- - Sunday, November 16, 2014

MOSCOW — The Kremlin this month unveiled its latest weapon to combat the West’s “information war” on President Vladimir Putin with the launch of Sputnik — a lavishly funded, international media outlet whose advent heralds a silencing of dissent and criticism in Russia.

Named after the Soviet satellite that spooked Western powers when it became the first man-made object to leave the Earth’s atmosphere in 1957, state-run Sputnik plans to open newsrooms in more than 30 capitals, including Washington. Other offices will open in Beijing and Cairo, as well as in former Soviet republics.

Headed by Dmitry Kiselyov, a virulently anti-Western TV anchor who says the role of Kremlin-run media is to “love Russia,” Sputnik replaces the widely respected RIA Novosti state news agency, which was “liquidated” late last year on the orders of Mr. Putin. It also incorporates the Voice of Russia radio station.

Speaking to journalists last week, Mr. Kiselyov, 60, said Sputnik is aimed at an international audience “tired of aggressive propaganda promoting a unipolar world and who want a different perspective.”

Sputnik’s launch comes just weeks after Kremlin administration chief Sergei Ivanov said Russia and Mr. Putin were victims of an international smear campaign.

“There is an information war,” Mr. Ivanov told academics and journalists in late October. “Facts are misrepresented, while white is called black and vice versa. There have been multiple statements, some of which have simply been lies.”

Ordinary Russians would appear to agree with Mr. Ivanov. An opinion poll published Nov. 12 by the independent, Moscow-based Levada-Center indicated that 88 percent of the population thinks the United States and other Western countries are waging an information war against Russia.

However, Western analysts and Russian opposition figures allege that Kremlin media outlets, including the international news channel RT — formerly Russia Today — are part of a massive propaganda campaign aimed at discrediting Mr. Putin’s foes while encouraging anti-Western attitudes.

“Unlike in the Cold War, when Soviets largely supported leftist groups, a fluid approach to ideology now allows the Kremlin to simultaneously back far-left and far-right movements, greens, anti-globalists and financial elites. The aim is to exacerbate divides and create an echo chamber of Kremlin support,” reads a recent report by the U.S.-based Institute of Modern Russia. The IMR is partly funded by family members of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oil tycoon and political opponent of Mr. Putin.

Within Russia, opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny has accused Kremlin-run media chiefs of whipping up public hatred of Mr. Putin’s critics, who frequently are referred to as “national traitors” by state-run television.

Mr. Navalny, who has been under house arrest for almost a year, also wrote in his popular blog earlier this year that staff at the state-run Channel One station should “face criminal charges” over the broadcast of a recent report that claimed the Ukrainian army had crucified a child in eastern Ukraine.

Independent Russian media outlets and opposition figures say the report is a fabrication.

Channel One made international headlines last week when it broadcast “sensational” photographs of what it said were satellite images of a Ukrainian fighter jet shooting down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, which broke up over rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine earlier this year, killing all 289 people on board.

Critics immediately pointed out, among multiple discrepancies, that the aircraft shown by Channel One displayed the wrong markings for a Malaysian Airlines plane.

The United States and the European Union allege that the aircraft was shot down by pro-Russian rebels with Russian missiles. The Kremlin denies it has supplied troops or weapons to the separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine.

Highlighting the importance it places on extending its global media reach, the Kremlin has increased funding for state-run international media outlets. Rossiya Segodnya, the state news agency whose media operations include Sputnik, was recently allocated $140 million in funding for 2015, three times the amount the Kremlin originally planned to spend.

The launch of Sputnik comes as independent Russian media outlets find themselves under unprecedented pressure.

The country’s most respected radio station, Echo of Moscow, for years a bastion of independent comment, is under fire after it aired a report on the conflict in Ukraine. The station’s chief, Alexey Venediktov, expects it to be closed in coming weeks.

In a sign that the Kremlin no longer is willing to tolerate even “token” dissent, Mikhail Mikhailin, editor of the respected newspaper Kommersant, was forced to resign last week over a report on the Kremlin’s possible tough response to Western sanctions.

Tightening of Kremlin control of the media is evident in a new law approved by Mr. Putin in October that forbids foreign investors from owning more than a 20 percent stake in Russian media companies. Critics say this will harm independent media outlets and lead to further decreases in alternatives to state-run media, the sole source of news for the vast majority of Russians.

These changes in the media laws were cited by Turner Broadcasting System International last week when the company announced that CNN would no longer broadcast in Russia beginning Jan. 1.

While the Kremlin undoubtedly has high hopes for Sputnik, the early days haven’t been easy sailing. In an apparent oversight, Sputnik staff last week uploaded hundreds of old articles from the RIA Novosti website, including many criticizing Mr. Putin. One English-language article now available on Sputnik’s website suggests that Mr. Putin bears a physical resemblance to Dobby, a house elf in the popular Harry Potter movies.

“RIA Novosti’s old English-language website now simply forwards you to Sputnik’s new website — along with all the ‘unpatriotic’ reporting and opinions that probably led to RIA’s dissolution in the first place,” said Alexey Kovalev, former chief editor at InoSMI, a website that translates Western media reports for a Russian audience.

“So as long we have this kind of low-level indifference and incompetence in Russia, Sputnik is a long way from becoming the 2014 version of [George Orwell’s] Ministry of Truth.”

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