Over the past eight months, Russia’s state-sponsored news media have provided extensive coverage of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Many scholars have argued that this coverage may be an attempt by the Kremlin to undermine western democracy and the U.S. electoral process. But one potential objective has been ignored: distraction. Russia appears to be consciously feeding the narrative that it interfered in the U.S. election, while also burying news of its recent aggression in Libya and Egypt. While the U.S. continues to focus exclusively on Russia’s electoral meddling, Moscow’s attempts to fill the Middle East power vacuum have gone unchecked.
Following the inauguration of President Trump, the Putin regime ramped up its efforts to further Moscow’s influence in the Middle East. Russia has been particularly involved in the ongoing civil war in Libya. The Kremlin has backed Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a former Ghadafi-loyalist who opposes Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli. Russia views Fayez al-Sarraj’s Tripoli-based government as a NATO puppet regime installed to help the West gain access to Libyan oil fields. Haftar has visited Moscow twice this year and Russian Special Forces have been spotted on an Egyptian military base near the Libyan border. Analysts say that with Russian military assistance, the Libyan National Army may be able to take over the country and institute a military-led regime.
Moscow’s influence in Egypt also appears to be growing. The Kremlin recently increased its arms sales to the country and Russia’s state-run nuclear energy company, Rosatom, was contracted by the Egyptian government to construct a power plant along the Egyptian coast. Russia has also continued to cultivate relations with Turkey, recently inviting President Erdogan to talks on Syria while excluding the U.S.
While Russia has been pursuing further geopolitical influence in the Middle East, the Kremlin and its state-run media organizations have remained largely silent on the topic. President Putin has yet to comment on whether Russia’s military is supporting the LNA, and the only official Kremlin statement that has been issued came from the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Igor Konashenkov, who told RIA Novosti, “Certain western mass media have been stirring up the public for years with such false information from anonymous sources.” The Kremlin’s major state-sponsored media organizations, RT and Sputnik, have provided sparse coverage of Russia’s involvement in Libya and Egypt. RT wrote only three articles in March about Russia’s intervention in Libya while Sputnik featured 10. In comparison, Sputnik wrote 937 articles in March about Russia’s military involvement in Syria. Eight of the 10 articles in Sputnik alleged that a report Reuters published about Russian military sightings along the Libyan border were “grossly inaccurate.” U.S. Africacom later confirmed the validity of the Reuters report. The other two articles claimed that Libya was in a state of chaos and emphasized the growing levels of violence in the country. Both RT and Sputnik referred to the UN-backed Libyan government as “illegal armed groups” and “militants” and stressed the need for stability in the region.
Despite RT and Sputnik’s limited coverage of Russia’s actions in Libya and Egypt, they have both extensively covered the investigations into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In March, Sputnik published over 387 stories about the House Intelligence Committee hearings and Russia’s involvement in the U.S. presidential election. The majority of the articles about the investigation focused on the undemocratic nature of the hearings and criticized FBI Director Comey’s lack of transparency. The Putin regime has also begun to publicly insert itself into the conversation on Russian electoral interference. During a CNBC-moderated panel on March 30, President Putin said, “All those things are fictional, illusory and provocations, lies. All these are used for domestic American political agendas.” Two days later, the Russian Foreign Ministry set up an automated telephone switchboard for embassies as an April Fools Day prank that included a fake voicemail offering services of “election interference” and “hackers.” The recording said, “To arrange a call from a Russian diplomat to your political opponent, press 1. To use the services of Russian hackers, press 2. To request election interference, press 3 and wait until the next election campaign.”
Throughout the past few months, the Kremlin’s spokespeople and state-run media organizations have overwhelmed audiences with hundreds of stories about investigations into Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election. The Kremlin has also begun to actively insert itself into U.S. news stories through strong denials of responsibility and April Fools Day pranks. At the same time, RT and Sputnik have written only a combined 18 articles about Russia’s actions in Libya and President Putin has yet to publicly address the issue. It seems as if Russia is attempting to distract attention from its actions in the Middle East by keeping Western focus on Russia’s electoral interference.
So far, it appears to be working. The United States has done little to address Russia’s aggression in Libya. While the U.S. State Department repeatedly expressed its “deep concern over the escalation of violence” in Libya during the final months of the Obama administration, it has not commented on Russia’s aggression in Libya since February 11, 2017. As a result, the U.S. media have maintained its focus on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and have spent little time covering Russia’s actions in the Middle East. If the United States hopes to maintain its influence in the region, it must challenge the Kremlin’s information campaign by addressing Russia’s actions in Libya, Egypt and Turkey.
Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.