Russia: Bank Scores Direct Hit in Info War
As it has demonstrated with stunning effect in Ukraine and elsewhere, Russia likes to use asymmetrical tactics to gain strategic advantage. Now it seems a UK bank conglomerate may have found a way to turn the tables on the Kremlin.
The conglomerate, the Royal Bank of Scotland Group, decided that as of December 12, it will no longer do business with RT, originally known as Russia Today. The move could cause significant disruption for RT, and have far-reaching implications for Russia’s ability to use state-controlled media to push its political and cultural agenda beyond its borders. If other major banks in the West follow suit, RT could have difficulties paying for it newsgathering operations outside of Russia.
RT is a 24-hour news broadcaster, funded by the Russian government, catering mainly to an international audience. Critics characterize the channel as an important weapon in Russia’s information war against the West, framing developments in a way that advances the Kremlin’s political and economic interests.
In its 2016 report on Russia’s media environment, the watchdog group Freedom House asserted that Russian authorities manipulate media coverage for political purposes. “The government sets editorial policy at state-owned television stations, which dominate the media landscape and generate propagandistic content,” Freedom House stated.
“State-run television is the main news source for most Russians and serves as the key propaganda tool of the government,” Freedom House added. “The government owns an array of media assets directed at foreign audiences, including RT, an international, multilingual satellite news network that promotes the Kremlin’s take on global events.”
RT holds accounts in the UK with NatWest bank, which is part of the RBS Group. RT’s chief editor, Margarita Simonyan, claimed NatWest’s decision to cease dealings with the broadcaster was final. But an RBS statement, while not providing a clear explanation for its action, suggested the door was still open to some sort of revision.
“These decisions are not taken lightly. We are reviewing the situation and are contacting the customer to discuss this further. The bank accounts remain open and are still operative,” the RBS statement said.
British government officials insisted they had no role in the RBS decision. An aide to Prime Minister Theresa May, quoted by the BBC, said it was up to RBS alone “to decide who they offer services to, based on their own risk appetite.”
RT representatives and the Russian government clearly see it otherwise. Officials in Moscow cast the move as undemocratic. The collective complaint was that Britain, the cradle of liberty in the modern age, was stifling free speech.
“It seems that in leaving the EU, London abandoned all of its responsibilities [to ensure] freedom of speech in Europe,” Maria Zakharova, the director of the Information and Press Department at the Russian Foreign Ministry, stated on her Facebook page. Zakharova was referring to the recent Brexit referendum, in which British voters endorsed the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.
“The blocking of the account of a broadcaster, which simply realistically reports on [global] events … is lawlessness,” groused Alexander Yushenko, the deputy head of the State Duma’s Committee on Information Policy, Information Technology and Communications.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, rather than adopting a wounded tone, offered a sneering response. “The fact that Great Britain and the US have been trying to put a stick into RT channel’s wheel says a lot,” Russian media quoted Lavrov as saying. “That means that it proved its efficacy, proved that it gives an alternative point of view, so that makes the authorities of these countries a little bit anxious.”
The various reactions of Russian officials are consistent with the Russian state media propaganda playbook, some observers contend. State-run Russian media outlets, they say, seek mainly to confuse, not clarify, matters.
“If Russian disinformation can convince some westerners of the truth of Russian disinformational themes, so much the better, but Russia will settle for a more modest goal: They want to undermine the credibility of the media, especially the Internet, as a medium itself in western eyes,” wrote analyst Jon White in a briefing paper published by the Institute for European Studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel.