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Howard, Jensen: How Russia’s military bloggers shape the course of Putin’s war

August 8, 2023 12:45 PM 9 min read
Russian milblogger Aleksandr "Sasha" Kots poses in front of a tank in Kreminna, Ukraine. (Aleksandr Kots/Telegram)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin relies on the manipulation of media narratives and limiting access to information to maintain popular support and acceptance of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Kremlin has pruned Russian news to convey a firehose of disinformation based on three storylines: life outside Russia is horrendous, Russia is powerful despite foreign interference, and any effort to reform Russian power structures is futile due to Kremlin near-omnipotence.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s uprising in June publicly revealed the limitations of Russian state power and the instability of Kremlin control.

Meanwhile, a new kind of social media commentator – the “military blogger” (milblogger) – has more gradually, securely, and subversively – if unintentionally – challenged the Kremlin’s management of the war in Ukraine, the performance of the Russian military, and, thus, the competence of the state.

Igor Girkin (Strelkov), the former commander of Russia's proxies in occupied Donetsk Oblast and milblogger, during a pre-trial hearing in Moscow, Russia on July 21, 2023, after he was arrested for extremism. (Photo by ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

These milbloggers are not part of the so-called democratic opposition but nationalist voices. They, like Prigozhin, support the invasion but are frustrated by the military’s shortcomings, and they seek to advance their own diverse range of agendas, likely in support of a more hidden network of patrons.

In depicting official failures, milbloggers have demonstrated by example that one can contradict and critique state policy without official retribution. The milbloggers not only survive but sometimes receive government positions of prominence and platforming by state-controlled mass media – signs not only of Kremlin tolerance but support.

Their soft immunity ensures a platform for powerful hardline voices to lobby for an even more aggressive approach to the war and for their elite backers to play out Russian inter-agency competition, and they make it more difficult for Putin to bring the war to a negotiated conclusion.

However, the recent arrest of milblogger and war criminal Igor “Strelkov” Girkin indicates that actors within the Russian state are taking steps to curtail the immunity the milbloggers have long enjoyed.

Rise of the Telegram channels

For Putin, controlling Russia’s information space is critical to maintaining power and avoiding the lot of his immediate predecessors, whose political decline partly resulted from a public image of ineffectiveness.

To avoid the same fate, Putin reasserted control over television and print media corporations and their oligarch owners shortly after election. Putin chased independent actors out of Russia and captured their assets, thereby controlling Russia’s primary sources of information. At the same time, the Kremlin invested heavily in restructuring and expanding state-run media.

Russian authorities recognized the emerging threat of the internet after witnessing its impact on the Arab Spring, color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, and, inside Russia, on domestic accusations of election fraud in 2010 and 2012.

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In 2012, Russia responded with a law on “foreign agents,” which it progressively expanded, to surveil, fine, regulate, and discredit individuals and organizations sharing undesirable information. In 2014, Russia granted the small regulatory agency Roskomnadzor sweeping authority to regulate the internet and block access to “harmful” media, including entire platforms.

Five years later, Russian authorities adopted a series of amendments supporting the creation of a Russian sovereign internet. They also have taken steps to censor Google, YouTube, and Western social media. Independent media condensed within echo chambers or fizzled out altogether.

Despite this crackdown, Russian social media app and messenger Telegram evaded cooptation and closure. Telegram founder Pavel Durov publicly refused to cooperate with censorship and continues to feature diverse voices. Telegram’s endurance, lack of a sorting algorithm to “suggest” posts to users, and effectively nonexistent content moderation make the platform a “wild west” of online speech.

Though television remains the Russian public’s primary form of news provision, Telegram became Russia’s most popular messenger regarding mobile internet traffic in early 2022. It rapidly came to help set the policy agenda. Mass media and elite political discussions often align with debates conducted via Telegram.

State propaganda loses credibility

When Putin launched Russia’s total war in Ukraine, Russian authorities intensified existing media suppression tactics.

Putin signed a law on March 4, 2022, giving the government powers to prosecute any individual or group and ban any online resources that spread “unreliable” information, “discredit” the Russian state or armed forces, or support sanctions against Russia. These nebulous terms expanded the extensive system of Russian censorship and granted authorities unlimited regulatory discretion.

Russian authorities at first had no reason to rein in pro-war, nationalistic milbloggers active on Telegram. Officials spared them the tight television, radio, and print media controls. But the Russian military’s problems, crackdowns on Western messengers, and incoherent official reporting provided an opportunity for alternative voices – including milbloggers – to gain influence.

Russian proxy Pavel Gubarev pickets outside the Moscow City Court with a placard reading "Freedom to Strelkov. Glory to Russia!" during a pre-trial hearing on the arrest of Igor "Strelkov" Girkin, a Russian war criminal, milblogger, and the former commander of Russia's proxies in occupied Donetsk Oblast, detained on July 21 and accused of extremism, in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Milblogger war coverage diverged from official narratives when Russian forces faced a series of humiliating setbacks, and official misrepresentations piled up. Russian milbloggers resisted such spin. They published more accurate reports, including those criticizing the country’s military shortcomings.

