A Russia Today (RT) television broadcast van is pictured in Moscow on November 11, 2017. Photo: AFP / Kirill Kudryavtsev
A Russia Today (RT) television broadcast van is pictured in Moscow on November 11, 2017. Photo: AFP / Kirill Kudryavtsev

The “media war” between the United States and Russia, unfolding over the past month or so, may not subside anytime soon.

It all began when the US Justice Department announced in September that the Russian channel RT should be registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (1939).

That law requires that agents representing the interests of foreign powers in a “political or quasi-political capacity” should disclose their relationship with the foreign government and information regarding their activities and finances. The legislation aims to facilitate “evaluation by the government and the American people of the statements and activities of such persons.”

The law was originally enacted as a firewall against Nazi propaganda but has been selectively targeted at countries the US has regarded as adversaries (such as the former Soviet Union).

In recent decades, it has been finessed in order to bring to account lobbyists for foreign countries – a sort of chemotherapy to hunt down cancerous cells in the sub-soil. For the first time, post-Soviet Russia has been targeted, underscoring the two nations’ adversarial relationship.

Moscow warned of reciprocal measures but Washington was adamant – and, finally, RT (which indeed draws government funding) did register itself as ‘foreign agent’ by the prescribed deadline on November 13.

Moscow promptly retaliated by enacting a law similar to the 80-year old FARA, and put the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe & Liberty on notice. Cue a chorus in western media that the Kremlin had curbed freedom of information in Russia.

America’s stance reflects more a growing sense of insecurity and anxiety in its present state of civil war

The US Congress took matters a step further this week by withdrawing RT’s accreditation to cover Capitol Hill. RT can no longer report first-hand on the shenanigans of American lawmakers.

The Kremlin said it was “extremely disappointed” and predicted there would be an “emotional response” from Russian lawmakers. The speaker of Russia’s State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, said it is mulling over “symmetrical measures”.

On a visit to Rome, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, gave a more ambiguous response, however: “We have been studying the situation… I’m convinced that it’s absolutely unacceptable for any more or less respectable, civilized country. I cannot say now what our answer will be, but I really would not want to join a race of bans, which will harm the media as well as those people who get information from the media about what’s happening in the world.”

Lavrov is a veteran war-horse. Having lived and worked for decades both as a Soviet and post-Soviet diplomat in the US, he probably senses that this war is unlike those in Syria or Afghanistan. Washington is intentionally provoking Moscow, incrementally forcing RT to retreat to Eurasia.

It is an unequal war. Even if the Russians were to dump the VOA and RFERL into the Barents Sea, no serious harm would come to American interests.

Moreover, Russians no longer depend on VOA or RFERL for “alt” news. Such US propaganda falls on deaf years. President Putin’s popularity is soaring above 80%. He only needs to announce his candidacy in the March election. It’s a done thing.

By contrast, RT hits the US establishment where it really hurts. The amazing thing about RT is that it uses not only American source materials but Soviet-era American media techniques. RT simply holds a mirror to American society, its economy, politics, culture and sports. And the image Americans see reflected back is at once intellectually stimulating and emotionally impactful. The grim message sinks in.

A Russia Today (RT) television broadcast van is pictured in Moscow on November 11, 2017. Photo: AFP / Kirill Kudryavtsev

RT vividly brings out the violence in American society, its racial discrimination and callousness toward poverty and “losers,” along with the venality and decadence in American public life. Unlike during the Soviet era, when the Kremlin stymied media freedom and creativity and churned out third-rate propaganda that bordered on the comical, RT is classy.

It has highly professional staff who can match any first-rate western media organization in terms of intellect, erudition or sophistication. And it has not a care in the world about funding. Unsurprisingly, RT has gone from strength to strength in the 12 years since its founding, winning the trust and confidence of global audiences, especially western ones. Suffice to say, Moscow’s strategic interest lies in RT living and thriving in America’s fertile soil.

On a philosophical note, isn’t it sad that things have come to such a sorry pass – a country that boasts the Statue of Liberty being in reality so intolerant? This may not be just a matter of intolerance, however. Paranoia could be the word.

America’s stance reflects more a growing sense of insecurity and anxiety in its present state of civil war, with the elites tearing each other apart and the superpower retreating, inexorably, from the world stage. Fundamentally, RT threatens the country’s morale and self-esteem.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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