Random Image Display on Page Reload

Wagner Mutiny Puts Russia’s Military Bloggers on a Razor’s Edge

Jun 29, 2023 2:00 AM

Wagner Mutiny Puts Russia’s Military Bloggers on a Razor’s Edge

Telegram “war correspondents” have promoted the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, but many have also supported mercenaries who launched a failed coup.

Military tanks on the street surrounded by crowds of people taking photos

Members of Wagner group prepare to pull out from the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to their base in Rostov-on-Don late on June 24, 2023.Photograph: ROMAN ROMOKHOV/Getty Images

The mourners carried armfuls of red roses. There was a military gun salute. Hundreds of people crowded to watch the coffin be lowered into the ground. This wasn’t the funeral of a celebrity or a government official. This was the send-off for Vladlen Tatarsky, a Russian nationalist Telegram blogger who was killed in April in a mysterious bomb blast in a St. Petersburg café.

Tatarsky’s funeral was emblematic of the influence that Russia’s nationalist bloggers have accrued during the war in Ukraine. Known as the voenkory, or military correspondents, they have stepped in to fill the information vacuum left by the government around what’s actually happening on the front lines. Many have accumulated giant followings, overseeing teams of people posting footage of the war. Pro-Russian Ukrainian blogger Yuri Podolyaka’s Telegram channel has 2.8 million followers. Former TV journalist Semyon Pegov, who posts as WarGonzo, has 1.3 million. Rybar, an account run by a former military Arabic translator named Mikhail Zvinchuk, has 1.2 million.

That influence means many people in Russia turned to Telegram when Yevgeny Prigozhin, longtime Putin ally and chief of mercenary group Wagner, launched an abortive march on Moscow on June 23 in a challenge to Russia's defense minister Sergei Shiogu. But instead of receiving their usual stream of updates, the pro-war group of Telegram bloggers havered.

“The reaction across the war blogger community was very, very cautious,” says Eto Buziashvili, a research associate at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab. “They were searching for a side to take that would be beneficial for them.”

The relationship between the voenkory and the Kremlin has long been messy. Different nationalist bloggers have different affiliations. Some are aligned to the Kremlin, others to Wagner. There is a faction of military veterans, represented by figures like Igor Girkin, allegedly a former commander of Russian-backed separatist forces during the annexation of Crimea in 2014, who now has 800,000 subscribers on Telegram. But they are all pro-war nationalists, often campaigning for an escalation in violence. Like Wagner chief Prigozhin, who was among the mourners at Tatarsky’s funeral, many have also issued sharp criticisms of how the full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been managed—blaming the incompetence of the military leadership for poor performance on the battlefield. Prigozhin blamed defense minister Shoigu for the death of his troops; Girkin refers to him with the nickname the “cardboard marshal.”

As the rebellion unfolded, bloggers who had courted Prigozhin while staying close to the Kremlin took the opportunity to reaffirm their loyalty to Putin. “Pegov [aka WarGonzo], who not so long ago recorded a very long video interview with Prigozhin that was full of compliments, called the Wagner rebellion ‘a stab in the back,’” says Buziashvili.

Most Popular

For some, the change in tone was galling. “I can’t understand those who just a few days ago, were fiercely jacking off on the Wagner PMC and are now suddenly yelling about when, how, and where exactly the traitors should be shot,” longtime Wagner supporter Alexander Pelevin said on Telegram, where he has a modest follower count of 21,000.

On other parts of the app, silence spread through normally vocal accounts. That applied to more conventional propagandists, such as Margarita Simonyan, editor of state TV news network RT. Once a Prigozhin supporter, Simonyan’s Telegram account was quiet on Saturday. Her explanation? She was on a cruise on the River Volga. But parts of the new generation of Telegram influencers were silent too. The anonymous Veteran Notes account, which has 320,000 subscribers, didn’t post as the rebellion started on Friday night—due to circumstances that were “unrelated” to the Wagner rebellion, the account said, without offering explanation.

“We did see silence among some military bloggers who have been playing both sides for the past couple of months,” says Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank.

For Wagner-affiliated accounts, such as Call Sign Bruce, run by independent war correspondent Alexander Simonov, the quiet period came later. After a burst of excitement during the mutiny—which involved sharing Prigozhin’s statements and photos from Rostov-on-Don, the city where Wagner briefly took control—the tempo of the accounts’ posts slowed. Simonov has not posted since Monday, June 26.