False official war coverage, in turn, fueled a widespread desire for alternative sources of information. Many Russians turned to the milblogger community to ground rumors about military failings and fill the information vacuum.

As the months passed, the actors’ influence grew. The following of already-reputed war correspondent “Sasha” Kots on Feb. 23, 2023, was over six times larger than his following on Feb. 24, 2022. Daily analysis channel Rybar’s subscribership was over 16 times larger by the end of the same period. Milblogger posts continued to contradict official reports and became increasingly critical of the armed forces, including military leaders.

Today, these milbloggers share insider war coverage, nationalist opinions, and pro-war analyses via Telegram. Their posts receive significant attention due to their large followings (ranging from a few tens of thousands to over one million subscribers) and mass media amplification. Many milbloggers also appear to use their influence to collect advertising revenue and to amass power.

Milbloggers play a critical role in soldier and mercenary recruitment campaigns and in collecting donations for troops (of which they almost certainly embezzle a portion). Powerful political figures such as Prigozhin and Russian Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov – though not milbloggers – also use Telegram to advance their agendas and opaquely sponsor milbloggers as megaphones for their political aims.

How do milbloggers avoid censorship?

The Kremlin’s lack of censorship and even platforming of certain milbloggers – such as Putin’s inclusion of Kots on the Russian Human Rights Council, the appointment of milbloggers to a newly-formed mobilization working group, and invitation of milbloggers to state functions – suggest the Kremlin has viewed milbloggers more as effective tools than as political threats. Putin thus allows milbloggers to vent unavoidable societal and elite tensions over the war.

Allowing criticism of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) or specific generals redirects verbal fire away from Putin himself and the powerful Presidential Administration. Milblogger criticism also allows Putin to set Russian force organs against each other to protect his political position.

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But there are clear downsides.

The Kremlin’s allowing of milbloggers to scapegoat the MoD and the army for their performance may permanently damage the relationship of the armed forces with the remaining Russian elite, even if Russia were eventually to achieve victory.

Putin’s limited tolerance of criticism of the armed forces could weaken popular support for the war or embolden broader attacks on his rule.

Finally, milblogger activity could increase political pressure for greater media transparency by lowering the threshold for “acceptable” criticism of the regime.

Unintended consequences

Milbloggers so far mostly have redirected criticism from the Kremlin, as Putin wants. They do not appear to have destabilized the Russian government or pressured it to change its policies in Ukraine. There is little evidence to support some optimistic claims that milblogger criticism will catalyze significant challenges to Kremlin control.

However, the situation poses political peril for Putin which the milbloggers could amplify. Putin depends on a base of loyal – yet internally competitive – elites to maintain power, and the war puts increased demands on their loyalty.

Putin has avoided announcing full mobilization or mobilizing Russia’s economy. He instead pushes regional budgets (and regional politicians) and Russia’s elite to shoulder the significant costs of the war.

Meanwhile, Kremlin efforts to scapegoat political and military leaders exacerbate frictions between Russian force structures, driving a wedge between them, as fueled Prigozhin’s attack on the MoD. Should the MoD and key leaders see themselves as at odds with the Kremlin rather than subordinate to it and in tension with each other or as able to cannibalize other key force structures, Putin could be in trouble.

Kremlin efforts to distance itself from responsibility for the war also risk presenting Putin as out of touch or incompetent, images which help ring down his predecessors. This look clashes with Putin’s desire to project an image of complete power over the so-called “Kremlin Towers” – the regime’s power centers that appear to control factions of the milblogger network.

Looking forward

In the short term, creating a hostile political environment for Russian military leadership could blow back and weaken the effectiveness of Russian troops in Ukraine. The amplification of milblogger critiques and Kremlin scapegoating of MoD leaders disincentivizes promotion, discourages tactical initiative-taking, and inflames coordination challenges within the ranks.

Over the longer term, the amplification of internal disagreements may shatter the delicate balance of inter-elite competitive cooperation and Putin’s ability to hold the system in check.

Russian society may also see milbloggers’ publication privileges as a “foot in the door” leading to pressure to broaden the boundaries of allowed speech. Milblogger criticism may also exhaust other targets and shift to Putin himself. Given the current mood of society, prominent narratives and leaders would be even more extreme rather than ones that call for reconciliation with the West.

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As Ukrainian forces successfully conduct counteroffensive operations, drones strike Moscow, and Prigozhin’s troops march to the vicinity of the capital, Russians question the state’s ability to protect border areas and maintain control. These developments give Putin even less room to make mistakes.

Girkin’s arrest suggests that Putin may have come to fear the impact of wild card information competitors on Telegram. He may hope to crack down on milblogger rhetoric or to sacrifice a vitriolic critic as a signal to the elite that control him and similar actors.

Though Russian milbloggers’ influence has been limited so far, they may have laid the groundwork for a genuine political shift over time, leaving Putin’s hands tied should he later choose to kill the online threats he has created.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.

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