Victoria Nuland rebuts Russia Today's coverage of the Ukraine crisis and belittles the network's "tiny, tiny" audience in America.
America’s top diplomat for Europe denounced Russian state-media coverage of the Ukraine crisis on Tuesday and belittled the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts in the United States as fallacious and ineffective.
“All you have to do is look at RT’s tiny, tiny audience in the United States to understand what happens when you broadcast untruths in a media space that is full of dynamic, truthful opinion,” said Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, referring to the Kremlin-backed global media company. “State-owned Russian media spews lies about who’s responsible for the violence [in Ukraine].”
Speaking at a Brookings Institution event in Washington, D.C., where advertisements promoting RT programming appear on numerous bus stops and public placards, Nuland rejected a journalist’s proposal to ban RT from broadcasting in the United States, saying, “We believe in freedom of speech, freedom of media in this country.“
“The question we ask Russians is, why are you so afraid of diversity of opinion in your own space?” Nuland added.
A spokesperson for the Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
In recent days, Russian media has gamely relayed the Kremlin line that the Ukrainian army is a “foreign legion” that represents NATO’s interests and that Kiev is responsible for a devastating rocket strike that killed 30 civilians in Mariupol — accusations Western nations categorically deny.
The battle for hearts and minds in Ukraine and Russia comes as fighting between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists has escalated dramatically in Ukraine’s east. On Monday, Jan. 26, Kiev declared a state of emergency in the rebel-held regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as separatists launched new offensives against Ukrainian forces, tearing to shreds any semblance of the cease-fire put in effect in September.
Both Barack Obama’s administration and Congress have expressed concern about the United States losing the propaganda battle in a divided Ukraine. Last year, Congress mandated additional aid for Russian-language broadcasting in Eastern Europe by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America to serve as counter-messaging to RT (formerly Russia Today) and other state-funded outlets.
Although Nuland correctly assessed RT’s modest broadcasting penetration in the United States — its ratings are minuscule despite the network’s cable reach of 85 million viewers — her remarks did underestimate the considerable influence of its website.
RT.com, which traffics in a kooky mix of anti-American conspiracy theories, Kremlin hagiography, and occasionally valid criticisms of U.S. policies, in 2013 became the first news channel to reach 1 billion views on YouTube, underscoring the virality of its alternative content and user-generated videos.
Still, the sharp downturn of the Russian economy amid plunging oil prices and newly imposed international sanctions has had an impact on some of the Kremlin’s heavily subsidized media arms. One of Russia’s largest state news agencies, TASS, will let go a quarter of its staff next month as government funding dries up. The news agency, which employs some 1,700 people, is also expected to cut employees’ salaries by 20 percent, according to the Moscow Times.
During Nuland’s speech, she also vowed to provide more funding for Ukraine as it attempts to clean up its famously corrupt government. “The U.S. will commit a billion dollars in new loan guarantees to help stabilize Ukraine this year along with a new IMF program, and will consider another billion dollars later in the year if Ukraine stays the reform course,” she said.
She also promised an increase in nonlethal military aid to the country. “Last year the United States committed $118 million in security assistance for Ukraine, and we have 120 million more in additional training and equipment on the way in 2015,” she said.
Many in Congress have lobbied the Obama administration to begin shipping weapons to Ukraine, arguing that it would raise the cost of Russian aggression. Others fear that shipping more weapons could escalate the crisis and invite further Russian belligerence.