This month it has become known that Russian news agency Sputnik News terminates operations in Great Britain and moves its English-language service to Moscow and Washington.
Sputnik News, a Russian state-owned news agency, founded in 2014, has powerful news web platform and radio broadcast service. The headquarters is in Moscow, besides it has editorial offices in Washington, Cairo, Beijing, Paris, Berlin.
Sputnik News introduces itself as a “provider of alternative news”. The agency gives both its own content and news stories broadcast by foreign media outlets in over 30 languages. But let’s see the backstage to make sense of what is hidden behind this, at first glance, nice picture.
In many countries Sputnik News has become known as an outlet which promotes anti-Western and pro-Russian agenda. It mainly appeals to Russian-speaking citizens of foreign countries and native citizens of far-right and nationalist viewpoint, dissatisfied with political systems of their home countries.
NATO representatives call Sputnik News a “Kremlin misinformation machine”. In particular, following the 2016 presidential election in the US, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu, commenting for ВВС, claimed that Sputnik News pursues a goal “not to convince people, but to confuse them, not to provide an alternative viewpoint, but to divide public opinions and to ultimately undermine the ability to understand what is going on and therefore take decisions if decisions need to be made.”
A study conducted by researchers at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (Kragh & Åsberg, 2017) revealed that with a help of Sputnik News Russian government has been trying to influence the Swedish public perceptions of its government and the EU by means of false online news stories.
And in 2017, during presidential election in France, Macron’s team denied access to the Russian media outlets at all, accusing them of spreading “misleading information”. At a joint press conference with Russian president Putin in Versailles, Emmanuel Macron called Russian state media outlet Sputnik News an “agency of influence and lying propaganda”.
The Baltic States have taken the danger from “Russia’s media activities” even more seriously, and in 2016 Sputnik News was banned in Latvia. The media outlet was not considered as a credible source and was blamed of spreading propaganda.
In 2020, Sputnik News was sanctioned in Estonia. It worth mentioning that in the Baltic States Russian media outlets are targeted at promoting tricky content which deepens the gap between the Balts and Russian-speaking citizens – the representatives of Russian ethnic minority, provokes controversies and split within the society. More than a quarter of the population of Estonia and Latvia is ethnic-Russians, and the Kremlin tends to use it to generate flashpoints of instability in Europe.
For Lithuania, the situation is even more risky, since it borders on the Russian enclave – Kaliningrad and, like Poland, has a vulnerability – the so-called Suwałki gap. It is a stretch of land between Belarus and Kaliningrad, which Russia, if necessary, can use as a perfect root for its troop shifts. The Baltic countries, being NATO members, are a “sweet” pie for Russia – if it managed to provoke interethnic tensions in these countries with the help of propaganda, it would pose a serious threat to the stability of the North-Atlantic Alliance and its ability to resist the Kremlin.
Sputnik News’ branch (Sputnik Polska) is still broadcasting for Polish-speaking people. The EAST Center think-tank reported that around two thirds of its content covers unrelated to Poland topics, the rest of the content is devoted to the diffusion of several “outstanding” narratives on a regular basis. Some of them are about: “Poland is not a sovereign state”, “Poland is subordinated to the political will of the US and faces considerable economical losses due to this partnership”, “its economy is weak and is in deep trouble”, “Poland dreams of Belarus and Ukraine to become its vassals”, “Poland is a Russophobic state”, “Poland will fail to replace Russian gas with American LNG” etc.
But let’s return to the “British story”. Unlike Latvia, in Britain Sputnik was not banned, but it was Russia which had said on its decision to halt activity in Britain and move its English language service to Moscow and Washington under pretext to reorganize its international presence in more effective manner. Closing down of Russia’s mouthpiece in Britain occurred at a time when Russian-British relations saw a low point that has become a predictable consequence of long tense between two countries.
Their relations much worsened in 2018 when Britain blamed Russia for trying to kill former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a Soviet era developed nerve agent in Britain. Then Russia denied it, using traditional tactics: Deny, deny, deny!
After that London accused Moscow of trying to interfere in its 2019 national election.
Kremlin was not slow in responding: in 2019, Russia warned British media operating on its territory that they should be ready for consequences after Britain’s media regulator fined the state-financed RT television channel over its coverage of Skripal’s poisoning.
Sputnik News has refused to provide comments on its move. But some experts suggest that the main reason for this seemingly incomprehensible decision is that on the eve of the parliamentary elections in Scotland, scheduled for May 6, Russia is deliberately diverting public attention from its new tool of influence – the nationalist Alba Party, led by Alex Salmond, who compromised himself with ties with Russia. It is about his show on RT (RT is a Russian media resource, which is also accused of spreading propaganda). It should be noted that the Alba Party supports the idea of Scottish independence. Therefore, it is easy to understand what Russia is betting on.