Last March, the U.S. Department of Treasury announced sanctions against Russian intelligence-directed media outlets. While blocking outlets with clear ties to intelligence services was a step in the right direction, these sanctions did not address Russia’s more globally popular streaming services: Russia’s state-owned channels, RT and Sputnik. While most social media platforms and TV providers have either demonetized or blocked RT’s content, it is still accessible through a simple google search. Without government sanctions, RT will continue to find loopholes to circumvent censorship. Therefore, the Biden administration has the authority to and must target these disinformation sources with sanctions.
The basis for U.S. sanctions: Not speech.
Americans are understandably proud of the unfettered access to information that the Constitution’s First Amendment rights protect. But U.S. sanctions against Russia’s propaganda machine are not the kind of censorship that First Amendment jurisprudence was developed to prevent. Neither RT nor Sputnik News would be shut down—they operate from Russia—nor are their journalists in danger of being silenced, detained, or prosecuted—other than by their own employer, if they do not toe the party line. Indeed, none of them face the kind of harassment, arrest, or threats to their lives that Russian dissidents and journalists critical of the Putin regime have routinely suffered for years.
The basis for sanctioning RT and Sputnik is that, rather than providing independent news coverage and analysis, these stations have been designed by the Kremlin to control the information space and discredit opposing views by fabricating pretexts that justify Russia’s aggression and by systematically obfuscating and denying the truth. Indeed, RT’s editor-in-chief once said that “The weapon of information … is used in critical moments and war is always a critical moment. … [Information] is a weapon like any other.” Russia’s state-owned media are integral to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and its global efforts to destabilize democracies through disinformation campaigns.
The Kremlin’s current manipulation ecosystem is determined to cover up the worst war crimes seen in Europe since Bosnia and, arguably, World War II, including mass executions and mass deportations; state-sanctioned looting and the systematic rape of civilians; widespread, documented torture and murder of prisoners of war; the wanton destruction of cultural heritage; and the indiscriminate targeting of civilian infrastructure. Kremlin disinformation also aims to orchestrate an echo chamber of Western-based influencers—journalists, NGOs, and politicians—who can amplify the Kremlin’s party line among their audiences, discredit opponents of Russia’s actions, and influence their domestic politics in Russia’s favor.
Yet apart from the March sanctions toward minor Russian outlets, the United States has taken no further action to fight back Russian propaganda, effectively enabling its spread. Top U.S. TV streaming providers like DirecTV, Sling TV, Dish, and YouTube have banned RT and Sputnik’s streaming services. However, RT’s live news is still available on its website through a Google search. RT’s and Sputnik’s content is also still accessible through its official accounts and those of its reporters on U.S.-based social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
There is already a solid track record of the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioning TV channels backed by terrorist organizations and rogue regimes that seek to not just to spread their propaganda but also incite violence and recruit followers for violent activities. These include Hezbollah’s Al Manar and Al Nour TV, Hamas’ Al Aqsa Television, Iran’s state television, IRIB, Venezuela’s Globovision Tele and its Miami namesake subsidiary, Lebanon’s Lana TV, the Occupied Crimea-based News Front, and the Bosnian Serb channel Alternativna Televizija. In all these cases, the sanctioned channels directly engaged in human rights violations, corruption, terrorist recruitment, or intelligence gathering (with intelligence agents posing as correspondents). Furthermore, in all above cases, the news they broadcasted was not free speech; it was the rhetoric of their paymasters’ party line.
Therefore, in the Treasury’s decisions to censor these outlets, neither their political slant nor their impact on U.S. audiences was relevant. Rather, the rationale for sanctions was that these platforms engaged in activities that had nothing to do with press freedom—incitement of and material support for acts of terrorism in Al Manar’s, Al Nour’s, and Al Aqsa’s cases; gross human rights violations in the case of Iran’s state television; violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the case of Globovision; material support for a criminal and corrupt regime, in Lana TV’s case; and propaganda directly controlled by its corrupt owner, in Alternativna Televizija’s case.
