Putin and Lukashenka invest billions of USD in propaganda, using the media as a weapon. The West responds with modest means, such as Belsat, to counter the Kremlin’s information army.
Local and global propaganda
Russia and Belarus have collaborated to set up a joint media holding. This idea has been under discussion for several years, as Minsk and Moscow were interested in merging state media to create a standard propaganda machine. In contrast, Belarusian and Russian propaganda has been slightly different, with Minsk focusing on building the cult of Alyaksandr Lukashenka and its narrative towards foreign countries being concentrated on their closest enemies – Poland and Lithuania- and the Belarussian opposition.
Russian propaganda has traditionally taken a more worldwide approach, focusing on confrontation with the entire Western world. However, both Lukashenka and Putin have realized that Belarusian and Russian propaganda share the same goals and beliefs. Therefore, they believe it is time to collaborate with shared leadership and objectives. Their goals include the constant consolidation of society around their leaders and their impact on the rest of the world.
In both cases, the propaganda machinery serves as a tool for the aggressive expansionist policies of both regimes. Mainly, it is because Belarus, under the leadership of Lukashenka, remains highly loyal to Moscow in terms of foreign policy. The propaganda machines of both Belarus and Russia cannot be considered traditional media outlets. Referring to them as mere propaganda apparatuses would be a significant oversimplification and understatement. The media is a powerful tool for both informing and misleading people. For leaders like Putin and Lukashenka, such a device is just another weapon they can use to their advantage, like the army or special service. Besides, in Belarus and Russia, the propaganda machine works closely with the military and the special services, leaving no room for doubt that it serves the state’s interests. The primary goal of propaganda and disinformation is to promote the state’s agenda and manipulate public opinion.
The Kremlin’s media army
Kremlin propaganda operates in a complex and multi-dimensional way, constructing false narratives consistently. Dmitry Medvedev, the former President and Head of the Kremlin Security Council, stated that Russia aims for the partition of Ukraine, with Lviv eventually becoming the capital of Ukraine since Kyiv will belong to Russia. Despite being ridiculous, these words reflect a central theme that has been promoted by Moscow’s television and internet networks for several months and has taken various forms on social media for an extended period.
Tucker Carlson, a well-known American television presenter who has voiced his support for Donald Trump, recently traveled to Moscow to interview with Vladimir Putin. This interview is viewed as yet another example of Russian propaganda, as Putin’s message has been able to reach American audiences and sway some of them towards certain viewpoints, such as the idea that supporting Ukraine is pointless.
The Kremlin has built a propaganda apparatus over the years, which will amplify Putin’s statements expressed in the interview with Tucker Carlson. This machine operates in Russia, the US, and Europe. Known as the fourth power or the media, it plays a crucial role in Russia, acting as a separate army type. Alexander III once said Russia had two allies: an army and a navy. Putin could say today that Russia’s allies are the army, navy, and propaganda. Propaganda and the management of information and narrative have always been important in the USSR and later in Russia.
When Putin became the leader of Russia, he took control of the media by subjugating the influential NTW and ORT stations. These stations were previously owned by oligarchs Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, who lost their ownership and were forced to flee the country. Gusinsky was arrested for alleged financial abuses and had to sell his independent television station to Gazprom. Eventually, NTW transformed from a political channel to an entertainment station.
A similar fate occurred with Berezovsky’s ORT television, which was loyal to Boris Yeltsin from the beginning and supported Putin, his successor, for a long time – first in the election campaign and then as President. When Berezovsky, known as “the man who created Putin,” began to distance himself from him, he had to relinquish his television station ownership. Today, the former ORT is known as Channel One (Perviy Kanal) and is considered the Kremlin’s official propaganda outlet.
Media as a weapon
Vladimir Putin, a former secret service agent, has always considered the media a powerful tool rather than a source of information or opinions. Putin and his supporters believe that the West is using the free media and press in Russia to weaken their country. As a result, the Kremlin has taken control of television, newspapers, and other media outlets in Russia. They have built a propaganda machine and eliminated independent media sources, sealing off the Russian information space. This process was carried out in stages, with the Kremlin taking control of larger and smaller media holdings, regional media outlets, the press, and internet portals. With the expansion of the Internet, they also constructed controlled social media platforms.
Belsat – on the battlefield
Gradually, these media outlets have almost disappeared due to subsequent restrictive laws. However, non-Russian Radio Svoboda and Meduza portals, Russian editions of the BBC and Deutsche Welle websites, and Belsat remain. All of these media outlets were blacklisted in Russia and Belarus, and their journalists are facing repression. Currently, 17 journalists cooperating with Belsat are detained in Belarusian prisons and detention centers. It is as much as 1/3 of all media people presently imprisoned in Belarus. On January 26, the Ministry of Justice in Moscow entered the Russian editorial office of Belsat the Vot Tak project into the list of foreign agents.
