It was easy to make fun of RT America. Funded by the Russian government, the English-language news outlet seemed to worry little about journalistic standards and often engaged in bald propaganda. Now that it’s gone, it’s hard to mourn it. But the closure of RT America also signals the end of an era of more open communication between Russia and the United States. On episode 45 of The Politics of Everything, hosts Laura Marsh and Alex Pareene discuss the aims of Russia’s experiment in American news, the grim transformation of Russian politics over the past two decades, and what’s to come. Guests include Ben Judah, the author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love With Vladimir Putin, and Peter Pomerantsev, the author of This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.
Laura Marsh: It sounded almost like a familiar story in media. A TV station with a big news website starts in the mid-2000s. The station never attracts as many viewers as it’s supposed to, and the funding gets cut off. The station goes out of business, and most of the staff lose their jobs. Except this case was different, because the TV station is Russia Today, or RT America. Its funding came from the Russian government, and it shut down in the first week of March, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Alex Pareene: The station’s management described the closure as a result of “unforeseen business interruption events.”
Laura: Cable providers have cut ties with RT, and in Europe, YouTube, TikTok, and Meta all blocked RT content.
Alex: RT had been a platform for speakers and views from the right and, perhaps especially, the left that are rarely heard on mainstream American TV news. It was Larry King’s last professional home and the comedian Dennis Miller’s, as well. As an American TV news outlet, it was unusual. As a foreign propaganda effort, it was more conventional.
Laura: If we think of misinformation as being subtle, RT was the opposite.
Alex: This week on the show, we’re talking about Russia’s experiment with American news.
Laura: What was it meant to accomplish? How did Russia change over RT’s lifespan?
Alex: And what comes next? I’m Alex Pareene.
Laura: And I’m Laura Marsh.
Alex: This is The Politics of Everything.
Laura: Peter Pomerantsev is a journalist who spent several years living and working in Moscow. He’s the author of two books on Russian disinformation and propaganda, and we thought he could explain to us what RT was all about. Hi, Peter, thanks so much for coming on the show.
Peter Pomerantsev: My pleasure.
Laura: We’re talking about Russia Today. RT was launched in 2005. What was its stated mission, and why was it created?
Peter: RT was initially created with the mission of being Russia’s kind of public diplomacy–state information channel, a bit like Deutsche Welle, the German one, which is tied to the state but pretty independent, or I guess a little bit like Voice of America or something. Officially, Russia felt that it needed its own voice internationally, and a lot of the content right at the start was really quite anodyne. It was just, you know, here’s a travel show about Russia, here’s the world news, but we interviewed a Russian official about it not an American one. A perfectly legitimate bit of statecraft that most big countries did.
Alex: You mentioned Voice of America; this is something that is not out of the ordinary for a country to have: state media broadcasting internationally.
Peter: Yeah, Deutsche Welle would be a better comparison, because Voice of America is housed outside of government and inside something called USAGM, which has institutional barriers between itself and the state. So Deutsche Welle or France24, as well, which is literally the culture ministry; its TV channel is funded directly, not through Congress and various other things.
Laura: If you took the stories that were broadcast on Russia Today at face value, what kind of image did it project of Russia?
Peter: So just at the start, it was all about countering this image of Russia as a country of drunks and potholes and prisons and saying, “Well, there’s a bit more to it than that.” That’s perfectly legitimate. It was meant to be news about Russia. But then from 2008, it pivoted very hard, and after the invasion of Georgia it became something completely different, and it becomes very much a tool of Russian political warfare. It was a way of basically tapping into various narratives of discontent in Western societies—and not just Western, also Middle Eastern, also Latin American, and shaping them in line with the priorities of Russian foreign policy. For example, in Germany, they targeted the anti-vaxxers. They would do lots of conspiracies about vaccines to get in with that group in society and then feed them disinformation about Syria and Ukraine.
