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The Role Of Russian Bloggers In Ukraine War

The murder of Vladlen Tatarsky has thrust the shadowy world of Russian military bloggers who advocate for invasion into Russia into sharp relief, with their disproportionate roles within Moscow’s propaganda apparatus. 

Tatarsky, whose real name was Maxim Fomin, died on Sunday after he was killed by a blast in a St. Petersburg coffee shop, where he was appearing as a guest with a pro-war group. 

He was known for his support of the war on Ukraine and the head of Wagner’s group of mercenaries, Yevgeny Prigozhin, as well as for his sometimes harsh critiques of Moscow’s failures in the field. 

While he is a well-known voice in the Milblogger universe—his Telegram channel has over half a million subscribers—he is certainly not alone.

Russia forced the shut down of its last independent media outlet soon after its invasion of Ukraine, in February, 2022. 

Any conflict reporting in Russian state media was closely controlled by the Kremlin. Foreign media outlets are blocked, and most opposition journalists are in prison or outside of the country.

Pro-Kremlin commentators like Tatarsky, who is sometimes called “voenkory” (war correspondent), fill in some of that information void. 

“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 Russian military bloggers have deep sources inside the state armed forces, in Wagner’s organization, or among the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, giving them unprecedented access to information.

“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.

Tatarsky, who was born in Ukraine, has reportedly been fighting alongside Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country’s Donbas region, and has deep connections with Wagner. He had also had a criminal past. According to Russian media reports and his own confession, he had served jail time for bank robbery.

Ruslan Trad, resident security researcher in the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, told CNN the Russian blogger community was united in their views, and often aligned with Russia’s Ministry of Defense and other security agencies. Underscoring the connection between bloggers and the military, Tatarsky posted images of himself carrying weapons into battle zones.

“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.

Many of the bloggers, including Tatarsky, had been working for several years, covering Russian and Wagnerian military operations throughout the Middle East and Africa, as well as the conflict in Donbass, which began in 2014. 

“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.

They were crucial to stirring up support for a wider war against Ukraine. The blogger’s influence has grown since Ukraines full-scale invasion last year, and a resulting crackdown in Russia on Western social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram.

“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.

“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.

Russia had tried, but failed, to block Telegram earlier, after its founder refused to hand over encryption keys to Russia’s security service, the Federal Security Service. It lifted an official ban on the messaging platform in 2020.

Many of Telegram’s top-rated military blogs are embedded with the ultranationalist movements. The ideas that they disseminate are not necessarily new, but now they are reaching far more people thanks to technology. Trad says that a sizable portion of the blogger’s audience includes hard-right supporters, nationalists, pagans, and ultra-Orthodox Christians.

Unlike Russia’s state-controlled media, many of the more influential military bloggers do not shrink from criticizing Moscow over battlefield failures, including its retreat from Kherson in November or, more recently, the standoff over Bakhmuts prolonged fighting. 

Stepanenko said Russia’s inability to cross the Sievierskyi Donets River, which caused their advance into eastern Ukraine to stutter, was the key moment for the blogger’s ascent. There is a distinct difference between how the Russian authorities regard these bloggers, no matter how critical they are of the leadership, and any other person who dares speak out against Moscow’s campaigns in Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova said on Sunday that thanks to Tatarsky and other military bloggers, “the world has seen real, operational-level videos and learned what is happening in Ukraine.” 

Yet Russian authorities are also imposing heavy sentences on anyone who reports about the alleged atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine. 

In December, opposition activist and Kremlin critic Ilya Yashin was sentenced for spreading “false information” about Russian forces after reporting on a mass murder in Bucha, and sent to jail for eight-and-a-half years. 

Maria Ponomarenko, another journalist, was sentenced to six years for her Telegram posts about the Russian airstrike on a theatre in Mariupol, which killed hundreds of people, and for which Russian authorities denied responsibility.

Stepanenko said that, although bloggers like Tatarsky were often critical of how Russia conducted its military operations, they were among the strongest supporters of the war itself. Bloggers also played a crucial role in crowdfunding and raising material support for the war. Stepanenko said that for years, they were crucial to the recruitment of troops, recruiting fighters to join Russian-Wagner hybrid war operations in Syria and Africa. Many bloggers in the ultranationalist space also receive significant support from a number of Russian wealthy individuals, according to Rondeaux—making them all the more influential.

But although their influence has grown considerably in the last year, the attack on Tatarsky is likely to trigger a change in the movement, says Trad. 

Official channels associated with Wagner and Prigozhin are likely to seek to expand in its space, he added, and will seek to leverage that for larger audiences. 

“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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