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Putin’s digital footsoldiers: How bloggers became a key cog in Russia’s war machine

<i>@Vladlentatarskybooks/Telegram/Reuters</i><br/>A well-known Russian military blogger
A well-known Russian military blogger

By Ivana Kottasová, CNN

The killing of Vladlen Tatarsky has put a spotlight on the murky world of Russia’s pro-invasion military bloggers and the outsized role they play in Moscow’s propaganda machine.

Tatarsky — whose real name was Maxim Fomin — died on Sunday in an explosion at a St. Petersburg cafe where he was appearing as a guest of a pro-war group. He was known for his support for the war on Ukraine and the boss of the Wagner mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin — as well as his occasional but harsh criticism of Moscow’s battlefield failures.

While he was a prominent voice within the ‘milblogger’ universe — with more than 500,000 subscribers to his Telegram channel — he was certainly not the only one with influence.

Russia forced the closing of the last of its remaining independent media shortly after invading Ukraine in February 2022. Any coverage of the conflict on Russian state media is tightly controlled by the Kremlin. Foreign media is blocked and most opposition journalists are either in jail or out of the country.

Pro-Kremlin commentators such as Tatarsky, who are sometimes called “voenkory” for “war correspondents”, have filled some of this information vacuum.

“Military bloggers in Russia today provide a very cloudy service but a service nonetheless. They are really the only ones who are monitoring what’s happening on the frontline,” Candace Rondeaux, the director of the Future Frontlines program at the New America Foundation, told CNN.

Many of Russia’s military bloggers have deep sources within the state’s armed forces, the Wagner group or among pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, which gives them unparalleled access to information. Tatarsky himself was born in Ukraine, reportedly fought with Russian separatists in the Donbas in the east of the country and had close ties to Wagner. He also had a criminal past: According to Russian media reports and his own admission, he served time in jail for a bank robbery.

“Obviously, they have a very biased view of the war. But they are critical to understanding what’s happening at least on one side of the flux,” Rondeaux added.

Ruslan Trad, a resident fellow for security research at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told CNN that the community of bloggers is united among themselves, but it is also often associated with the Russian defense ministry and other security agencies.

“These people know each other, often travel to the same destinations, communicate and have a closed system. Tatarsky occupied a significant place in this community,” he said.

“At the same time, he was also a critic of the Russian officer corps and the upper echelon making decisions about military actions. Sometimes his … analysis caused a wave of negative reactions among officers, because he, as a staunch defender of Russia and its army, wanted to see this army more successful than it actually was,” Trad added.

The correspondents also cross ethical lines: Tatarsky posted images of himself carrying a weapon in the combat zone.

Ultranationalist origins

Many of the bloggers, including Tatarsky, have been operating for multiple years, covering Russian and Wagner military operations in the Middle East and Africa, and the Donbas conflict that started in 2014. They have been instrumental in stoking support for the wider war on Ukraine.

“They have set a steady diet of pro-war, anti-West, anti-Ukrainian propaganda to the hard right elements of Russia for many years now. And they have, in many ways, popularized the Wagner group brand and the Russian way of war,” Rondeaux said.

The bloggers’ influence grew following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year and the subsequent crackdown on Western social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram in Russia.

“They all collectively started to move into Telegram and then their content started to get picked up a lot more around April, May of last year, which is when Russians started to experience a lot of military failures,” Kateryna Stepanenko, Russia analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, told CNN.

Russia tried, but failed, to block Telegram previously after its founders refused to provide encryption keys to the FSB, a Russian security agency. It lifted the official ban on the messaging platform in 2020.

Many of the most popular military blog Telegram channels have roots in ultranationalist movements. The ideas they are spreading are not necessarily new, but are now reaching many more people thanks to the technology.

Trad said a significant part of the bloggers’ audiences includes far-right supporters, nationalists, pagans and extreme Orthodox Christians. “By many criteria, the audience of (the military bloggers’) Telegram channels matches those distributed in the United States by far-right groups and communities of conspiracy theorists,” he said, adding that their audiences were not confined to Russia. “People like Tatarsky served as propagandists and their admirers can be found far in western and central Europe.”

Free to criticize

Unlike Russian state media, many of the most influential military bloggers have not shied away from criticizing Moscow for its battlefield defeats including the withdrawal from Kherson in November or, most recently, the stalling of the drawn-out fight for Bakhmut.

Stepanenko said that the Russians’ failure to cross the Siverskyi Donets river, which caused their offensive in eastern Ukraine to falter last May, was a key moment in the rise of these bloggers.

“The Russian Ministry of Defense did not acknowledge it, they did not talk about it in their regular coverage, and (the bloggers) suddenly went from being this small group that was covering nationalist topics and Russian conflicts worldwide to becoming the source of information in Russia,” she said.

There is a stark difference between the way Russian authorities treat these bloggers, however critical they are of the leadership, and anyone else who dares to speak up against Moscow’s campaign in Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Sunday that thanks to Tatarsky and other military bloggers “the world sees truthful and operational footage and learns information about what is happening in Ukraine.”

Yet Russian authorities are also handing out harsh sentences to anyone reporting on the atrocities allegedly committed by Russian troops in Ukraine.

In December, opposition activist and Kremlin critic Ilya Yashin was convicted of spreading “false information” about the Russian army after he reported on the massacres in Bucha and sent to prison for eight and a half years. Maria Ponomarenko, another journalist, was sentenced to six years in prison for a Telegram post about a Russian airstrike on a theater in Mariupol that killed hundreds, and for which Russian authorities deny responsibility.

Stepanenko said that, while bloggers such as Tatarsky are often critical of the way Russia is conducting its military operations, they are among the staunchest supporters of the war itself.

“They are the only ones that are explicitly saying ‘we need this war to survive. We need this war to continue to restore the greatness of Russian Empire,'” she said, adding that while most Russians remain indifferent to what is happening in Ukraine — as long as it’s not affecting them personally — the Kremlin can rely on the bloggers to keep beating the war drums.

“They have a very strong ideological mindset. They see Russia as a victorious state in this conflict. And their goal is for Russia to win and conquer all of Ukraine, and even potentially fight with NATO.”

Recruitment drive

The bloggers have also played a key role in crowd funding and raising material support for the war. Stepanenko said they have been essential in military recruitment for years, recruiting fighters for Russian and Wagner hybrid military operations in Syria and Africa.

“The bloggers are advertising [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s recruitment efforts, which we know he’s trying to expand now due to his hesitancy to call for a second wave of mobilization,” Stepanenko added.

According to Rondeaux, many of the bloggers in the ultranationalist space also have strong backing from some of Russia’s wealthiest people — which makes them even more powerful.

“One tends to think that Putin is this diabolical man who controls all the things inside and outside of the Kremlin. That’s kind of true. He definitely has a lot of power over state agencies. He has a lot of power over business enterprises throughout the country and therefore the wealth of the country,” she said.

“But there’s something deeper here. Russia’s oligarchy, its mafia class and its security class have started to fuse to the point where you cannot untangle them from each other and they need each other,” Rondeaux added.

But while their influence has grown significantly over the past year, Trad said that the attack on Tatarsky will likely cause a shift within the movement. Official channels related to Wagner and Prigozhin will likely attempt to expand into his space and try to use it to reach larger audiences, he added.

But it will also serve as a warning, Trad said.

“In Russia, this circle of bloggers, correspondents, and officers felt very safe — so much so that there were no checks on the gatherings to see if anyone was carrying something that could be used against those gathered.”

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