Dmitriy Kiselyov, top Russian news executive, Kremlin propagandist and first head of the state-owned foreign news channel Russia Today (now RT), once described the Kremlin’s media strategy thus: “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.”
This enframing of media deployment as a war tactic has never been more relevant than it is now, a little over a week since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Foreign-facing outlets RT and Sputnik aim spread the Kremlin’s inward-facing propaganda overseas, adopting tried-and-tested methods to achieve these goals in different parts of the world.
Sputnik Arabic reports on events in the world in general, and on issues that concern Russia, from a point of view consistent with Moscow's foreign agenda. It portrays Moscow as a “superpower” in the Middle East and uses social media to spread a divisive, conspiratorial anti-Western ideology.
RT and Sputnik’s accounts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine re-iterate Putin’s claims of the “de-Nazification of Ukraine” and “maintaining Russian security”, accusing Ukraine of posing a threat to Russian national security while denying that Ukrainian civilians have been targeted or suffered any harm during the war.
The “journalists” at these two media outlets repeat the official line without questioning its validity or authenticity, while Russia is punishing independent outlets that go against the grain.
The Kremlin on Ukraine: Echoes of Syria
In recent days, pro-Russian social media accounts spread the false claim that Ukrainian intelligence services were staging fabricated scenes of mass casualties among civilians. It compared these alleged activities to those it claimed had been carried out by “the terrorist organization of the ‘White Helmets’ in Syria”.
In September 2015, Sputnik and RT launched a campaign to discredit and demonize the Syria Civil Defense (known as the White Helmets), a volunteer organization providing humanitarian assistance to civilians in opposition-controlled parts of Syria.
RT and Sputnik claimed that the air raids on civilian areas in Syria, ordered by President Bashar al-Assad and bolstered by Russian weaponry, had been “targeting ISIS”. The evidence to the contrary collected by the White Helmets in the course of their work prompted a Kremlin-sponsored campaign to defame the organization. The White Helmets were variously linked in state-backed propaganda to al-Qaida, American “psy-ops” and even the illegal organ trade, leading to a loss of funding and even concerns at the level of the UN. None of the claims were true.
Now, the same tactics are being deployed by Russian state media to justify the invasion of Ukraine. But on February 28, Russian officials asked residents of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, to leave before the planned strikes, so as to evade responsibility for killing civilians.
Sputnik and RT do not use the words “war” and “invasion” to describe what is happening. In line with orders from the top, the invasion is described as a “special military operation”. For Syrians and other observers around the world, the distortion of language and facts is all too familiar.