"Heroes of the Information Front"?
Russian Studies Series 01/2023
by Natasha Groom1
“Heroes of the Information Front”?
Reviewing Russia’s Military Bloggers
Russia’s military bloggers have emerged from the shadows. Valued in both Russia and the West for the immediacy of their reporting and information about the battlefield realities in Ukraine, these unequivocal supporters of the invasion are also some of the Kremlin’s most trenchant critics. Disillusioned with the way the “special military operation” (“SVO”) is being waged, they have bemoaned the poor logistics and conditions, pummelled the military leadership and punctured holes in official narratives. Yet several of these “non-system” critics have been appointed to a task force created by presidential order on 20 December. This essay will examine two of the most prominent bloggers and their pro-war or “Z” channels, Rybar (https://t.me/rybar) and WarGonzo (https://t.me/s/wargonzo), with 1.1 and 1.3 million subscribers respectively. It will explore their multiple and seemingly subversive and contradictory functions, look at their complex relationship with the Kremlin and consider why the regime tolerates – even values – their criticism.
Who are the military bloggers?
In January 2023, Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed decrees imposing personal sanctions on 3172 Russian and pro-Russian public and media personalities. The sanctions aim to block distribution in Ukraine of the media content of these individuals. Among the lesser-known figures targeted were the 31-year-old “military analyst, known for his publications in the Rybar telegram channel”, Mikhail Zvinchuk,3 and 37-year-old “Russian journalist, blogger, war correspondent”, Semyon Pegov, who blogs under the alias WarGonzo. Pegov was included as a “(m)ember of pro-Kremlin propaganda” who “spreads disinformation about Russia’s war in Ukraine”.4 Zvinchuk is deemed to “publicly call for an aggressive war, justify and recognise as lawful the armed aggression”, “glorify” its participants and thus undermine, inter alia, “peace” and “sovereignty” in Ukraine.
The embargo recognises the increasing significance of Russia’s so-called “pro-war” or military bloggers. This disparate group ranges from the avowed nationalist and veteran of the Donbas war Igor Girkin (also known as “Strelkov”) to accredited military correspondents, or voenkory, and individuals affiliated with the private military company Wagner Group. These men with military connections are behind dozens of “Z” channels that have emerged from obscurity since 24 February 2022 and gained large online followings on the messaging app Telegram: Boris Rozhin’s Colonelcassad has 840,000 (https://t.me/boris_rozhin), voenkor Aleksandr Kots has 666,000 followers (https://t.me/s/sashakots) and Strelkov’s channel (https://t.me/strelkovii) has 800,000. They are united by their hawkish support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and their exceptional access to the theatre of war. Such privileged interaction with the front is largely off-limits to journalists operating in the traditional media in Russia.
Indeed, the Z channels occupy a unique place in the highly restricted Russian media landscape in which independent war reporting is now virtually extinguished. The means by which information is disseminated is tightly controlled: Telegram (and its network of channels) was, alongside YouTube, one of the few platforms not state-owned or controlled that was not blocked as soon as the invasion began.
Moreover, there is draconian new censorship legislation: laws adopted on 4 March 2022, eight days after the commencement of the invasion, made it illegal to spread what the state deems “deliberate/knowingly false information” about the Russian military and its activities. They also criminalise protesting the war, “discrediting the armed forces”, or supporting Western sanctions imposed in response to the offensive. The maximum penalty is 15 years in prison.5 But while the bloggers are subject to varying levels of military censorship or control from Moscow, the immediacy of their largely unfiltered updates and eyewitness accounts has transformed them into popular sources of information about the fighting.