Alex: And it was around the time of the shift you identify that they launched RT America here in the states. And what was interesting was, as you said, there was very little content about Russia on RT America, for the most part. They had a lot of voices on that you would identify with the American political left, often discussing domestic issues. What benefit did that have for Russian foreign policy? Why would that be a messaging strategy that they would have pursued in the United States?
Peter: In the United States, the Russians generally have been cultivating the far right and business elites and the far left—I mean, you just basically look at whichever elements of society are important and open to your messaging. The far left criticizes American imperialism, and that’s very useful for Russia. So it’s not a hard sell. Whether they have any meaning in American politics, I don’t know. I think the far right—the Bannon far right, and now the Tucker Carlson far right—are much more meaningful.
Laura: How do you see Russia Today as fitting into a broader Russian propaganda strategy? Because obviously this is just one outlet, and it’s a pretty traditional way of doing propaganda, having a TV station.
Peter: I don’t think as a TV station it was effective in Europe or America. I think, in a sense, where it was effective was online. That means, for example, targeting content in very, very specific ways to very specific audiences. But also, more than that, being part of this whole network of fake online accounts, websites that look genuine but aren’t, and putting themselves in that network, which first obviously helps with diffusion of their messaging but, maybe more important, starts to game the Google algorithm and, sort of, the stories. So the digital operation was meant to be much more effective than the broadcast one, where they’re, I think, not very impressive.
Laura: One of the reasons that we were interested in doing an episode on this is that you can look at Russia Today in a serious way and say, “This was a project of the Russian government,” but it’s also really hard to look at RT and take it seriously, because I don’t think it was ever taken seriously by a large number of people. It’s kind of ridiculous, right, because it’s so openly biased.
Peter: Unlike the rest of American TV?
Laura: Wow! We can definitely have that conversation.
Alex: I think that’s what I found interesting about it, though. Because I think it’s a projection of the Russian government’s really firm belief in the complete hypocrisy of the West, in that, “Your television stations are just propaganda, so it shouldn’t really matter if ours is unconvincing propaganda,” almost. Do you think there’s anything to that?
Peter: That’s generally a line that they use all the time. I mean, if you want to go really complicated into the Russian doctrine of information warfare, it basically says that democratic communication is impossible. Basically, their claim is that all types of communication are actually manipulation, whether it’s human rights NGOs or—basically the public sphere, in the liberal democratic idea of it, [doesn’t] exist, [it’s] a myth, things like freedom of speech are just weapons invented by the West to get at Russia, and basically all information is a form of warfare. But in terms of it being a joke, the aim of any information operation is to get your stuff picked up by locals and amplified. And in that sense, I mean RT, whatever, but the whole Russian stuff in America has been, to my mind, surprisingly effective. So obviously back to 2016, you have this stunning moment where they hack the DNC, leak it through Julian Assange, and then the story is amplified by mainstream TV channels in America. That’s success. That’s when they go, “Wow, the information op worked.” And look, I don’t care about RT and its future very much. You have the largest political talk show host in America repeating Kremlin talking points and disinformation night after night after night on American TV. Obviously on Russian TV, Tucker Carlson’s now a star. I mean, that is remarkable. So it’s easy to laugh at some of the Russian efforts, but the fact that they have somebody who’s just essentially their—I don’t want to use the word “puppet” or even “useful idiot,” but someone who’s a transmitter for them, essentially, now is a remarkable victory.
Laura: I’d love for you to just explain for us why Russia so effectively works both with far right and far left, because I think people might assume that when a country engages in propaganda, they’re trying to push a specific line, so they would be trying to support a right-wing agenda or a left-wing agenda. But that’s not what Russia is doing, is it? The broader aim is not to get people to agree that one set of policies is preferable. It’s kind of just to create discord.
