “Question More,” which encapsulates its aim to undermine the West through deception by sowing confusion and doubt.
RT’s editorial strategy is based on the idea that there is no objective truth. “When we designed this [RT] project back in 2005,” Vladimir Putin would say in an interview years later, “we intended introducing another strong player on the world’s scene…but also try, let me stress, I mean—try to break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams.”
RT began broadcasting in Arabic as Rusiya al-Yaum TV on May 4, 2007, and rebranded as RT Arabic in 2009. RT Spanish followed in 2009, succeeded by RT America in 2010, RT Russian in 2011, RT UK, French, and German in 2014, and RT Chinese in 2015.
That RT’s first choice of broadcasting language after English was Arabic, followed by Spanish, reveals the early emphasis the Kremlin placed on reaching out to the Middle East.
A common thread of anti-American bias binds all RT reporting, but the platform also tailors its message to individual audiences. As Kremlin experts Robert Orttung and Elizabeth Nelson explain, “By separating audiences into linguistic categories, RT naturally separates out its priorities for each audience through its different ongoing messages in each channel.”
Currently, RT Arabic is available in the Middle East and North Africa via its satellite signal. More important, however, the channel is available online worldwide and is extremely active on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. RT Arabic correspondents are also on-site in the region, posted in Egypt, the Palestinian territories, Israel, and Lebanon, as well as in the United States and Britain.
The Sputnik news service is newer and less prominent than RT. Launched in November 2014 and headquartered in Moscow, Sputnik is owned by Rossiya Segodnya (ostensibly now the parent organization of RIA Novosti and Sputnik though it bears the same name in Russian as RT’s original incarnation, Russia Today).
Operating in more than thirty languages, Sputnik provides news via its website and includes radio broadcasting and a newswire service. In the network’s own description, it has more than eighty native speaking Arabic writers active in over fifty countries.
According to Sputnik’s website, the newswire service also provides multiple delivery channels through an FTP server, an online news terminal, and email. RT disburses about 80 percent of its expenses abroad—another indicator of the importance Moscow places on reaching foreign audiences. The ruble’s value has plummeted in recent years, which matters when assessing RT spending.
In 2015, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its impending intervention in Syria, Moscow raised RT’s budget more than twofold, to approximately $300 million, where it remains approximately today.
Another study mentions a figure of $236 million but underscores that this figure has been “continuously revised and not all funding is reported.” According to the same study, in 2014—the year Moscow annexed Crimea—RT’s budget was at its highest by far, at $445 million. Regardless of the minor differences in the budget numbers available, and accepting that not all funding is reported, it is possible to compare these numbers to other outlets.
Take the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) budget, which has risen from $75 million in 2007 to a projected $128 million for 2018. Although this trajectory demonstrates growth, RFE/RL’s budget has never come close to that of RT, even at the former’s peak during the last days of the Soviet Union.
To give another example, the BBC World Service Group’s 2014/15 budget, which included television, radio, and online news distribution, was $376 million. The region’s largest pan-Arab networks, Al-Arabiya and Al Jazeera, do not have publicly reported budgets.
However, intermittent reports do suggest high expenditures: Al Jazeera announced an annual budget of $650 million in 2010, even as reports of a shrinking budget, including staff cuts and the shuttering of Al Jazeera America, have emerged since 2016. Al-Arabiya is similarly reported to operate in the hundreds of millions annually.
ANNA BORSHCHEVSK is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on Russia’s policy toward the Middle East. A doctoral candidate at George Mason University, she is also a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. Her analysis is published widely in venues such as Foreign Affairs, The Hill, The New Criterion, the Middle East Quarterly, and Forbes.
CATHERINE CLEVEL is a Washington Institute senior fellow and editor of Fikra Forum. She recently received a master’s degree in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago.