How the “Kremlin towers” divided the information field
The Russian propaganda and the coordinated promotion of Kremlin narratives by different, at first glance, unrelated media have first become the subject of discussion at the turn of 2008. In 2014, the topic of the Russian Federation information operations became relevant in European countries, not to mention the post-Soviet space. In 2022, attempts were made to limit the influence of Russian media outside the borders of RF. At a first glance, certain theses of Russian propaganda often look absurd. And, at first glance, they could be easily refuted by real facts.
However, it works. And the moods within Russian society are the most vivid confirmation of this phenomenon. The factor to blame here is an information cocoon around a resident of the Russian Federation, which has been created over the past 20 years. It is omnipresent not only in all traditional media, but also across the so-called “new media”. Each of the segments of the information field has its own dominant players, its own specifics. They have only one thing in common – the vast majority of information resources belong to, (not to mention –are controlled by) one or more groups in Putin’s entourage. They may position themselves differently, and they may be used as an instrument of internal political struggle. But they always remain within the framework of a common propaganda structure that guarantees the loyalty of the population.
At the same time, none of the groups in Putin’s entourage can boast of being in full control of all segments of the media market. Simply put, each of the “Kremlin towers” is able to influence only a part of the country’s population through its media, without being able to reach all population groups (classified by age, region, profession, property status, and so on). Such segmentation, combined with full overall control, allows Putin to avoid the threat of disproportionate empowerment of one of the groups, which may end in a “palace coup”.
The myth of “freedom of the press” in Russia?
Or what the “Kremlin Towers” have to do with it.
The thesis of the Kremlin’s complete control over the media field of the Russian Federation was created, for the most part, by politicians and experts from the countries that exist in the situation of a constant Russian threat. Representatives of the political elites of other countries, including the EU and the USA, questioned such an approach, pointing out several important features of the Russian media field. In particular:
• There are more than 40 media holdings in RF with an audience of 10 million people or more;
• Only two from this list (“VGTRK” and “Russia Today”) are owned by the government.
• A significant part of the Russian media platforms are in full, or in partial ownership of the companies registered outside RF;
• Russia is formally a Federation. And the federal status provides, among other things, the complexity of controlling local publications;
• Some of the media holdings belong to large Russian companies that are competing with each other;
• The development of new media, and social networks, allows avoiding the state monopoly on information.
All these arguments are valid. But they only confirm the thesis of total control of the information field, if we evaluate the development of the market through the prism of active influence groups in Putin’s entourage.
That is why it seems reasonable to start the conversation about media market control with a brief overview of the aforementioned “influence groups” – that are often referred to as the “Kremlin towers”. Typology and description of the groups in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle could be performed using several approaches. However, none of them can be considered “complete”, and fully explain the decision-making system and personnel changes in the highest echelons of the Russian government.
This situation prompted the Ukrainian Institute of the Future to analyze more than 500 people in Russian political and business circles, and search for the affinity between them. Based on the results of this research, we have put together a scheme of key groups– an informal association of a sufficiently large number of people who share common interests (primarily in domestic policy) and the ability to protect them. This is ensured by the presence or ability to obtain at least half of the types of resources which allow you to enter the power struggle. Namely:
• power resource.
• financial (money, companies).
• political resource (presence of dependent (related) people in parliament, government).
• Media resource — availability of their own (or managed) media, with coverage of more than 5 million people.
• Regional resource — the presence of dependent governors in the subjects of the Federation (or partners).
If a group of people has at least half of the listed resources, it falls into the category of “influence groups”. As a result of the analysis, 6 of them have been identified: Siloviki, MIC group, Gazprom and Rosneft groups, Kovalchuk group and Technocrats. As well as the Yeltsin “Family” group, which in 2022 lost its influence over Putin.
Each of the mentioned groups has one or more media holdings under its control. And all of them together control up to 95% of the Russian information field, including social networks.