Peter: There are multiple aims. There is, you’re quite right, this general idea is that to keep the enemy from your gates, you keep them busy at home. But look, that’s a pretty grand aim, and you can’t really do that unless people are pretty divided already. But usually it’s much more specific than that. You embed yourself in various communities and then spread the disinformation lines you want. You know, “Ukrainians are all neo-Nazis” or, “The war in Syria is justified.” So that would be a much more tactical aim. Yes, you’re right, the grand aim is to keep everyone divided and fighting amongst themselves. And by the way, that’s something they did in the Cold War a lot. They would support both civil rights movements, in their own very weird way, and the Ku Klux Klan and try to get them to fight with each other even more.
Laura: So one of the things we’re talking about is the change in Russian media and also the presence of Russian media in the U.S. and of American media in Russia. One of the intriguing things is that Russia Today America just closed down. And that might seem like no great loss, because it wasn’t exactly a reputable news source. Like we’re saying, it was seeding Russian talking points that were then being picked up in American media. But what do you see as the next phase? Is there a sense in which an international environment in which an outlet like RT can’t operate in a country like the U.S. is even worse than one in which it can?
Peter: Look, censorship is always the last step. Democracies are always going to be open to foreign influence operations, and they should be. Democracies are messy, they’re open, and the Russians find another workaround. It’s not a huge challenge. All these assets are completely expendable. So there’ll be something else.
Laura: Do you think that what comes next will be harder to recognize than the more crude attempt that Russia Today was?
Peter: There’s a really good question. And I suppose the simple answer is, we don’t know, necessarily. I assume it will be more in the online space than in the broadcast space. However, if you’ve got Tucker Carlson transmitting your ideas, then that’s what you’re going to focus on. So we’ll see. I’m not massively alarmed by a Russian info op. I’m much more alarmed by, clearly, a segment of the Republican Party and, clearly, a segment of their donors who fundamentally look up to Putin, fundamentally agree with him, and fundamentally will continue that relationship and push his agenda. That’s a political choice being made. That’s not an info op. You know, it’s a reason Tucker Carlson’s doing this. I don’t know the details of that reason, but clearly he thinks there is an influential audience that wants to hear this and influential backers who will back him.
Alex: It’s an interesting question, because I do think that part of it is just like, a sort of right-wing affection for a strongman can be enough to push Tucker to do something like that.
Peter: That’s pretty alarming already, though.
Alex: No, I know! It’s incredibly alarming, I agree.
Peter: It’s like, “War crimes, yay!” That says something very dark about the American political landscape.
Alex: Peter, thank you so much for talking to us today.
Laura: Peter Pomerantsev is the author, most recently, of This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.
Alex: After the break, we’ll talk about how Russia has changed since RT was founded.
Alex: Up until just a few weeks ago, Western journalists could live and work in Russia with freedom that would’ve been unthinkable to those who remember the Cold War. We had our media there; Russians had, for better or worse, their media here. We’re talking to Ben Judah about the Russia of a few weeks and a few years ago. He’s had a long relationship with the country. After studying Russian in school, he first traveled there in 2004. Eventually he based himself out of Moscow and worked there for a time as a freelance journalist. Ben, thank you so much for joining us today.
Ben Judah: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.
Alex: So you recently wrote an article titled, “The Russia We Have Lost,” in part about being a twentysomething expat in Moscow in the 2000s and the sense of hope and possibility that you and others felt then. I know some other people who were, like you, in the former Soviet Union in those times, when it felt like a brighter future was possible. Can you bring us back to what that moment felt like, long, long before this invasion of Ukraine?
Ben: Even though Putin, by that point, had been in power for, really, quite some time, there was still a lot of optimism about Russia’s future from Moscow elites, Russian society, Western diplomats, Westerners in Moscow. It was really a very exciting and positive place to be. It was a very dynamic European city. And looking back to it, it was a moment where you could very easily come and find work, or be a foreign correspondent, or even just sort of pretend to be a foreign correspondent and, on some kind of dodgy visa fixed in Kiev, then sort of float around in a world of Russian liberals and dissidents and people from even more liberal elements of the regime that were more prominent and considered themselves more empowered at the time.
