Rossiya Segodnya: the National Champion of News

By Oliver Backes

With the establishment of Rossiya Segodnya, a new state-owned media conglomerate, Russia has added a new national champion to its ledgers and further consolidated control over the media. Critically, however, the creation of Rossiya Segodnya has also clarified the contours of the Kremlin's future media strategy, the foundations of which can be found in the success of RT. Rossiya Segodnya, and thus the Russian state, plans to focus on targeting and influencing international audiences within a perceived environment of global "information warfare"

Russia is a country of state-owned national champions. Gazprom in gas; Rosneft in oil; Rosatom in the nuclear industry; the United Aircraft and Shipbuilding Corporations. The list goes on and on. A recent consolidation of the Russian state-owned media has added a new national champion that that list: Rossiya Segodnya (which incorporates RIA Novosti and the Voice of Russia radio network). The creation of this new organization has clarified the overall contours of the Kremlin’s future media strategy, one characterized by a renewed emphasis on centralized control and, most importantly, service to the state. While most analysis of this policy shift has focused on the impact on the domestic media environment (and for good reason), it addresses only half of the Kremlin’s strategy. Of equal significance is the increasing focus of the state-owned media on targeting and influencing international audiences within an environment of perceived global “information warfare.” 

In March 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified to Congress that “[the United States is] in an information war, and we’re losing that war.” Vladimir Putin, surely, would say the same about Russia. In the minds of many top Kremlin officials, including Putin himself, Russia is losing what the Washington Post called the “crucial war for world opinion.” As President Putin often highlights, his country is besieged from all sides by a Western media whose coverage is often perceived as unfriendly to Russia. Putin’s vitriol over perceived U.S. violations of Russian sovereignty, such as the charge that Clinton incited street protests following disputed elections in 2011, imply the complicity of the Western media in pushing the U.S. government’s agenda. It is important to remember that domestically the Kremlin’s goal is for the state-owned media to act in support of state interests and policy, generate support for the government, and marginalize possible political opposition. In Putin’s view, the Western media pursues the opposite agenda. The creation of Rossiya Segodnya reflects this mandate for more control in a domestic environment already tightly controlled by the state. After all, analysts believe that it was RIA Novosti’s relatively balanced coverage of political developments in Russia that reportedly angered many top decision makers in the Kremlin and – coupled with concern over worrisome political developments in Ukraine – prompted its reorganization. 

However, Rossiya Segodnya also reflects a desire to level the playing field in international media markets. Despite a push for greater impact on international audiences, Russia’s traditional state media organizations such as RIA Novosti cannot be called influential beyond Russia’s borders. The anticipated structure, leadership, and purported mission of Rossiya Segodnya indicate that the Kremlin means to respond by creating a national champion in news capable of pushing a Russian narrative in a competition with other Western news outlets. In this effort, it appears to be guided by the success of a newer organization, RT, which has been Russia’s most critical media asset targeted to foreign audiences in recent years. 

Though nominally independent of state control, RT (rebranded from Russia Today) is state-funded and clearly marches to the beat of the Kremlin’s drum. With high production values reminiscent of CNN or the BBC (or Al Jazeera), RT’s broadcasters present coverage to global audiences that is consistently favorable for Russian national interests, downplays Russia’s failings, and is hyper-critical of the West. While RT feigns independence, leading figures have not been shy about its status as an instrument of the state in a global “information war.” President Putin himself stated that RT’s mission is to “break the monopoly of the Anglo-Saxon mass media.” 

To an extent, it has accomplished this goal. Despite its consistent (and often obvious) bias, RT is increasingly popular, especially in the West. It was the third-most watched news channel in Britain in the latter half of 2012, is one of the top foreign broadcasters in many major U.S. cities, and boasts the most-watched YouTube channel of any news organization worldwide.    

The success of RT appears to have heavily influenced Kremlin thinking on the future of state media strategy. The mission of RT closely resembles rhetoric surrounding the mission of the newly-created Rossiya Segodnya. Putin, in a recent press conference, stated that the state-owned media should be “run by patriots who protect Russia’s national interests.” His decree creating the new organization includes a specific emphasis on targeting foreign audiences, a foundational piece of the RT model. Dmitry Kiselyov, Rossiya Segodnya’s new director, has clearly taken Putin’s sentiments to heart. According to Kiselyov, the organization’s mission will be to “restore a fair attitude to Russia as an important country in the world with good intentions.” These statements indicate that the organization will aim to influence a global audience with the goal of supporting the Russian state through favorable media coverage. In essence, Rossiya Segodnya appears to find its structural and ideological foundation in RT, though it will possess greater resources and possibly a dual focus on domestic and international audiences.  

Recent leadership appointments at Rossiya Segodnya support this thesis. On December 30, 2013 Margartia Simonyan, the architect of RT, was appointed Editor-in-Chief. The appointment is almost certainly tied to her success at RT and suggests that Rossiya Segodnya’s editorial focus and manner of presentation is likely to increasingly resemble that of RT, at least in international media markets. Her boss, Dmitry Kiselyov, is like herself publicly a Kremlin loyalist with a stark conservative and statist ideology. While they may be either ideologues or opportunists, what is clear is that both are willing to slant coverage strongly in favor of the state. Taken together, these appointments to the top two positions at Rossiya Segodnya clearly augur a shift in the style and content of state media in Russia. While we do not yet know what the ultimate relationship between RT and Rossiya Segodnya will be, Simonyan, who will remain in charge at RT, creates a formal link between the Kremlin-led state-owned media and its nominally independent international counterpart. 

The same logic of zero-sum competition and sense of Russian competitive disadvantage that prompted the launch of RT are again some of the driving forces behind the creation of Rossiya Segodnya. By consolidating its state-owned media resources and shifting towards a more actively propagandistic international stance, the Russian government is equipping itself to effectively compete with Western outlets for heart and minds (not to mention eyes and ears). The consequences for the Russian media both domestically and internationally will be profound. Editorial standards will decline even further as the state asserts even more stringent control. And, as Secretary of State Clinton’s explicit reference to RT alongside the likes of Al Jazeera and CCTV in her discussion of “information warfare” indicates, a more robust Russian presence in the global media space will lead to its increasing politicization. 

The success of RT indicates that Rossiya Segodnya, built upon the same structural and ideological foundation, can too become a player in the global information space – and possibly a very influential one. This, above all else, is the Kremlin’s goal. As Simonyan said when challenged on the issue of RT’s slanted coverage, “there is no objectivity – only approximations of the truth by as many different voices as possible.” Rossiya Segodnya will, along with RT, be Russia’s voice among many in this cacophony. Expect Kiselyov and Simonyan, at the Kremlin’s direction, to turn up the volume.