Middle East Russia

Russia’s Arabic Propaganda: What it is, why it matters

INFORMATION MANIPULATION is a key foreign policy tool that Russia utilizes to pursue its anti-Western agenda. Dmitry Kiselyov, one of the Kremlin’s main propagandists, describes journalism as a warfare tactic: “If you can persuade a person, you don’t need to kill him. Let’s think about what’s better: to kill or to persuade? Because if you aren’t able to persuade, then you will have to kill.”

The Middle East is a growing arena of Moscow influence, and the Kremlin has invested heavily and consistently in reaching Arabic-speaking audiences. Indeed, Moscow devotes more resources to reaching the developing world, primarily Spanish as well as Arabic-speaking, than to reaching Western audiences.

Moreover, while Russia’s overall population is declining, its large Muslim minority is growing. This demographic shift has boosted Moscow’s need to engage with the Middle East, a development in which media has taken on a central role.

The Middle East media landscape provides Russian state with unique opportunities. A region with strong state-controlled media, weak indepen-dent outlets, and a burgeoning reliance on social media—along with a historical suspicion of Western news sources—has created useful openings that the Kremlin exploits to advance its agenda. Russia pres-ents its own media as a better alternative to other Arabic-language networks, and it has a more receptive audience in the region than in the West. Today, the RT Arabic and Sputnik Arabic websites are the two most visible outlets of Moscow’s propaganda influence. Analysis of these sites shows both continuity with the Kremlin’s traditional propaganda goals and adaptation of tried-and-true methods to advance them. These outlets cultivate an image of Moscow as a great power in the Middle East and focus heavily on social media. Unsurprisingly, they also advance a divisive, conspiratorial, anti-Western ideology. Deeper investigation, however, reveals a more nuanced approach aimed at building credibility with Arab audi-ences through coverage of human interest and domes-tic issues—especially in Egypt—and through efforts to develop relationships with other local and regional media. As this Kremlin-funded information operation gains local traction and viewers, it increasingly poses a challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East.

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About the author

Anna Borshchevskaya and Catherine Cleveland

Anna Borshchevskaya is a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on Russia's policy toward the Middle East. Catherine Cleveland is a Washington Institute senior fellow and editor of Fikra Forum.