Laura: And were there reasons to think that that would change?
Ben: You know, there were fears about Russia’s future. You did meet people who were very worried about Russia sinking back into Soviet-style oppression. That wasn’t the dominant opinion. The dominant opinion was that Putin was a kleptocrat. That he was more interested in money, he was more interested in the good life and spending time in France. He would always put his own business circle’s interest first, and if there was going to be oppression and games with the West, it would be of a sort of “first as tragedy, then as farce” kind of variant. There would never be anything like what we’re seeing now. And it sort of pains me to say that even though I have a pretty grotesque and pornographic imagination, nothing as pornographic and grotesque as what Vladimir Putin is doing to Ukraine right now, or to Russian society right now, was even considered remotely possible.
Laura: So to stay in that moment of optimism, what kind of future did people envision at that time?
Ben: Well, I’m a pessimist by nature, and people’s political sense of the future at the time could probably be best predicted off their personality types, but the consensus was that Russia’s future would be a sort of darker version of where Turkey is now. That there would be a strongman who would have an antagonistic relationship with the West; he wouldn’t break with it, he would allow there to be pockets of dissent and unfreedom, but he would have to make sure that he still was popular with the people, that he still gave them what they wanted, that he still negotiated with the billionaires and the elites in that country. And that was the consensus at that moment in the mid-2000s.
Alex: I want to get at what I think is a really remarkable change. It was possible to be an independent journalist. It was possible to have an amount of press freedom then. You could go around reporting things that might’ve been uncomfortable for the government, right?
Ben: So let’s talk about it like this. It’s actually quite helpful to look at the political science to help us guide conceptually what we’re talking about. Which is: Even though for Americans, Putin has been a dictator in the public discourse for a very long time, the actual regime type that he ruled for most of his early regime—it’s been going on for 20, almost 23 years now, it’s important to remember that this thing has evolved—is what political scientists would call a hybrid regime. And that means that there is an authoritarian mainframe. You can’t really challenge him. Elections are rigged in whole or in part, all of the key institutions of the state are sewn up, and he can’t be toppled, but within that, there will be pockets of freedom and free speech and even certain low-level political positions that the opposition can hold. And a good way to track this is the career of the Russian opposition main leader, Alexei Navalny. Like, at that time, you could just meet him. You can just go and have a drink with him. He was just blogging furiously and sort of raging into the internet to anyone who would listen, ignored largely by most of Russia and by Russian authorities. And as that period comes to an end, like after the Georgian war, after the financial crisis, it’s important to track what happens to him. And you see in 2011, when he was one of the main figures in a protest movement that really shook the Putin regime. He was gathering Russian opposition, activists in bars or cafés, all of the excitements of an almost-revolutionary moment. He was tweeting the hell out of things. He had his own website, his own YouTube channel. And then a couple of years later, his website’s blocked. Then he’s put under house arrest. Then he’s almost murdered. Now he’s jailed. And the news today is, he’s being sent to a prison colony with a stricter regime at the demand of the Russian state prosecutor. So the story of Navalny is really the story of a changing Moscow, in terms of how it felt to be there for Russian liberals, or for people in the privileged position that I was, as a Western expat and largely useless journalist, or the story of the Russian regime itself from hybrid to what political scientists would call a fully authoritarian regime.
Laura: So there’s a turn toward much more severe oppression then, but do you think what’s happened in the last couple of weeks marks a distinct new phase in Russia?
