Russia’s RT and Sputnik are still accessible in the EU, 2 years after the ban

Despite the European Council taking down the websites of the Kremlin-backed RT media organization in the initial weeks of Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine in 2022, it is still possible to access the outlet within the European Commission headquarters.

The websites and streaming services of RT, formerly known as Russia Today, and Sputnik were accessible to the RFE/RL’s Balkan Service journalists without the need for a VPN from the European Commission and European Council buildings.

Despite the EU-wide sanctions imposed nearly two years ago to counter Russian propaganda promoting the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine, the websites of the Kremlin-backed media outlets, RT and Sputnik, remain accessible in many EU countries, including those that drafted the laws targeting them.

Videos, text, and other information prepared by Russian propaganda to please the dictator Putin are available in Brussels in English, French, German, Serbian, Spanish, and Arabic on RT and Sputnik.

The European Council sets the overall political agenda and direction of the EU but does not negotiate or enact laws. Despite the European Council’s “urgent suspension” in the initial weeks of Russia’s ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Russian propaganda media websites were still available in a few languages.

The EU officials and experts say the problem originates from barriers to the implementation of the law on the prohibition of Russian propaganda media by the 27 EU member states themselves and their designated organizations or agencies.

The ease of access deals a fatal blow to Western attempts to hold Russia accountable for the invasion of Ukraine and counter its carefully designed disinformation and propaganda war against Europe intended to distort or excuse the war.

According to observers, local service providers in each member state must be asked to block access to the Russian-run websites in order for authorities to enforce the ban. The safest course of action, according to them, is to impose nationwide domain and website address bans. Internet service providers apply sanctions in the media at their discretion.

In the instance of RT, the European Union sanctioned the media outlet in English, as well as in Germany, France, and Spain; finally, RT Balkan in Serbian and Arabic were also sanctioned. 

The EU and the West face a unique difficulty in the Serbian case. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has steadfastly refused to allow his EU candidate nation to join in anti-Russian sanctions, leaving it the only nation in Europe not to at least formally distance itself from Russia.

RT started operating in Serbia and broadcasting in Serbian by the end of 2022, far into the full-scale war, whereas Sputnik started operations there in 2019 and maintains an office in Belgrade.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign policy and security affairs, founded the EUvsDisinfo project in 2015. The major objective of EUvsDisinfo, according to its website, is to enable people in Europe and beyond to become more resistant to the manipulation of digital information and media, as well as to raise public awareness and comprehension of Russian influence and disinformation efforts.

They see Sputnik and RT “not as media organizations, but weapons of deception by the Kremlin.”

According to Peter Stano, Borrell’s spokesperson at the EU diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service (EEAS), “Russia accompanies its illegal war against the Ukrainian people with an information war and aggressive war propaganda on a global scale,” he said in a statement in January 2024, reporting on foreign interference and disinformation.

Several analysts claim that authoritarian governments, a threat to the democratic world, are bypassing the sanctions system, especially through media influence and political meddling, in the absence of more forceful action.

Before the EU sanctions that followed the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the UK, Germany, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania prohibited the transmission of RT in national languages.

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