The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

RT was Russia’s answer to CNN. Now its pro-Putin spin on Ukraine is sparking new outrage.

Whether defending Putin or downplaying the war, the Kremlin-backed global news organization is drawing louder accusations of propaganda

Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of RT, in 2018. A proponent of Vladimir Putin’s rationales for invading Ukraine, she claimed not to be troubled by the European Union’s imposing sanctions on her. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
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As Russian military forces began their broad assault on Ukraine, the top news stories on RT’s English-language website weren’t about missiles, airborne troops or the deaths of civilians.

Instead, Thursday’s most prominent headlines included, “Firm admits selling potentially tainted rocket fuel to NASA” and “U.S. investigating complaints of self-braking Hondas.”

As for Russia’s deadly aggression against its neighbor? That story was literally off to the side, dressed up in benign, pro-Russian spin: “Russia ready to negotiate with Ukraine — Kremlin.”

It was, in short, a predictable display for RT, the Kremlin-funded media organization. Long denounced as Russia’s propaganda megaphone to the world by the Western nations where it broadcasts, the multilingual network has routinely echoed Vladimir Putin’s criticisms of NATO and the United States, and championed his dubious rationales for attacking Ukraine.

UPDATE: RT America goes off the air amid backlash to Kremlin-funded media

This week, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine sparked a new round of outrage and condemnation of RT, whose initials once stood for “Russia Today.”

Poland on Thursday banned the network, following Germany’s earlier decision to do so. French lawmakers have asked for its license to be rescinded, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged his nation’s media regulator to monitor RT UK for “disinformation” and take action against it if necessary.

Meanwhile, at least two contributors — a French journalist who hosted a daily talk show on RT’s French-language service, and a British reporter based in Moscow — resigned in protest of the military action. And yet a handful of American celebrities, including William Shatner and comedian Dennis Miller, host shows for RT.

Among the well-connected Russians hit with sanctions by Western nations this week was Margarita Simonyan, RT’s 42-year-old editor in chief. Putin appointed Simonyan to launch RT in 2005 when she was just 25, and she has remained close to him, at one point serving as a member of his reelection team.

A combative presence on Twitter, Simonyan has swerved from insisting last week that Russia would not invade to claiming this week that Ukrainians were greeting Russian troops with home-baked pies. “This is a standard parade rehearsal,” she posted above a video clip of rolling tanks. “It’s just that this year we decided to hold the parade in Kyiv.” In response to reports that the European Union would freeze her assets and impose a travel ban, Simonyan said mockingly that she would take out a handkerchief and have “a little cry.”

The United States has been reluctant to ban RT’s domestic offshoot, RT America, whose headquarters are located three blocks from the White House, for fear of a retaliatory response from Putin against Western news organizations in Russia.

RT has nevertheless attracted the attention of several presidential administrations. During the Obama years, Secretary of State John F. Kerry called it a “propaganda bullhorn,” and another State Department official denounced it as “a distortion machine.”

In 2017, the Trump administration compelled RT to register as a “foreign agent,” officially recognizing that it was working to advance Russia’s interests. The decision was freighted with irony, given that U.S. intelligence sources found that RT helped boost Donald Trump’s candidacy over Hillary Clinton’s as part of Russian election-interference efforts in 2016.

Putin created RT explicitly to counter the dominance of English-language multinational news organizations, particularly CNN and the BBC, said Robert W. Orttung, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University in D.C. who has studied the organization.

Putin’s goal, he said, was to ensure that viewers and readers saw Russia as a great power, despite the nation’s relatively small economy and limited cultural influence. RT also is part of his effort to sow division in the West, particularly in the United States, Orttung said.

So RT often highlights Russian successes, such as military gains in Syria, while also emphasizing divisive “wedge” issues in the United States, such as racial tensions and police brutality.

Some conservative media hosts ridiculed Biden’s warnings of a Russian attack. Now they say it’s his fault.

In the run-up to Russia’s invasion, RT repeated Putin’s baseless claims that Russian-speaking nationals in breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine were subject to “genocide” by Ukrainian forces. One of its news stories on Thursday parroted without challenge a Russian government official’s assertion that Russian troops were seeking the “denazification” of Ukraine’s democratically elected government. It has also posted unconfirmed clips of Ukrainians cheering Russian forces as they streamed over the border and Ukrainian troops surrendering.

RT America broadcasts some of the programming produced in Moscow but also produces its own news and business programs, documentaries and talk shows. Its offerings include a politics-discussion program hosted by Scottie Nell Hughes, who once served as a pro-Trump pundit on CNN and Fox News. Miller, formerly a star of “Saturday Night Live” and a Fox commentator, hosts a showbiz-focused interview show.

