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Kremlin’s ‘Sputnik’ Newswire Is the BuzzFeed of Propaganda

Out of the ashes of RIA Novosti, the respected Russian state news agency that was dissolved last year, a curious, postmodern kind of bird has emerged. It’s called Sputnik, and it’s the Kremlin’s latest foreign-facing outlet, designed to counter "propaganda promoting a unipolar world." The outlet launched on Monday, and even as its head, Dmitry ...

Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images for Buzzfeed
Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images for Buzzfeed

Out of the ashes of RIA Novosti, the respected Russian state news agency that was dissolved last year, a curious, postmodern kind of bird has emerged. It’s called Sputnik, and it’s the Kremlin’s latest foreign-facing outlet, designed to counter "propaganda promoting a unipolar world."

The outlet launched on Monday, and even as its head, Dmitry Kiselyov, took to a Moscow stage to insist that Sputnik will serve up a more objective kind of news, it’s obvious what it really is: yet another compliant outlet to trumpet the Kremlin line. "We will provide alternative interpretations that are, undoubtedly, in demand around the world," Kiselyov said.

Like RT, Sputnik slickly remixes President Vladimir Putin’s brand of revanchist nationalism for an international audience, presenting the United States as an ailing imperial power bent on holding on to its domains. But whereas RT functions more like a tabloid news service, Sputnik looks to be presenting a kind of propaganda that’s very much rooted in 2014. RT, one might say, is the Daily Mail of Kremlin propaganda — aggressive, brash, and often ridiculous. (One headline from its homepage: "Cockroaches to the rescue: ‘Cyborg’ insects can help save people trapped in earthquakes.") Sputnik, meanwhile, is like its BuzzFeed equivalent: cheeky, Internet-savvy, smarter.

It’s only the site’s first day in operation, but judging by its output so far, Sputnik seems to be taking a slightly edgier approach to propaganda. Or at least trying to. An article headlined "Kiev’s Top 5 Mistakes That Made Eastern Ukraine Crisis Worse" blasts the pro-Western government for labeling pro-Russian rebels "terrorists," for shelling civilian areas, and for allying with disreputable militia groups. It’s certainly not an innovative way to present Putin’s take on the crisis, but it does succeed in repackaging it as a web-friendly "listicle" while failing to mention the many ways Moscow has made the crisis work.

Another article examines the different names used to describe the self-proclaimed Islamic State, concluding that the media’s frequent use of the ISIL acronym "ultimately made it easier to convince Americans — and the rest of the alliance — of the need for an Iraqi and Syrian War." Even if that argument doesn’t quite ring true, the article represents a kind of news analysis that an outlet like RT doesn’t typically engage in.

A similar article argues that the reported killing or wounding of Islamic State commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi won’t seriously harm the group. And that’s an argument that makes a great deal of sense.

The highlight of Sputnik’s opening day content is a piece looking at independence movements around the world, which serves as justification for Russia’s annexation of Crimea. A listicle of global secession efforts, the article lumps Crimea in with Scotland, Spain’s Catalonia region, the Italian region of Veneto, and Miami. Yes, Miami. "To be clear, the southern half of the panhandle state isn’t looking to create the world’s newest nation and form a standing army of sun-bleached blonde models and Disney characters (Orlando would be in the newly created state)," the author writes. "Rather, they are looking to establish America’s newest state with its own legislative body and the ability to protect itself from an encroaching force: the ocean."

Just like the people of Miami, the residents of Crimea are on this reading just trying to look out for their own futures:

In March, the now-former Ukraine region known as Crimea held its own plebiscite and declared itself a sovereign state before joining the Russian Federation. Unlike in the aforementioned votes [in Scotland and Catalonia], Crimean citizens acted following a coup and change in administration in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, prompting the Russian majority in Crimea to organize the referendum.

According to the head of the Crimean Parliament’s commission on the referendum, Mikhail Malyshev, 81.3 percent of eligible voters participated. The European Union and the United States called the referendum invalid.

That Russia orchestrated this referendum through an egregious violation of international law — the insertion of Russian troops that effectively toppled the local government — goes unmentioned.

Rounding out Sputnik’s inaugural day is an interview with an old Russian general arguing against talk of a new Cold War, an article on Tony Blair’s work for Saudi oil companies, and a short look at how U.S. support for Kurdish fighters might lead to a confrontation between the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and an increasingly autonomous Kurdistan.

Taken together, Sputnik’s content is beating a predictable drum of anti-Western rhetoric, but it’s doing so in such a way that is building up a more robust ecosystem for pro-Kremlin views. Its slick, modern logo and elegant design call to mind a reputable media outlet, and it functions as a lighter complement to RT’s more obviously neo-Soviet aspirations. Now, when Putin wants an un-ironic listicle of his Top 10 Manly Moments, he has someone to call.

Indeed, Sputnik, which shares a name with the first satellite launched into space, is the result of a consolidation of state power over Russian media. Late last year, Putin announced that he would dissolve RIA Novosti and install one of his loyalists as its head. Sputnik is the result of that effort; Novosti’s old web address automatically redirects to Sputnik. In a measure of Novosti’s former independence, the news agency wrote that its destruction points "toward a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector."

That this tightening of state control has resulted in something so remarkably fluffy is a measure of just how savvy the Kremlin’s spin doctors are.     

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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