The Kremlin’s Latest Target Is Online Media
Why the Russian government is now equating digital journalism with foreign espionage.
Recent events in Russia, most significantly the government’s Feb. 1 sentencing of Alexei Navalny to years in prison on false criminal charges following its failed assassination attempt against the opposition leader last summer, mark a transition to a new level of repression. But while most coverage has focused on the dramas playing out in the courtroom and on the streets, there has also been a less-noticed crackdown on freedom of expression online.
Threats against social media platforms for allowing users to post about the Navalny protests have been part of a broader effort to tighten control over the media and information ecosystem in Russia. This has also included the Kremlin’s recent decision to begin labeling select digital media as foreign agents—a key shift, but one rooted in Russian practice.
The “foreign agent” pressure campaign against both international and domestic independent media outlets saw a significant escalation on Feb. 10, when the Russian government announced it was fining U.S. government broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) nearly $150,000 for failing to comply with the law. These moves exemplify a classic Russian government tactic: mimicking the language of other countries’ efforts to insulate their politics against foreign influence in order to provide a veneer of legitimacy to its own attempts to suppress domestic dissent.
The law used against RFE/RL—Russia’s 2012 law on “foreign agents”—is probably the best example of this tactic. The supposed inspiration for the law was a World War II-era American law called the Foreign Agents Registration Act, used to promote transparency by requiring lobbyists working on foreign government payrolls to report those contracts for public records. The U.S. law has been largely noncontroversial (indeed, recent controversies around the law have mostly involved its lax enforcement), with hundreds of active registrants (foreign trade associations and large U.S. lobbying firms are common) who have not incurred any particular reputational damage or additional legal risk as a result of their “foreign agent” status. In Russia, the law was used after Vladimir Putin’s return for a third term as president to harass, intimidate, and publicly smear hundreds of small Russian nonprofit groups (working in areas ranging from human rights protection to assistance for diabetes patients to the preservation of endangered salmon species) that received funds from foreign grant-making foundations or otherwise engaged with the international community.
In the years since, the law has been repeatedly amended to create new and greater threats to Russian civil society. In 2014, following a mass show of solidarity in which Russian nongovernmental organizations unanimously refused to voluntarily register, the law was changed to allow the Justice Ministry itself to apply the label to NGOs directly. In 2017, the Duma amended the law again, giving the Russian government the authority to require media outlets to self-identify as “foreign agents” and to disclose their sources of funding.
Two weeks after the law was signed, the Justice Ministry published its first list of “foreign agent” media organizations, consisting of nine U.S. government broadcasters: RFE/RL, seven of its affiliates reporting regional news, and the Voice of America Russian service. This initial designation posed serious challenges for the organization, among them a new reluctance by Russian outlets to cover RFE/RL reporting as well as concerns over legal risks for Russian citizens working for the designated outlets.
But the Russian government wasn’t done. The law was amended yet again in 2019, this time to allow the government to apply the “foreign agent” label to individuals as well; the first individual “foreign agent” designations were handed out in December 2020 to three Russian journalists, an artist-activist, and the 79-year-old human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov. (Ponomaryov, an eminent figure in the Russian human rights world dating back to the Soviet era, was forced to dissolve his NGO, called For Human Rights, in November 2019 after it was also designated a foreign agent.)
The past several weeks have seen yet another escalation of this repressive strategy, this time against online media. On Dec. 29, 2020 (the day after the first individual “foreign agent” designations were announced), Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet and media regulator, issued a statement saying it had summoned foreign media for not labeling themselves in accordance with Russian law. These firms, per a September 2020 directive, were required under Russian law to provide extensive labeling on all published content designating the information as “spread by a foreign agent” (a designation applied, as always, through unilateral Justice Ministry action with no effort at due process).
On Jan. 12, Roskomnadzor announced eight enforcement actions for violations of these foreign-agent-labeling rules. The agency did not specify which digital media were targeted, but as pointed out by independent media outlet Meduza, the publication Interfax reported in December 2020 that RFE/RL was under fire from the Russian government for failing to apply foreign-agent labels to its content.
