The raft of U.S. and Western sanctions on Russia finally targeted Vladimir Putin’s state-owned media networks that continue to spread lies and disinformation about the cruelty he has perpetuated in Ukraine. The three major TV stations to be sanctioned (NTV, Channel one Russia, Television Russia) received more than $300 million in advertising revenue from Western countries just last year.

Obviously, Russia’s TV stations and media outlets are more about propaganda than reporting truth and the facts. That’s how Putin wants to be portrayed, as a champion of worthy causes (denazification). It seems to be working as his poll numbers continue at a high level. 

Remaining vestiges of Russia’s independent press were smothered this year as Putin cracked down on reporting of the war. Russia criminalized “unofficial” and critical reporting, including describing it as a war or invasion.

“At home, the Kremlin is engaged in a full assault on media freedom and the truth, and Moscow’s efforts to mislead and suppress the truth of the brutal invasion are intensifying,” the U.S. State Department said in a March 2 press statement.

Back in the mid 1990s, Putin’s first military intervention was neighboring Chechnya. At the same time, Russia’s newly founded private and independent television station, NTV, had journalists investigating the possible staging by the Russian secret service (FSB) of explosions in Moscow to justify the Kremlin’s actions. Such critical reporting had angered Putin, who promptly ordered his own investigation that ultimately put NTV and the other media outlets under state control.

Vladimir Gusinski, a young and ambitious Jewish entrepreneur, was the first Russian oligarch who dared to criticize the Kremlin’s new head of state. He was known as the media mogul, who acquired NTV television station, the news magazine Itogi (partner with Newsweek), Echo Moscow radio station and the newspaper Sevodnya. In David Remnick’s article in The New Yorker on February 22, 1995, “The Tycoon and the Kremlin,” he described Gusinsky as “Russia’s biggest media mogul and, as a result, is deeply embroiled in Kremlin politics.”

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At that time, I assisted Gusinsky, overseeing his schedule and accompanying him at meetings that included The Washington Post and Newsweek. His early acquisition of media outlets had unintended consequences. As was the case with his oligarch buddies, the idea was to advance their own business and political interests. But for Gusinsky, his  meetings in Washington, D.C., and New York were a wake-up moment, realizing that he was positioned to become a true champion of free and independent reporting in the post-communist era. 

That ambition would not sit well with Putin.  Beyond the NTV’s critical reporting of the Kremlin, what really upset Putin was the popular satire weekly TV show known as “Kukly.” It displayed a cast of hideous-looking latex dolls to mock politicians. One portrayed Putin as a screaming, ugly baby, even a hint of being a prostitute on the streets of Moscow. Putin would have none of that, which marked the beginning of the end of a free and independent press in Russia. In June, 2000, Russia’s Prosecutor General had Gusinsky arrested on fake charges and incarcerated into the infamous Butyrka Prison. Several weeks later, Gusinsky was given a choice  —  turn over his Media Most assets to Gazprom, Russia’s largest energy company and leave the country, or face indefinite prison time. 

Facing growing financial pressures, Gusinsky frantically sought outside investors, including CNN’s Ted Turner, to fend off an effort by Gazprom to take over his media operations.  But the high risks and limited time left Gusinsky with no choice but to sign an agreement turning over all his media assets to a state energy company, a division called Gazprom Media. The criminal investigation was closed and Gusinsky promptly left Moscow. His last drive to the Moscow airport, he was accompanied by Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader who was assassinated in February 2015.  

The breaking news of Gusinsky’s arrest and the Russian government’s seizing of his media assets received front-page coverage among America’s prominent news publications, including The New York Times, Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, with headlines like “Russian Media Mogul Battles to Hold on to his Besieged Empire.”

If Gusinsky’s media conglomerate existed today (reporting the truth, criticizing Putin’s policies), Putin’s poll numbers would likely be reversed and he would be ushered out of the Kremlin. 

Unlike Ukraine, many of the former Soviet republics today retain various forms of populist nationalism. Their authoritarian leaders see Putin as a role model, applying his KGB tactics to eliminate or suppress both political opposition and straightforward news reporting. Whether their media outlets are state-owned, or private companies beholden to who those who hold the rein of power, autocratic rulers in countries like Belarus, Hungary and Georgia are emboldened by the Putin example. I suspect his counsel to them would be, absolutely, you must “control the media.”

While press freedom can be messy at times, there is no doubt it is critical to any democracy.