Until now, these military bloggers have been unified by a shared nationalism, eager for Russia to win the war in Ukraine, and have had an unusual freedom to criticize government decisions. Earlier in June, several Telegram influencers attended a public meeting with Putin for the first time, where they confronted him with questions like, why do talented people in the military struggle to rise to the top? And why are soldiers not receiving payments for tanks that have been destroyed?

But that willingness to criticize may be under threat, experts say. As Prigozhin apparently enters into exile in Belarus, the military bloggers have lost a high-profile ally willing to speak openly about military failures in Ukraine. Yet self-censorship started to creep into this group long before the Wagner mutiny, says Stepanenko. “Rybar used to go on these very long tangents about how much the Russian Ministry of Defence sucks, essentially,” she says, “Now the account posts mostly situational reports from the battlefield.” The failed Wagner rebellion threatens to accelerate this trend, she adds. “It might turn some military blogs to deliberately self-censor to make sure they don’t look or sound like Prigozhin.”

These bloggers have been useful to the Kremlin, says Ian Garner, historian and Russian propaganda researcher. They represent a new blend of citizen-journalism-meets-propaganda. “They give the impression that ordinary citizens are really enthusiastic about the war,” he says.

But there have been signs that Putin wants to bring the voenkory in line. The June meeting was likely an attempt to show the bloggers they are valued and respected, says Garner. “It was part of a wider attempt to bring this fraying and disparate network of info warriors and troops at the front all under the purview of the Ministry of Defence and the state.” Prigozhin’s mutiny may have inadvertently given that effort more leverage.

This new generation of Telegram influencers will be painfully aware that if Putin turns against them, he’ll already have the tools to crack down. In March this year, Moscow tightened its censorship laws, meaning anyone “discrediting” the army can be punished with up to five years in prison. By May, 80 people had been prosecuted under the new rules, according to human rights group OVD-Info. So far, the law has only been used to target bloggers who oppose the war—not those who support it.

Get More From WIRED

Morgan Meaker is a senior writer at WIRED covering European business. Before that, she was a technology reporter at The Telegraph and also worked for Dutch magazine De Correspondent. In 2019 she won Technology Journalist of the Year at the Words by Women Awards. She was born in Scotland, lives… Read more
Senior Writer

More from WIRED

How to Win a War With Trucks, Trolls, and Tourniquets

Ukraine’s armed forces rely on a human chain of fundraisers, keyboard warriors, and drivers to supply everything from drones to combat medicine.

Peter Guest

Ukraine's Botanists Risked Their Lives for a Priceless Collection

When the war came to Kherson, a small group of scientists ventured into the ruined city to rescue a unique herbarium.

Johanna Chisholm

Reddit Is Already on the Rebound

Despite mass protests by users and moderators, Reddit's unique communities look likely to survive the rebellion over the company's new business strategy.

Paresh Dave

UFO Whistleblower, Meet a Conspiracy-Loving Congress

Fresh claims from a former US intelligence officer about an “intact” alien craft may get traction on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers want to believe.

Matt Laslo

Green Parties Are Gaining Power—and Problems

Environment-focused politicians are winning elections across Europe. Their idealism is crashing into reality, but pragmatism risks alienating supporters.

Morgan Meaker

Jack Ma Isn't Back

The iconic Alibaba founder disappeared from view after criticizing China's government. He returned to the country in March—as a teacher, not a businessman.

Lavender Au

The US Is Exporting Anti-LGBTQ Hate Online

Conspiracy theories and misinformation with their roots in the American right are driving global anti-LGBTQ sentiment—and offline violence.

Lydia Morrish

Google Made Millions From Ads for Fake Abortion Clinics

The search giant took $10 million in ads from, and gave grants to “crisis pregnancy centers” that work to prevent women from accessing abortions.

Vittoria Elliott

*****
Credit belongs to : www.wired.com

Check Also

OpenAI’s Sora Turns AI Prompts Into Photorealistic Videos

By Steven Levy Business Feb 15, 2024 1:15 PM OpenAI’s Sora Turns AI Prompts Into …