Areas of responsibility
For clarity, I am givng an approximate diagram of the Russian media in terms of affiliation of key groups surrounding Putin (Kremlin Towers) and a number of influential politicians with the spheres of influence.
Media market in RF
|Print and information agencies
Tsar-grad TV (Malofeev)
“National media group”
Through the government(Mishustin)
Russian media group(V. Alikperov)
Red-media(the group and 20 channels)
TV channel RBK
Through the government(Mishustin)
Regional radiostation(1 and 3rd buttons)
Russian Media group(V.Alikperov)
Russian Radio, Hit.FM
Radio Zenit (SaintPetersburg)101.ru
Evropejsky media holding(owned by Makhmudov)
MK.ru (owner Gusev)
Formally owns VK group
RBK, Kommersant through partners
“City portal net” holding
“Patriot” media group
About 20 TV channels
Slovo I Delo
Moskovski komsomoletz (Gusev)
Komsomolskaja Pravda (Rudnov)
Through the government(Mishustin)
“National media group”Izvestia
Life Media group
Argumenti i Facti
Evropeiski media holding (owned by Makhmudov)
FAN- Federalnoe agentstvo novostei
In the period from 2018 to 2022, there were changes in the RF media market. Their nature can be defined as the distribution of areas of responsibility between key groups of influence in Putin’s entourage. And they reflected the processes of strengthening and weakening of individual groups.
For example, the sphere of Internet media and social networks has been gradually monopolized by a group of technocrats (the Gref-Kiriyenko group), which has significantly strengthened in recent years. Apart from the “Rambler.group”, which is now owned 100% by Sberbank, VK has also been added to their assets. The situation with the latter should be described step by step:
• Alisher Usmanov sells “mail.ru group” to Gazprom-media Holding;
• a number of digital assets of the new owner have been merged into one VK group. Except video services, which are needed to support the internet presence of their own TV channels.
• Vladimir Kiriyenko, the son of Sergey Kiriyenko, has taken over as the group CEO;
• VK Group and Sberbank Media Group exchange assets with Yandex Group and take control of Yandex-News and Yandex.zen services. That means control over the news feed management and the key Yandex news resource. Yandex itself gets the services of.. food delivery. Meaning, this group is actually leaving the Internet media market, but remains formally independent from the state.
• Serey Kudrin, the former head of the RF Audit Chamber, comes to Yandex to the position of the corporate Development head.
Thus, the Gref-Kiriyenko group has monopolized the Internet news market. Even taking into account the development of Internet sites of leading Russian media and the emergence of new resources. After all, this group:
• owns search engines (and portals) mail.ru and rambler;
• controls Yandex-News and Yandex.zen platforms
• owns ALL (!) Russian social networks
• owns at least 3 media resources from the Russian TOP 10 Internet media chart
Television remains under the control of two groups – Gazprom-Novatek group and the Kovalchuk group. Moreover, the latter own the “national media group” and, through their influence on the government, formally control the state-owned VGTRK and Russia Today.
The remaining “Kremlin Towers” control less than 10% of the Russian television market. The most successful players in this field are the Siloviki Group and Rosneft, which influences the Russian Media Group through its partners (Alekperov).
There are also two key players in the field of FM radio stations. These are the aforementioned Gazprom group and Sergei Sobyanin, who failed to create his own “Kremlin Tower”, but has long been influential enough to be included as a “junior partner” in one of the existing groups. He is also one of the key players in the market of News agencies and print media (including their own Internet sites).
Another noticeable player in the media field is Yevgeny Prigozhin, who tried to create his own media empire based on AII. The result was the appearance of the Patriot media group and the gradual strengthening of a number of other media that stand on the positions of the Russian imperial ideology. In particular, the influence on the Tsargrad TV Channel of Konstantin Malofeev, Sergei Rudnov’s group (LDV Press, Baltic Media Group), which includes Regnum, LDV Press and which, after Sungorkin’s death, controls Komsomolskaya Pravda.