On Thursday, Hughes discussed the Ukraine conflict in terms of the impact on American gas prices. She chided President Biden for pledging to turn Putin into a “pariah” on the world stage without “addressing the root cause of all this turmoil,” she said.

Hughes also highlighted an RT interview in which Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova laughably claimed that Putin’s main objective “is to stop the escalation of the war that, despite not being reported on, has been going on for eight years.”

RT America isn’t entirely rigid in its adherence to Kremlin orthodoxy: Another well-known host, former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, made a point of declaring several weeks ago on his five-year-old show that “I don’t support any country invading any other country. That is just plain wrong.”

Yet even he seemed to contort his message to fit the prevailing RT ethos, taking a swipe at “the hypocrisy” of sanctions against Russia, noting the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Hours after Russia began its assault, Ventura re-upped his message by posting the video on Twitter and adding: “War is the result of the failure of politicians on all sides.”

In June, RT America began airing a science show hosted by Shatner, the legendary “Star Trek” actor, which the network promised would highlight stories “the establishment media all too often hesitates to tackle.” Recent topics have included space debris, ghosts and meditation. Responding to criticism that he had become an unwitting mouthpiece for a propaganda network, Shatner told NBC News he developed his show not for RT but for Ora TV, a production company founded by the late Larry King, who had once licensed his own syndicated talk show to RT America.

“I’ve never heard of RT America, I don’t know where RT America is, but that’s fine,” Shatner said. “Is it a propaganda network? I don’t know. Is it any more than the BBC or the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. or the French network or the Japanese network? I don’t know.”

Neither Miller nor Shatner has said anything publicly about the Russian invasion; representatives for both men did not immediately respond to inquiries. RT America also did not respond to multiple inquiries.

It’s not clear how many Americans actually watch RT America — Nielsen doesn’t track it — but it probably has a tiny audience: According to the network itself, it is available on just two cable systems, out of about 5,200 across the country. It is also carried on Roku, and the Dish and DirecTV satellite services.

RT appears to be somewhat more successful in spreading its message via digital platforms — in part because its posts on Facebook, TikTok and other platforms are amplified by right-wing American commentary organizations, such as Breitbart and Infowars.

For example, RT’s Twitter account, which features clips of its news programs, has 2.9 million followers. It describes its YouTube channel, which has 4.6 million subscribers, as “the most watched news network” on the platform, with more than 10 billion views. Many of its most popular posts have been apolitical clickbait — police-chase videos, accidents and weather disasters. (Twitter flags RT as “Russia-state affiliated media”; YouTube notes that it is “funded in whole or in part by the Russian government.”)

The relative popularity of RT’s YouTube videos means that the Kremlin earns a share of the revenue generated by ads that precede the clips — a fact that led to calls this week for the Google-owned platform to throw RT’s posts off its servers. On Saturday, YouTube said that it would pause RT’s ability to reap ad dollars from the site — a complex process that means viewers may still see ads on RT’s videos while these measures are being rolled out — and restrict access to RT and other Russian channels in Ukraine.

Orttung, the international-affairs scholar, is skeptical about some of RT’s self-reported traffic figures. But he acknowledges that “the Russian government would not continue to fund it if it was not effective” in achieving the Kremlin’s goals.

In fact, RT has made several attempts to appeal to American audiences by beefing up its television operations. In 2012, it generated headlines by giving WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange his own short-lived interview program. Assange scored a huge “get” on his first show — an interview with Hassan Nasrallah, the elusive leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah political party and militant group.

In early 2016, RT America hired former MSNBC host Ed Schultz to host its signature prime-time news and discussion program. Schultz, who died in 2018, frequently invoked Kremlin talking points, casting doubt, for example, on American intelligence reports about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

RT also has promoted discredited conspiracy theories about the 2016 killing of Seth Rich, a young staffer for the Democratic National Committee, similar to those for which Fox News was sued by Rich’s parents, eventually reaching a settlement.

Earlier this month, as Russia-Ukraine tensions ratcheted up, Simonyan gushed about Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, whose frequent defenses of Putin have been recycled on state-controlled TV networks in Russia.

Making a pitch for Carlson to interview Putin, she told a Moscow TV program: “He is the most popular host in the United States and perhaps the only one who is reasonable … who understands everything the way it should be understood.”

She went on to assert — without irony, facts or reference to RT’s own government ties — that Western media organizations publish information based on directives from American intelligence agencies.

This story was updated to note YouTube’s new measures against RT.

Drew Harwell and Elahe Izadi contributed to this report.