On Monday morning I was intrigued to see a tweet from RT–Russia’s foremost propaganda TV station–complaining that its bank accounts had been frozen in Britain. Was this, I wondered, the start of a coordinated Western counter-offensive against the information war that Vladimir Putin is waging to undermine the legitimacy and unity of the West?
No such luck. It turns out that this was a decision by the bank NatWest to stop doing business with RT for reasons that remain undisclosed [http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/18/world/europe/uk-natwest-rt-russia-today.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share]. But RT still has access to its funds and can take them to another bank. Yet even such a small step has RT loudly squawking about having its “freedom of speech” violated. Pretty rich coming from a TV station wholly owned and operated by a state where there is no freedom of speech.
The brouhaha over RT’s bank account points to what the U.S. and its European allies should be doing to hit back at Russia, which is hacking emails from Poland to the U.S. to anti-NATO and anti-EU candidates while creating doubts about the legitimacy of Western democracy. The most high-profile such operation is, of course, the hacking of DNC and Clinton campaign accounts, with the stolen emails being released by the Russian front group Wikileaks. The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that this is a Russian intelligence operation presumably ordered by Vladimir Putin himself.
So far, there has been no known retaliation. There are a number of steps that can be taken to make Putin pay a price for his cyber-offensive. Surely among the safest and most obvious would be to hinder the ability of the Russian state to openly promote its propaganda in the West. Moscow’s principal tools for propaganda, RT television and the Sputnik news service, have been cited with increasing frequency by far-right websites in the U.S. and Europe.
Putin, after all, has shut down all Western attempts to spread “soft power” and promote human rights in Russia. Putin has been so worried about the prospect of a “color” revolution unseating him that he has passed a series of restrictive laws that make it basically impossible for Western-supported NGOs—or, for that matter, any NGOs focused on human rights—to operate in Russia. As Human Rights Watch observed, “Russia’s Justice Ministry has designated 146 groups as ‘foreign agents,’ courts have levied staggering fines on many groups for failing to comply with the law, and over 20 groups have shut down rather than wear the ‘foreign agent’ label.”
The West has not reciprocated the favor. Not only are RT and Sputnik allowed to operate in the West as if they were real news but Russia has also been allowed to spread its influence in other ways. In France, for example, banks linked to the Russian state have provided millions of euros in “loans” to the far-right National Front party of Marine Le Pen. The Kremlin has also been building a vast new Orthodox church and “cultural” center in the middle of Paris where the Russian intelligence services will have a useful outpost for spying on the French presidency.
It goes without saying that there is a big difference between Western democracies and the dictatorship that Russia has become under Putin. We respect freedom of speech and freedom of association. Obviously, no one is going to be locked up for espousing pro-Russian viewpoints–nor should they be. At the same time, however, we don’t have to grant the Kremlin carte blanche to undermine our democracy and subvert our institutions. Freezing RT’s bank accounts would be a logical start to a counteroffensive against the Kremlin’s information war on the West.