These precedents make it abundantly clear that our First Amendment pieties are not absolute: When media platforms obey their paymasters’ orders to become complicit in their crimes, they are no longer media. They are accessories to illicit conduct—in the case of Russian state media, accessories to war crimes, mass atrocities, and, potentially, genocide.
In addition to the Treasury’s strong precedent of sanctioning violent and corrupt news outlets, the White House has clear authority to combat Russian state media like RT and Sputnik News. One such legal basis is Executive Order 14024, which President Biden signed on April 15, 2021. Executive Order 14024’s aim is to “block property” with respect to “specified harmful foreign activities of the Government of the Russian Federation.” These include “extraterritorial activities targeting dissidents or journalists,” efforts “to undermine security in countries and regions important to United States national security,” and the violation of “well-established principles of international law, including respect for the territorial integrity of states.”
As Marshall Billingslea—the former assistant secretary for terrorist financing in the Treasury Department and current senior fellow at the Hudson Institute—told us, “Russian state media are instrumentalities of the Russian state.” Russian media uphold a totalitarian dictatorship that stifles freedom of speech, prosecutes and persecutes dissidents, and is now engaged in an unprovoked war of conquest and annihilation against a peaceful neighbor.
Thus, insofar as RT and Sputnik are accessories to the kind of harmful activities that President Biden specifically named in E.O. 14024, they are legitimate targets for U.S. sanctions.
Russia’s Ministry of Truth.
There is ample evidence that Russia’s state-owned media outlets are Kremlin policy tools, not news platforms. They enable Russia’s denial of its own well-documented war crimes to gather credibility in a cross-section of foreign media.
A key component of the Kremlin’s disinformation strategy is targeting global audiences. In addition to broadcasting in Russian, state media channels such as RT and Sputnik produce content in more than 30 languages such as Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, and Spanish. Through these networks, the Kremlin weaponizes news to deny facts and control or distort the global information space. Recently, Russia has spread disinformation claiming Western sanctions are to blame for the global grain shortage caused by the war in Ukraine; Russia has targeted countries in Africa and the Middle East, where the grain shortages have had the worst impact. In an interview with RT Arabic, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed the West was hurting these regions to get them to partake in “anti-Russia” sanctions. By eroding the integrity of open debate, the Kremlin can amplify a self-serving narrative of victimhood, engage in whataboutism on a global scale, fabricate falsehoods to discredit the Kremlin’s adversaries, and generally lie about anything antithetical to Russia’s goals.
Why should we care about Russia’s propaganda machine? While the West views information as a space to protect freedoms, Russia sees it as a space to control narratives and silence opposition. As Russian Minister of Defense, Sergey Shoigu, declared in 2021, “information has become a weapon.” Weaponizing state-controlled media is integral to Russia’s new 2021 National Security Strategy (NSS), which devotes an entire section to information security.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union used psychological manipulation as part of a political warfare toolkit referred to as “active measures.” The Kremlin has adapted Soviet era “active measures” to the modern world by making use of new technologies and social media platforms. Russia’s NSS does not acknowledge the use of information operations offensively. However, a close read of the Russian Ministry of Defense definition of information warfare refers to the offensive purpose of information operations. It defines information war as the confrontation “between two or more States in the information space with the goal of inflicting damage to information systems, processes, and resources, as well as to critically important structures; undermining political, economic, and social systems; carrying out mass psychological campaigns … in order to destabilize society and the government.”
Despite Shoigu recently blaming the West for establishing propaganda centers in Eastern Europe, Russia’s new NSS emphasizes expanding cooperation with foreign powers on information security. Indeed, in May, Russian Security Council Deputy Secretary Oleg Khramov announced that Russia plans to conclude agreements on ensuring information security with Azerbaijan, Serbia, and Tajikistan.