The Russian government has implemented a policy of legal stigmatization that targets independent media and institutions. This policy requires materials produced by these informative sources to be labeled as foreign agent work. Although seemingly insignificant, the implications of this action in Russia are negative. Such labeling serves as a warning and often leads to further repression and activity limitations. Nowadays, the operations of independent media outlets and individuals attempting to challenge the information dominance of Lukashenka’s and Putin’s regimes are facing significant risks. It is also a dangerous task for journalists itself. Moreover, it is a challenging duty since these media outlets have limited resources to combat the vast Kremlin propaganda machine.
How David combats Goliath
The Kremlin has a powerful media empire at its disposal. These media networks include the Rossiya 1 and Rossiya 24 stations from the WGTRK holding and the NTW station, owned by Gazprom-media. They are supported by smaller stations such as REN-TV Channel 5 or Zvezda, controlled by the Ministry of Defense. Additionally, there is RT, formerly known as Russia Today, which serves as the extended media arm of the Kremlin and is aimed at a global audience.
Since the beginning of Russian aggression in Ukraine, there has been an increasing push to encourage attacks on the Western world. For instance, the length of widespread propaganda shows on television, such as those hosted by Dmitry Kiselev, Olga Skabeyeva, and Vladimir Solovyov, has been extended, or their frequency has been increased.
The propaganda machine includes numerous internet companies that distribute social media content. These companies were once referred to as troll farms. Additionally, there are several opinion research centers and an extensive analytical apparatus. Private companies, secret services, and university centers work together to form a propaganda army that monitors the public mood and determines which narratives most effectively influence the Russian, Belarusian, and Western societies. Russian propaganda often employs unconventional methods, such as trying to influence Western citizens through online forums in popular computer games like World of Tanks or Minecraft.
The Kremlin is known for investing heavily in propaganda. In 2022, state media received a budget of USD 1.5 billion, according to official sources. However, other reports from debunk.org suggest that the actual amount could be as high as USD 1.9 billion, a 200 percent increase from the previous year. These figures, for instance, exceed the annual defense budgets of NATO members such as Bulgaria or Croatia. Furthermore, it’s important to note that the budget only covers state-owned media. Regional media outlets and those owned by oligarchs like Alisher Usmanov or state-owned companies such as Gazprom are also part of the propaganda machinery.
Russia invests more than USD 350 million in RT stations alone. Although many Western countries have blocked Kremlin media outlets, Putin’s propaganda machine remains active through other means, such as social media and networks of supporters who spread various anti-system conspiracy theories, especially during the pandemic. However, it is impossible to estimate precisely how much the Kremlin spends on these activities.
Compared to Russian media, independent media in Russia and Belarus have a much better cost-to-effect ratio. Last year, Belsat’s cost was USD 18.2 million, excluding terrestrial broadcasting expenses. Compared to the Russian propaganda apparatus, the Vot Tak channel, the Russian-language editorial office of Belsat, gained 1.3 million subscribers on YouTube and over a million users on the Internet website despite having modest resources. The Vot Tak YouTube channel has had 42.5 million views in the last three months and 13.8 million viewers. Belsat’s Russian viewership has increased by 2,126 percent in the last two years! Viewers in Russia and Belarus rely on Belsat and its YT channels and websites for information about the war in Ukraine, which is a highly sensitive topic.
How can we break the dominance of propaganda?
Roskomnadzor, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communication, Information Technology, and Mass Media in Russia, has been attempting to block Vot Tak on the Internet concerning war news since 2022. Belsat correspondents work on the front line of the Ukrainian defensive war and report on events from the regions of Ukraine. On the day of Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine, Belsat’s coverage on YouTube was watched by 5.5 million people. As many as 55% of viewers of Belsat’s online channels in the Russian language are residents of Russia. Internet data shows that some of Belsat’s viewers also regularly watch Russian propaganda channels. It indicates that Belsat’s content is reaching not only those strongly opposed to the Kremlin regime but also those undecided or seeking alternative sources of information in contrast to propaganda.
Breaking the information dominance of the Kremlin and Lukashenka propaganda machine is incredibly challenging, not only because it is incomparably better financed. It also has virtually every means at its disposal. Moreover, the repressive regimes of Russia and Belarus are fiercely combating any form of competition. The resistance against propaganda monopoly and efforts to counter Russian aggression on the Ukrainian front and the Kremlin’s expansion in diplomatic and economic spheres makes sense and is crucial. Independent media outlets such as Belsat play a significant role in providing an alternative perspective to Putin’s narrative, particularly for individuals in Russia and Belarus seeking a different stance from the propaganda apparatus.
Translated by PEV