These champions of the “Russian world” are also proving to be some of the Kremlin’s most fearless critics. Almost from the outset of Russia’s chaotic invasion, they began to criticise the poor logistics, equipment shortages and mounting losses at the front, and even the war strategy itself. By September, as Russia’s forces retreated from Kharkiv, the chorus of disapproval became impossible to ignore. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that “critical viewpoints” were acceptable while they remained within current law – that was “pluralism” – but that the critics were treading a “very, very fine line”.6 Then on 14 October, Pegov warned that he had heard from “reliable sources” in security service structures that there was a “hunt” for the bloggers for “discrediting”7 the army and it was reported that Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, had “personally” requested the investigation of nine military correspondents or “projects” for their criticism of the Ministry of Defence (“MoD”) and its decisions during the SVO.8
Zvinchuk and Pegov
The men behind Rybar and WarGonzo come from very different backgrounds. By his own account,9 Zvinchuk attended the Suvorov Military School from the of age 14 and later graduated from the Military University of the MoD as a translator specialising in Arabic and English. He served in Russia’s Special Forces in Iraq and Syria as a translator and in reconnaissance, later joining the Department of Information and Communications in the MoD. While engaged in information and analytical work in the field, he sent missives to war correspondents from an anonymous account to correct mistakes in their reporting.10 With Denis Shchukin, he established Rybar in 2018, partly due to frustration at reading reports by people who knew “absolutely nothing” about these conflicts.11 Rybar initially focused on the Middle East and in February 2022, by which time Zvinchuk had left the MoD, had a following of 30,000. Rybar continued to post anonymously, even as it amassed followers, until the founders were unmasked by The Bell in November 2022.12
Rybar’s approach is studiedly analytical and professional. At one remove from the front, Zvinchuk stresses the OSINT and media skills of his forty-strong team, his wide-ranging network of sources on the ground, including “informants inside enemy headquarters”,13 and his understanding of “geopolitical” dimensions. He goes to great lengths to cultivate a sense of objectivity, claiming independence from Wagner founder Evgeny Prigozhin, for whose media outlet RIA FAN he previously wrote a column, and insisting that he does not blog according to a narrative fed to him by the Kremlin.14
Unlike Zvinchuk, Pegov was a well-established journalist in February 2022. Beginning his career in 2006 initially in state-run outlets, he subsequently worked for the LifeNews media stable of Aram Gabrelianov, an associate of Vladimir Putin’s longstanding friend Yury Kovalchuk. He has considerable exposure as a voenkor. In 2019, Pegov created his WarGonzo YouTube channel (deleted in March 2022 for violating platform rules) which covered conflict zones and promoted the ideology of the “Russian world” and released a series of films including one about the deceased leader of DPR, Alexander Zakharchenko.15
WarGonzo stands out less for its objective assessments of events on the frontline and more for the immediacy of its reporting. A one-man band, Pegov is embedded with forces at the front, and while traditionally loyal to the regime, has become close to ordinary soldiers. He gives voice to the rank-and-file, shares content of immediate concern to them such as courses in “military medicine” or morale-boosting videos of their exploits,16 and his poems. WarGonzo takes a “tabloid” approach and is littered with expletives. Pegov has connections in the security services, seemingly unrivalled access to high-level connections, and an uncanny ability to lead the agenda, frequently eclipsing his mainstream media counterparts. The only correspondent in Izyum when it was surrounded by Ukrainian forces on 9 September,17 it was also Pegov who was selected for an “exclusive” interview with Prigozhin on 10 February.18
Both are regularly cited in the West. Rybar is described as “the most important source of information for analysts and the media” among the pro-war channels.19 Its insights into performance on the ground, including daily chronicles of events and campaign maps, are referenced by the BBC, New York Times and Institute for the Study of War. Zvinchuk boasts that Rybar is “the most cited military segment Telegram channel in the West”.20
Functions of the pro-war bloggers
In Russia itself, however, they are fulfilling multiple and seemingly contradictory functions. They both play a direct role in the war and pump out pro-Russia narratives. Pegov regularly live-streams disinformation and is responsible for orchestrating numerous false-flag plots, notably in the two months prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion,21 and frequently “exposes fakes”. In line with his pro-war views, he refers to Ukrainians as “neo-Nazis” and talks of their “animal nature”.22
Zvinchuk boasts of supplying target co-ordinates to the MoD and Wagner.23 He publishes artwork exalting the army, analysis in multiple languages of conflicts in geographies from Mali to Haiti and pushes pro-Kremlin narratives. He is a hard-line ideologue and proponent of maximalist goals, firmly favouring Russia’s assault on Ukrainian infrastructure.24 While he “sincerely believed” that the SVO would be “a blitzkrieg”,25 he remains convinced that Russia will prevail but that you “need to eat an elephant in parts”. He believes that many Ukrainians despite their “disillusionment” following setbacks, understand the “justification” and “necessity” of the SVO.26
More broadly, they function as a useful counterpoint for the Kremlin. The regime does not appear to regard their hawkish views as politically risky, but instead as a backdrop against which Putin can appear judicious. Furthermore, in the absence of a genuinely organic movement in support of Russia’s invasion, these two comparatively youthful bloggers help create an illusion of mass support while their exaltation of the army complements creeping militarisation. Putin could tap into this pro-war constituency to justify further escalation or a shift to “total” war.
Even so, Rybar and WarGonzo offer scathing criticism of the SVO. Zvinchuk (blogging anonymously) addressed a post to the MoD three days before Peskov’s shot across the bows in September remarking that he knew the MoD was “reading us” and that however inconvenient such “non-system critics” were because they did not toe the party line, “now is not the time when we can be silent and say nothing”. He begged them to take the “information environment” into their own hands, and not to act on “the principle of ‘forbid and say nothing’ … It’s very detrimental to the cause”. 27
After the warning shots from Peskov and Gerasimov, it appeared that the bloggers reached an accommodation with the Kremlin. In early October, just days before reports surfaced that they were being investigated, Rybar began publishing promotional posts about MoD training for mobilised soldiers.28 Gerasimov’s ‘friendly fire’ subsequently fizzled out,29 and Pegov (wounded by a petal mine in October) was awarded the Order of Courage in November for his “courage, bravery and selflessness in performing professional duty”.30 Putin personally decorated him at the Kremlin on 20 December.