Outwardly, Russian state media appears legitimate, with newscasts, talk shows, sophisticated productions, reporters, and correspondents. However, as Josep Borrell, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said, outlets like RT and Sputnik “are not independent media, they are assets, they are weapons, in the Kremlin’s manipulation ecosystem.” Even President Putin confirmed that, although he envisioned RT as a channel that should “provide an unbiased coverage of the events,” “the channel is funded by the government, so it cannot help but reflect the Russian government’s official position on the events in our country and in the rest of the world, one way or another.”
The Kremlin’s Ministry of Truth is succeeding.
Wikipedia entries cite hundreds of Russian state media as authoritative sources, guaranteeing millions of daily views for stories that inevitably spin the Kremlin way. Russian disinformation dominates Google News results for important Ukraine-related topics. Kremlin-concocted conspiracy theories range from claims that nonexistent U.S.-sponsored bioweapons labs in Ukraine are responsible for the monkeypox outbreak to claims that the U.S. plans to use drones in Ukraine that will spray poison on Russian troops. These stories have spread rapidly through Russian media outlets such as RT and Sputnik and reached millions of Americans through media platforms such as Fox News, poisoning our public discourse.
Moscow’s propaganda has been similarly successful in achieving amplification in the West through infiltrating conspiracy-prone groups, such as anti-vaccine groups and QAnon circles. Just two weeks ago, on July 29, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Aleksandr Viktorvich Ionov, a Russian operative working with the FSB, for acts including paying U.S. political groups to protest the domestic media’s censorship of Russian propaganda supporting the war in Ukraine.
RT and Sputnik do not only engage in disinformation but also in cyber operations. For example, in 2020, Sputnik’s Spanish-language website hosted malware files linked to stories about the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which were posted on Twitter.
There is also considerable evidence that Russian state media companies RT and Sputnik have significant relationships with Julian Assange and Wikileaks. For example, the U.S. intelligence community assessed that Russia’s military intelligence organization relayed leaked DNC documents to Wikileaks in 2016. U.S. intelligence also confirmed that RT’s leaders visited Assange in Ecuador’s embassy in 2013, one year after RT announced that it would broadcast a talk show hosted by Assange.
This is relevant because Russia’s military considers both “cybersecurity” and “information operations” under the umbrella of “information security.”
In short, Russian state-owned media are nothing but an echo-chamber for their employer: the Kremlin.
The U.S. should follow its allies.
RT and Sputnik have already been blocked in Canada, Great Britain, and across the European Union. After ordering the removal of Russian state-owned media from search results, the EU also imposed sanctions on RT and Sputnik in March. In May, the EU took more steps in defending European digital space and banned additional Kremlin-backed media platforms, such as RTR Planeta, Russia 24 and TV Centre. While Russia recently appealed these sanctions, the EU has remained steadfast.
The U.S. should take Russia’s information assault as seriously as its Western allies. Were the U.S. to pass sanctions, the consequences would be significant, both at home and abroad. RT and Sputnik News would continue to broadcast from their Moscow studios. However, U.S.-based social media companies could block their accounts, severely limiting global access to their content. And U.S. secondary sanctions—which extend the impact of U.S. sanctions beyond the U.S. jurisdiction—would discourage the financial sector from transacting payments linked to the two networks, including salaries for journalists, running costs for newsrooms, stringers, equipment rental and the like. While Russia’s foreign language outlets would remain available elsewhere outside of Western countries, U.S. sanctions would severely degrade the distribution channels available to Russia.
Russia, in short, can be denied one of its most powerful weapons: the power to lie about its crimes and manipulate global audiences under the protection of free speech. All the U.S. needs is the will to act.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan research foundation based in Washington D.C. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi. Ivana Stradner is an advisor to FDD’s Barish Center for Media Integrity where her research focuses on Russia’s information warfare. She tweets at @ivanastradner.