A CENTRAL pillar of Vladimir Putin’s political strategy is the propagation of false equivalences. The Kremlin tries to convince Russians, and the world, that there is really no difference between its autocratic and frequently murderous practices and the practices of the democratic world. Sadly, President Trump has been a major contributor to this poisonous propaganda. Soon after taking office, he responded to the description of Mr. Putin as “a killer” by saying, “There are a lot of killers. . . . You think our country is so innocent?” Last week he endorsed Mr. Putin’s attempt to equate Russian military spies indicted for secretly hacking the Democratic National Committee with American officials who openly supported human rights legislation under which some of the thugs around Mr. Putin have been sanctioned.
A backlash in Washington, including a 98-to-0 vote by the Senate, forced the White House to back away from allowing Russia to persecute those State Department officials, congressional aides and a former ambassador to Russia. But other U.S. institutions under similar pressure from Moscow could use more support. Prominent among them are Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America and affiliated broadcast organizations whose journalists are being threatened for providing Russians with uncensored news.
Since late last year, the Putin regime has required these U.S.-funded media outlets to register as “foreign agents” under a hastily passed law that has been applied only to American organizations. The Russians claimed they were reciprocating for the Justice Department’s requirement that the U.S. branch of RT, the Kremlin’s propaganda arm, register under a law governing foreign government lobbyists.
This month, as the Helsinki summit approached, authorities stepped up the pressure. As a judge fined RFE/RL for supposedly failing to comply with the law, the Russian parliament prepared new legislation that would require individual journalists to register as foreign agents — an onerous and menacing new requirement. It could force RFE/RL and VOA journalists, many of whom are Russian citizens, to file reports and undergo audits while slapping the label “foreign agent” on everything they produce.
RT contributors in the United States face no such strictures. But the more important point is that RFE/RL and VOA are no more comparable to RT than Russian military hackers are to former ambassador Michael McFaul. RT is a pure propagator of Kremlin-designed fake news; it is an integral part of the Putin regime’s effort to undermine democracy in the United States and in other Western countries. The U.S. broadcasters, which have been insulated from direct political control by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, are headed by distinguished journalists and have a long record of producing fair and independent journalism.
By forcing RT to register, the Justice Department may have provided the Putin regime with an excuse to target the U.S. broadcasters. But that doesn’t mean the State Department or Congress should accept that they are equivalent or tolerate the persecution. If the Kremlin does not back off, sanctions on Russians who seek to poison U.S. democracy with lies would be the right response.