This was subsequently confirmed in a January New York Times report that explicitly named RFE/RL as one of the targeted media outlets. Former RFE/RL head Jamie Fly linked Russian moves against the outlet to the mismanagement, dysfunction, and lawlessness that characterized the seven-month tenure of Trump appointee Michael Pack as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (the body overseeing RFE/RL and other U.S. government-funded media), telling the Times, “The Kremlin appears to be exploiting the chaos at U.S. international broadcasting.” On Jan. 27, Russia’s Magistrates’ Court fined RFE/RL, as well as its CEO, for not affixing a “foreign media” label to its content. The record $150,000 fine on Feb. 10 is unlikely to be the last, as Russian regulators and courts continue to issue a steady stream of rulings against the broadcasters.
These recent moves make it hard to imagine that the Russian government has an endgame in mind for RFE/RL other than eventually banning the outlet outright. Radio Liberty was forced off Russian airwaves in 2012, and Roskomnadzor has been banning news websites for politically objectionable content since 2014. RFE/RL leadership is pushing back by challenging the move’s legality under a Russian-Czech treaty from 1994—a novel strategy, albeit one that seems to face long odds. A bipartisan congressional letter threatening Russia with additional sanctions if the fines are enforced also seems unlikely to tip the tables in RFE/RL’s favor. To understand why, it is helpful to consider how the campaign against RFE/RL fits into the Kremlin’s broader strategy for controlling Russia’s online spaces.
The Kremlin expanding its “foreign agent” policies to cover online media is a natural extension of the Russian government’s internet control model, which fuses online restrictions, disinformation, and disruption with traditional forms of offline coercion like fines, arrests, and intimidation. This strategy also relies heavily on the “false mimicry” dynamic described above: As other countries take new steps to combat disinformation, cyberespionage, and other online security threats, the Russian government uses the same language to justify imposing new restrictions on Russian citizens’ rights online.
U.S. government authorities to inspect foreign money, influence, and nongovernmental presence in the country of course bring their own set of civil liberties concerns. But in Russia, the intent behind the foreign agent laws and enforcement decisions are fundamentally different: aimed at constraining or entirely neutralizing politically independent organizations, and couched in democratically understood language of oversight while designed as an autocratic political tool to be used without it. The creation and use of these authorities are also driven by a paranoid and zero-sum worldview.
As the U.S. government becomes more assertive in labeling or acting against Russian state-owned media—and if U.S. social media platforms do the same—it remains an open question how much more the Kremlin will turn to these crackdown tactics to limit the presence of “foreign agent” online media in Russia.
The application of the “foreign agent” label to digital media captures the Russian government’s unique approach to internet control. Often thought of as a purely technical enterprise, internet control in fact encompasses a diverse array of toolkits and techniques for exerting state control directly and indirectly over the web, with different countries taking different approaches. China’s so-called Great Firewall, for instance, which directly blocks many sites from the outside world, is backed up by an army of online propagandists, coercive measures, and incentives to pressure private firms into censorship. In Russia’s case, this has long been a hybrid of offline coercion and online technical measures, such as a 2014 law requiring bloggers to register with the government: both enabling more digital tracking by authorities and opening up additional avenues of physical intimidation and coercion (e.g., harassment, arrest, or worse) for online bloggers.
In the case of labeling key actors as foreign agents, the Russian government’s objective, as with its earlier pressure on Russian NGOs, is not to technically and completely block access to this or that internet resource. Instead, its goal is to put the necessary “dictatorship of law” coercive mechanisms in place—often already tried offline—to take action against those resource owners as the Kremlin deems necessary.
This move by the Russian government can also be interpreted as a deterrence tactic against further efforts by tech companies to combat the Russian government’s hijacking of their platforms for political disinformation campaigns. By distortedly mirroring the actions of Western states, Russia is using a form of “argumentative gymnastics” where the Kremlin acts against foreign companies that won’t comply with its propaganda narratives and censorship directives, under the claim of fair regulation and promoting Russian public well-being, while simultaneously using those platforms for its own propaganda purposes.
As the Russian government continues to deal with domestic and international fallout from its attempted assassination and subsequent imprisonment of Navalny, and as the Biden administration renews the efforts of the U.S. Agency for Global Media and repositions U.S. foreign policy toward Russia, this will be an important space to watch. In the contest for global information, alongside debates and regulatory proposals on internet content, this “foreign agents” tool may be one of increasing utility to the Kremlin.
Justin Sherman is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative and a research fellow with the tech, law, and security program at American University’s Washington College of Law. Twitter: @jshermcyber