Cat and mouse:

The mutations of Russia’s international state media RT and Sputnik

March 24, 2023
  • Dr. Maxime Audinet

    Research Fellow at IRSEM, Associate Fellow at the Center for Interdisciplinary Media Analysis and Research (CARISM, Paris Panthéon-Assas University)

Maxime Audinet explains how RT and Sputnik, while facing restrictions and closure in Europe after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, are looking for new opportunities in the Global South.
This article is an augmented translation of an article published on February 16, 2023 in La Revue des medias (INA).

"All [bank] accounts of RT France have been blocked in France. Here it is, Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité," Margarita Simonian mocked on her Telegram account on January 20, 2023. The head of RT was referring to the effects of sanctions adopted by the EU in December 2022 that targeted, among others, TV-Novosti, the parent company of the main Russian international news network. After the resulting freezing of its funds by the French Treasury, the decentralized editorial office of RT in France announced the forthcoming cessation of its activities.

This reflects the ongoing major reconfiguration of Russia’s media influence since February 24, 2022. The provocative prophecy made in 2015 by the Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica, for whom “the Third World War could happen if the Pentagon bombs Russia Today,” has certainly not come true; but the conflict generated by Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine has nonetheless been transposed, beyond the battlefield, into the global information space. One year after the invasion, what are the repercussions of this “information warfare” on Russia’s mediated public diplomacy and international propaganda?

Russian transnational media ousted in the West

The desire to undermine Russia’s information capabilities after the invasion of Ukraine has quickly emerged as a priority for the sanctions enacted by Western countries, with a focus on Russia’s international state media RT and Sputnik. On March 2, 2022, the EU Council adopted a regulation aimed at combating “propaganda actions” implemented by the Russian state to “justify and support its aggression against Ukraine.” Without banning their content production, this decision led to the temporary suspension of all RT and Sputnik broadcasting channels within the EU and to their deplatformization, resulting in a drastic drop in their activities on social networks and in their audiences in Europe. The French-language original website of Sputnik,, thus went from over 12 million total monthly visits to 350,000 between January 2022 and January 2023, according to data collected on SimilarWeb.

The reactions of RT and Sputnik to their suspension varied depending on their particular branches. In France, Sputnik put its Paris office into liquidation in May 2022. RT had, until then, maintained its French-language editorial team in Boulogne-Billancourt, near Paris, despite the departure of more than a third of its staff (including some of its most visible figures) and subcontractors, as well as the cessation of its newscasts and most of its programs. RT France had also filed an application with the EU Court for the annulment of the March 2 regulation, in vain.

In Germany, where the RT DE television channel had already been banned at the beginning of February 2022 following a legal-technical imbroglio and a failed maneuver, the double, Berlin-based office of RT – with RT DE and the agency Ruptly – faced mass departures after February 24. And since the closure of its company “RT DE Productions GmbH” at the beginning of February 2023, the management of RT’s German-language website has been completely relocated to Russia.

The announced closure of RT France in France, whose liquidation is increasingly likely, is all the more significant as it would signal the end of the decentralization of the RT network in Western countries. This decentralization had begun with the launch of RT America in January 2010, as part of the Russo-American “reset” of the Obama-Medvedev era, and had continued with the activities of RT UK until its license was definitively revoked by Ofcom, the British regulator, in March 2022. These moves followed the cessation of activities by RT America, which was abandoned by its distribution platforms a few days before. The production of programs and content for RT is now mainly supervised from its Moscow headquarters. While the EU sanctions have undoubtedly affected the broadcasting capacities of RT and Sputnik, the situation also portends the emergence of an even more uninhibited and propagandistic editorial line, freed from its European regulatory entities.

New information walls and cat-and-mouse game

In Russia, the war has been accompanied by an increase in state control over information unseen since the pre-perestroika Soviet Union, as well as a reduction of information flows between Russia and Western countries. The Russian nongovernmental media realm has been thoroughly purged through repressive legislation, notably the censorship law approved by the Duma on March 4, 2022. Anticipating difficulties, several Western television channels (CNN, ARD, RAI, etc.) chose to suspend their activities in Russia, while other Western networks with Russian-language services, such as the BBC, VoA, RFE/RL, Euronews and RFI have been blocked in Russia by the regulator Roskomnadzor for broadcasting “disinformation” about the conflict. The process of “sovereignization” of the Russian internet initiated in late 2018 has also accelerated: the Russian authorities have restricted access to several major American platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, though YouTube and WhatsApp remain accessible), while Meta Platforms was added in October 2022 to the list of “terrorist and extremist organizations” by Rosfinmonitoring, the federal financial monitoring service.