Ben: What’s happened over the last few weeks is Russia has really crossed the line, I think, into a more chaotic and frightening position where it’s really going toward a form of totalitarianism. I know that’s a very unfashionable word. But I do think it’s the right word to use, for a couple of reasons. The first is I think Russia’s crossing into that. I don’t think it’s fully there yet, but I think it’s crossing, for the following reasons. The first is a new law has been passed on fake news, which ends any pretense of Russians being able to come to their own conclusions, and share them online or in the print media, that contradict the thoughts of the Kremlin. And that’s a law that says that you’re punishable [by] up to 15 years in jail [for] disseminating fake news about the special operation that Putin claims is underway in Ukraine, which he doesn’t call a war, and even calling it a war can result in that sentence. That has been accompanied with the mass blocking of foreign news websites that have a large Russian-language offering, such as BBC Russian or Deutsche Welle or Radio Slobodna. It’s been met with the end of the last liberal radio station, Ekho Moskvy, and the last liberal TV station, Rain TV (or Dozhd, in Russian), and an amp up of the pressure put on public figures. Public figures who’ve spoken against the war have disappeared from public view, and the scale of arrests is now really not something we’ve seen at this scale before, like over 13,000 people.
Alex: But you’re saying it’s more than just the treatment of the press.
Ben: This has been accompanied by two hallmarks of the beginnings of totalitarianism, which are the politics of mobilization. This Z campaign—Z is the letter that they’re drawing on military equipment in Ukraine to be able to differentiate [it] from Ukrainian military equipment, a lot of which is the same military equipment because it’s Soviet—there’s been this sort of mass campaign across Russia: people putting Z on their car; children singing songs to the Supreme leader with cute little Zs on them; and then a militarization of the regime’s aesthetics, sense of purpose; and the beginnings of a militarization of society. So I think it’s important to talk about totalitarianism in Russia and also our perception of it. A lot of people alive today in Russia and in the West remember what it’s like when totalitarianism ends. Nobody, really, I hate to say it, outside of a few nursing homes, remembers what it’s like when totalitarianism begins.
Laura: That’s a really good point to go back to, that you need to read Arthur Koestler or someone.
Laura: It’s not something anyone alive can tell you about. One of the consequences of the invasion has been not just that Western media has been blocked in Russia but that Western news organizations have largely withdrawn from Russia. They’re not operating there anymore. What do you anticipate as the effect of that, and what are we going to lose by not having news organizations there?
Ben: Well, I just think it’s a catastrophic situation. I don’t think I could underscore that or bold it enough. Even during some of the worst moments of Stalinism, there was a New York Times bureau present in Moscow. They’ve now had to withdraw because criminal law applies to everybody, of course, and their journalists could be jailed for 15 years in Russia for describing what’s happening as a war. We’ve already seen that final destruction of Russian journalism means that the Russian elite, and us who kind of depend on them as sources or analysts of their own society to draw our analysis of Russia, just know a lot less about it. You couple that with the end of functioning Western journalism on Russian soil, we’re going to be in a situation where we just know a lot less about what’s happening in Russia and definitely about what’s happening in the Kremlin.
Laura: So this is a more counterintuitive way of asking a similar question, but one of the reasons we started to do this episode was that RT America closed down. RT is not a respected, reliable news outlet here, but do you think that we’re losing something simply by not being able to access Russian media in the U.S.?
Ben: You know, obviously Russia Today is a ridiculous and sort of filthy channel. But the main priority, I felt, definitely for the U.K., was not to get BBC Russia blocked. And if that meant letting this sort of ridiculous thing stream away, I was happy to have it, as long as BBC Russia with its huge, million-strong audience was left there. I just don’t think that enough people are thinking strategically about a lot of this right now. Like if you’re dealing with a regime crossing into totalitarianism that’s been half-blockaded from the world, half-closing itself off from the world, engaging in a war of conquest with, like, delirious mobilization campaigns, you’ve got to just think very carefully about all of these different things that are being done and what will the second-order consequences be for what could be a very long confrontation?
