This oppositional point of view was especially clear when RT rolled out a series of ads in the U.K. that featured images of Obama and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and asked, “Who poses the greater nuclear threat?” or conflated pictures of a polar bear and an alien next to the text: “Climate Change: Science fact or science fiction?” (U.S. airports banned the ads until RT devised more politically correct versions; the original ads, meanwhile, won awards in the U.S. and the U.K.)
Coverage and stunts like these have given RT a bad reputation, especially among other Western journalists working in Russia who see RT not as journalism from the other side’s trenches, but as nothing more than Kremlin propaganda. Lavelle sneers at what he sees as supreme naiveté. “The paymaster determines a lot,” he says. “Are you telling me Murdoch doesn’t control the editorial line of his publications? No one can escape who pays for what.” He says he avoids contact with his Western colleagues in Moscow, who are, in turn, supremely contemptuous of most anyone who works for RT. “I am proud of my work,” Lavelle told me defiantly.
The younger members of the RT staff, however, are more pragmatic about the potential conflict—whether internal, ideological, or, down the line, professional—of working for RT. The ones who felt it compromised their careers have left; the rest choose to remove lofty ideals like objectivity from the equation. “Maybe people watch us like a freak show,” Shevardnadze told me, “but I’ve never been even slightly embarrassed. This point of view has a right to exist. We don’t have the pretension of being like CNN, or being as good as bbc, because we’re not. You may totally disagree with what we’re doing, and it’s meant to be that way.” She adds, with a touch of exasperation, “It’s a job. They pay you for it.”
In planning an elaborate and expensive image campaign, the Kremlin did not count on a global economic meltdown. A month after the war in Georgia, after a summer of dizzying oil prices, everything fell apart. Russia was among the worst hit of the G20 nations, and its GDP went from an 8.1 percent annual growth rate in 2007 to negative 7.9 percent in 2009. The price of oil plummeted, as did the prices of other commodities, such as nickel, aluminum, and steel—segments that funded two-thirds of the Russian federal budget. The crisis came as a massive shock to the Kremlin, and a group of liberals inside the administration of Putin’s successor Dmitry Medvedev began to push for economic diversification away from dependence on volatile natural resources. But this meant deep budget cuts—including for RT—and, simultaneously, heavy investment in infrastructure, education, and start-ups, all at a time when the Kremlin was suddenly strapped for cash, its reserves significantly depleted after providing industry with a massive bailout.
To fill those gaps, Russia had to woo back international investors who ran for the hills when the fighting broke out in Ossetia. They had to be shown not a resurgent Russia with Soviet overtones, as RT portrayed it, but a reasonable, modern country that behaves rationally. It was, above all, a sales pitch, and a recognition that Russia’s conversation with the world was a dialogue, not a monologue.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, bearing an olive branch from the new administration in the form of a large, red “reset” button, could not have shown up at a better time (even if the Americans used the wrong Russian word for “reset,” touching off a gleeful round of mockery in the local press). It was March 2009, less than two months after Barack Obama had been sworn into office, promising a different approach toward Russia, one based not on lectures but dialogue. This was an ideal opportunity for the Kremlin: the United States had come to it before it had to go begging. Which is why, after some obligatory chest pounding and naysaying, Moscow began to respond to Washington’s overtures, cooperating on initiatives like renewing the start treaty and backing the U.S. on new sanctions against Iran.