The specifics of Prigozhin’s media activity is the presence of several fairly popular resources in Telegram – the last of the originally “Russian” networks that is not completely controlled by the Kremlin. The was most notorious manifestation here were in the so-called “military reporterss”, at least a third of whom are either dependant on MG “Patriot” or full-time employees of this structure. Prigozhin has actually been able to set the tone for a campaign of criticism of the military leadership and tried to use it to promote his own interests.
And it is worth mentioning one more, undeservedly overlooked resource, for which a struggle may flare up in the near future. This is a “Network of city portals” owned by Viktor Shkulev, a journalist and a businessman close to Yeltsin’s “family”. This holding includes 46 city websites (including a very well-known Fontanka), the publishing house “Around the World” and a number of entertainment projects. Given the specifics of the popularity of local media, Shkulev’s holding can directly influence the regional political agenda in at least a third of the Subjects of the Federation, including the largest cities of the Russian Federation. For the time being he refrains from offers to sell a share in his holding. On the other hand, after the actual liquidation of the “Family” as one of the key groups of influence in Putin’s entourage, Shkulev’s regional portals took an extremely cautious position in covering all-Russian topics.
Conclusions and trends of future processes
A system of control over the information field has been formed in Russia. The key approach is to distribute the influence of the “Kremlin Towers” over various segments. The system is organized in such a way that none of the influence groups, using the media resources under their control, could set an agenda for the entire Russian society. This approach clearly demonstrates how Putin’s system of power works– through the creation of competing groups in his entourage, to whom carefully separated functions are delegated, in a way that, as a result, none of these groups would have the opportunity to independently claim power in Russia.
1. The television audience is given away to the Kovalchuk Group and Gazprom. The former own resources focused on the older generation, the latter work with a more dynamic NTV.
2. The sphere of Internet news is completely controlled by a group of technocrats (the Gref-Kiriyenko group), who set the agenda for a younger audience.
3. Radio stations are distributed among several groups. And there is a significant share of those controlled by the political heavyweight Sobyanin.
4. Print media, news agencies and their Internet portals are almost equally divided among all the key “Kremlin towers”. With one exception made for the media groups in the orbit of Kovalchuk and Sobyanin, that look a little more substantial. But at the same time, they are focused, for the most part, on an older audience.
The Telegram remains key problem area for the Kremlin, since over the past 2 years they have become one of the most influential news platforms. The inability (at this stage) to take control of the platform itself forces the influence groups in Putin’s entourage try to develop their own resources and fight for the existing ones. Prigozhin was the most successful in this direction, but given the reluctance of a significant part of the Russian elites to allow the political strengthening of this character, the key trend for the coming months will be the development of the “pro-Kremlin” segment in Telegram, while limiting the influence of resources controlled by the owner of AII and PMCs Wagner. Both pressure mechanisms can come of use here (the problems of some of the “military reporters” with the FSB in September-October 2022) and the purchase of individual assets.
Most likely, in the next 10-12 months, regional media, which today are the most decentralized (in terms of property rights) segments of the Russian information field, will fall into the sphere of interests of the Kremlin Towers. Therefore, attempts to buy out the assets of the “Network of Regional Portals” and problems with Shkulev personally may be expected.
And finally, the key issue of the development of the “sovereign Internet”. As of today, all the necessary infrastructure has been created in RF, including services that fully copy the functionality of international platforms – social networks, video hosting, etc. Most Russian information resources are transferring their content from Youtube to Rutube and other copycat resources. The same goes for social media. Although on a smaller scale – in RF more than 70% of users prefer Russian services.
The second limiting factor is, paradoxically, the focus of the Russian Federation on maintaining external influence. Therefore, up until the moment when Russian resources will be able to post content designed for consumers abroad under their own name, a complete blockage is unlikely to occur. The most likely algorithm in the near future will be an attempt to limit the distribution of “inconvenient content” on the territory of the Russian Federation with a gradual access restrictions to the platforms from which most of the Russian audience has already been poached.