Alex: Yeah, that’s true. It strikes me that what you described here is, and I think Americans in particular—Americans who don’t pay attention to Russia, Americans who don’t make an effort to learn about Russia—could get the sort of caricatured view that Putin’s Russia has been this authoritarian state the whole time. And while it was a managed democracy with a thug at the head of it, with fake elections, for a long time, as you described, he was allowing this liberal society to continue to exist, to continue to produce journalism; foreign reporters to continue having freedom of movement in Russia, for the most part. And that is what has been lost now. It’s a huge change. I do think it’s important for Americans to understand that a Rubicon has been crossed, basically, especially in the sense of the accurate information we will be able to get about life on the ground in Russia.
Ben: I really agree with you that a Rubicon’s been passed in Russia in terms of oppression, and I think we have to change how we look at Russia and how we talk about Russia, especially when it comes to policymakers. So I have seen the former ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, tweeting feverishly—and by that I really mean feverishly—that Russians should be running into the streets and mass protesting and quitting their jobs and speaking up now. I want him to realize, and I’ve told him, this is not the Russia of 2012 or 2011, when you could do that as a professor, as a public figure, as a journalist, and then go back to work the next day and not fear devastating consequences. We are in a situation now where you could be risking 15 years in prison. Are you sure that that’s what you want to be asking for? And in terms of lurid speculation about palace coups and the coming collapse of Russia and people with firmer prognostication than Nostradamus about what the second-order consequences of this war are going to be, I really want them to stop, take a deep breath, possibly turn the app off for 48 hours, and go: The majority of the expert class in the United States did not see this war coming. And that’s because Russia’s elite, Russian journalism, the remains of that, and Western journalism, were not able, even when they were in Russia, to predict that this was happening next. So I think we need to take a bit of intellectual humility here and recognize that Putin’s mind and how the Kremlin operates is a lot more of a black box than we realized, and not just swap one set of assumptions for another overnight.
Alex: Yeah, I mean, it does strike me that, and I say this as someone who, I’m not a foreign policy expert, but just reading everything I read about this before the invasion, I was like, it seems like the war might not happen. And I turned out to be wrong. I didn’t make that prediction publicly, but it does seem like intellectual humility is the correct answer for this.
Ben: I’m actually really quite worried about the information environment I’m seeing in U.S. political discussion and managing what’s going to be a long confrontation with Russia, because Twitter is incentivizing pundits to shout the loudest, to get the most likes, to get the most clicks in order to be heard. I think that would have been really dangerous in the worst moments of the Cold War.
Alex: Imagine Cuban missile crisis Twitter, my God. We’d be dead.
Ben: Appalling. Exactly. And Twitter’s also bringing, like, a lot of conspiracy theories from Ukraine into the Washington mix, and [they] are being disseminated and talked about by people who should really know better. And it’s also giving us a false impression of the battlefield, quite frankly. Twitter is not a neutral environment. It is under absolute Ukrainian dominance in terms of the information war. Western governments are actively trying to promote an image of Ukraine standing firm and victorious. Look at the U.K. government or the French government’s daily battle maps—I’m sorry, those are not neutral battle maps being drawn up. And then all of these open-source intelligence guys from their bedrooms or their offices drawing up analysis of… the videos that are posted there, when we know for a fact that the Russians have been very bad about the fact that Ukrainians are filming them. Ukraine’s been very good about not filming themselves. We’re not seeing any videos of Ukrainian defeats or columns being blown up. And a lot of people are drawing analysis off this very, very partial world, thinking it’s impartial. I think that that’s just quite a risky situation to be in. You can come to a lot of very false conclusions about what’s going on.
Laura: Ben Judah, thank you so much for coming on.
Ben: Oh, thank you very much. That was great.
Alex: Ben Judah’s article, “The Russia We Have Lost,” was published at Unherd. He’s the author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love With Vladimir Putin.
Alex: The Politics of Everything is co-produced by Talkhouse.
Laura: Emily Cooke is our executive producer.
Alex: Myron Kaplan is our audio editor.
Laura: If you enjoy the show and you want to help support it, one thing you can do is rate and review it wherever you get your podcasts. Every review helps.
Alex: Thanks for listening.