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.
Russia Today’s coverage has closely mirrored this shift. It has become more international and less anti-American (there are fewer stories about America’s social ills, for instance). It even abruptly changed its logo from Russia Today to the less binding “RT,” and built a state-of-the-art studio and newsroom in Washington, D.C. From there it beams original content about American politics and society under its new, more journalistic “Question More” banner. Most significantly, coverage of big Russian-American issues hews closely to the Kremlin’s new tone. This was evident in the treatment of the recent spy scandal. “We focused on why it is such a big media campaign, we brought on experts to talk about why and how spying happens,” says Gachechiladze, the news director. “We talked about the invisible ink. There are a lot of very colorful details. It was a classic spy story.” No outrage at the arrest and deportation of Russian citizens, no incredulity at the accusations that Russia was spying on the U.S., just the colorful details, as if the biggest spy swap since the cold war was nothing more than a Hollywood blockbuster. Which, of course, is exactly how Moscow and Washington wanted it.
Simonyan, however, insists that nothing’s changed: “Our goal is still to provide unbiased information about Russia to the rest of the world, to report about our country.”
But something has changed, and it is explained not only by the Russo-American détente, but also by the fact that RT’s ambitions have grown. It now boasts a staff of 2,000, wider distribution than ever, and channels in Arabic and Spanish. It has learned to pitch the Kremlin’s line in a more subtle way. RT is also evincing a certain confidence these days. It has shed much of its foreign staff, and newsroom meetings are now conducted in Russian. There are hints of a broader, if uneven, move toward seriousness and professionalism.