Both men were appointed to a 31-member task force created by presidential order on 20 December, headed by Andrei Turchak, deputy chairman of Russia’s upper house which includes bloggers, representatives of public associations, state corporations and members of both houses of parliament. The aim is to coordinate work on mobilization and the social and legal protection of mobilised Russian soldiers and their families. Responsibilities include analysis of “patriotic education” aimed at young Russians and public outreach. The MoD is to provide support to the group which reports monthly to Putin to offer recommendations to lawmakers, executive authorities and relevant organizations.31 Zvinchuk takes pride in this and blogs in support of the government,32 sharing details of improvements in social support for military personnel and their families.33Since January 2023, Zvinchuk has been embraced by the media mainstream and appears in a weekly show, “Rybar’s Analysis”,34 on the platforms of one of Russia’s most well-known television presenters, Vladimir Solovyov.
Yet their criticism has not entirely faded. In November, Zvinchuk disparagingly noted that Peskov does not always speak for Putin, and again criticised the Kharkiv debacle.35 And following the mass killing of Russian troops in Makiivka in early 2023, Pegov posted a video disputing the official death toll and demanding punishment for those responsible for the death of so many soldiers in one place.36 He described the MoD’s statement about the incident as “not very convincing” and “a blatant attempt to spread the blame”.37
Heroes of the information front?
The bloggers’ relationship with the Kremlin is, therefore, complex. Rather than repressing the dissent, as was Gerasimov’s instinct, the Kremlin has responded partly by co-opting these erstwhile “non-system” critics. But Putin also sees value in the criticism and is instrumentalising it. First, the criticism is a tool to force the system to self-correct. At a meeting of the MoD Board on 21 December, the day after the creation of the presidential task force, Putin noted “there are always problems in such major, complex work – it can be emotional, but we need to hear those who do not hush up the existing problems but strive to contribute to their solution’.38
This fits with Zvinchuk’s understanding that the bloggers are “heroes of the Russian information front”, highlighting inadequacies and “the truth” so that – in theory at least – systemic challenges, and not just in the military, can be dealt with, as well as engaging and challenging the “mass attacks” by Ukraine and “the collective West”39 on Russia’s information structure. Their unique understanding of the “information environment” means that they became “the information shield of our country when the official media departments turned out to be incapable. They showed the real problems on the ground and the real situation even though criminal cases were initiated against them afterwards and individual commanders threatened them”.40
Second, the bloggers help insulate Putin from blame. He and the army are above the fray. Zvinchuk stresses that the bloggers “were not afraid to tell the truth – not to smear and discredit the army but to solve problems”. Their devotion to the cause is unequivocal. Instead, he criticises the “human factor” and “perpetually non-functioning system”,41picks out individual commanders for praise or condemnation,42 and talks dismissively of the “primitive” methods used for army recruitment.43 While Putin dodges responsibility, underlings are kept on their toes. Furthermore, by allowing Pegov to give voice to Prigozhin, Putin gives space to a Kremlin outsider to provide solutions to problems where the establishment has failed.
Finally, by acknowledging the setbacks, the Z channels act as an emotional safety valve helping to release pressure from the ultranationalist section of the population within controllable parameters. And by co-opting the bloggers and appearing to listen to their criticism, the regime gives the impression to an increasingly anxious Russian public that it is serious about improving the conditions of military service.
It will surely be unnecessary to note that most readers in the West will not agree with their foundational views. But such sources, handled with appropriate care, are valuable. They provide essential context, insights, and detail as we try to interpret internal dynamics, Moscow’s actions, and the lessons the Russian leadership might be learning.
The pro-war bloggers are fulfilling multiple and nuanced functions in Russia. And while their influence should not be overstated, they are becoming an increasingly prominent factor in Russian domestic affairs and the information space. They do not always toe the line, with some even criticising Putin himself,44 but – in theory – they can be reined in at any stage; for now, the regime does not regard them as too politically risky.
It is unlikely that the Russian military is capable of undertaking a thorough and genuinely frank analysis of what has gone wrong during the full-scale invasion. But it seems that criticism – which began as spontaneous responses to setbacks in Ukraine – from the impeccably patriotic Zvinchuk and Pegov is nevertheless being absorbed and instrumentalised by the Kremlin as it attempts to adapt for the long haul and reshape its use of the armed forces over the coming decade.
1 (back) Natasha Groom is a Senior Advisor at Inter Mediate, an NGO working to end armed conflicts around the world.