Although difficult to estimate, millions of Russian Internet users are trying to bypass these new “information walls” to access banned Western platforms (especially Instagram) or Russian independent news websites that, facing blocking, pressure, and intimidation by the government, were forced to leave Russia. Between March and July 2022, Russia has become the country with the second-largest number of VPN downloads behind India, whereas it was only sixteenth just before the invasion. For their part, international media suspended or blocked in the EU, such as Sputnik, or in Russia, such as the Russian service of the BBC, have encouraged their audiences to download VPNs.
Table 1. RT and Sputnik mirror sites accessible in France without VPN in January 2023 – non-exhaustive list. Source: Whois Records
On a global scale, RT and Sputnik have also adopted a different bypass method: the use of mirror websites. These replicas of RT and Sputnik’s original subdomains allow them to circumvent the blocking of their websites by European Internet service providers, without the use of a VPN. Some of these mirror sites were created before the invasion and then updated just after the introduction of European sanctions, such as “” (650,000 total visits in December 2022) and “” (45,000 visits) for the French version of RT. Others were registered later, such as “” (“RT News,” in reverse) and “” (RT in German) on March 5, 2022 or “” (Sputnik Srbija) and “” (Sputnik Mundo) on April 22 and 27, 2022 (see Table 1).

These sorts of underground practices, referred to by Anton Shekhovtsov as “partisan methods” in the information space, could multiply to allow RT and Sputnik to continue reaching their European audiences, which from the beginning have been a priority for both networks.
Graph 1. Comparison of the web traffic origin for the two main websites of Sputnik in French before the invasion of Ukraine and one year later (w/ SimilarWeb)
A turn to Africa?

The registration of the mirror site “” on August 3, 2022 symbolizes RT’s and Sputnik’s desire to redeploy toward more accessible and promising spaces after their ouster from the Western media market. Sputnik France stopped producing content between March 4 and July 21, 2022, and then changed its name to Sputnik Afrique to internationalize its editorial identity, targeting more explicitly the large audience of French-speaking Africa. Its activities are now organized between the headquarters of Rossiya Segodnya, its parent company in Moscow, and its foreign correspondents and partners, especially in Africa. In Mali, for example, Sputnik’s programs have been broadcast since the beginning of March on a Bamako radio station, MaliBa FM.

Sputnik Afrique’s audience is still low (about 1 million online visits in January 2023), but the share of its African audience is increasing compared to before the invasion (see Graph 1). From November 2022 to January 2023, six out of the top ten countries contributing to the web traffic of its website “” were African (with about a 30% share of cumulative traffic), behind France (30.8%) and Canada (8%).
Graph 2. Frequency of keywords “Africa” or “African” spoken on BBC News, Al Jazeera, and RT’s TV news programs (% of airtime, March 2018-Feb. 2023. Source: Television Explorer, GDELT)
After several months of hesitation, RT’s French-language editorial staff may be tempted to follow the same trajectory after its restructuring and reallocation of its budget, with a headquarters in Moscow and offices in Africa. In February 2022, RT announced the launch of a new office in Nairobi, which seems to have been aborted, before reporting in July about the opening of a hub in South Africa. Many cooperation agreements have been signed by RT and Sputnik with African media to promote the sharing of its content, including with militant or “counter-hegemonic” outlets. Among them, the “pan-African” web-TV Afrique Media, based in Douala (Cameroon), is known for its openly pro-Russian line.

The increased interest of both media outlets in Africa is also reflected, since May 2022, in the volume of content produced. This is shown by a comparative lexicometric analysis, which traces the share of RT, BBC News and Al Jazeera airtime in English where the words “Africa” and “African” appear (Graph 2), as well as a volumetric analysis of articles published by Sputnik in French using the tag “Mali” (Graph 3). In both cases, there have been clear increases in recent months, in parallel with the strengthening of Russian influence in Africa.
Graph 3. Monthly volume of articles published under the tag “Mali” on Sputnik France/Sputnik Afrique (Jan. 2018-Jan. 2023) *Sputnik’s French-language website stopped producing content between March 4 and July 21, 2022.
Similarly, several narratives deployed by Russian or local pro-Russian actors to justify Moscow’s expansion in Africa, such as its critique of Western interventionism and “neo-colonialism” on the continent, have found increasing resonance on RT and Sputnik in recent months.

As shown in Graph, the terms “colonialism,” “colonial,” “neocolonial” and “neocolonialism” are being used more frequently on RT (while no particular change in frequency is observed on the BBC and Al Jazeera), in parallel with the more frequent use of this vocabulary by Vladimir Putin.
Graph 4. Frequency of keywords “colonialism,” “colonial,” “neocolonialism” or “neocolonial” spoken on BBC News, Al Jazeera and RT (% of airtime, March 2018-Feb. 2023. Source: Television Explorer, GDELT)
The European continent has not yet been completely abandoned by Russia’s transnational state media. In November 2022, RT launched a new website in Serbian, RT Balkan. A twin television channel is to be launched in 2024. RT Balkan already has significant audiences in Serbia (2.1 million visits in January 2023), where pro-Russian sentiments are fairly widespread, and thus joins the highly popular Serbian version of Sputnik (2.3 million visits).


Faced with the most important crisis since its creation, the radically weakened Russian international media propaganda apparatus has been undergoing important mutations since February 24, 2022. Its goal has been to justify its raison d’être to the Russian government – its unique shareholder – to retain its most loyal audiences and conquer new foreign publics. As the invasion of Ukraine has severely and enduringly damaged Russia’s reputation in Western countries, including among European audiences traditionally most receptive to Russian positions, the country has partially reorientated its influence capabilities toward the Global South or “non-West” (“Ne Zapad” in Russian), where its soft power and ability to capitalize on anti-Western sentiment remains significant.
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