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Russian war bloggers: Pawns in a political game?

Killian Bayer Riga
January 4, 2023

Some Russian bloggers have been openly criticizing Moscow's military leadership, while anti-war protesters face severe penalties. But is that just part of a political ploy?

Workers removing debris from a destroyed building
The Russian military is under fire for the high death toll folliwing the Ukrainian missile strike at MakiivkaImage: ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/REUTERS

Right-wing pro-Russian military bloggers, also known as milbloggers, have been using the messaging platform Telegram to voice their fury over what happened in Makiivka. A post on "Grey Zone," a channel that has been linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin's Wagner Group, a private military company, read:

"As expected, the blame for what happened in Makiivka began to be placed on the soldiers themselves. You see, they turned their phones on and got spotted. Of course, the enemy has these capabilities and sometimes he uses them. But in this case, it is to 99% a lie and an attempt to throw off the blame."

Ex-spy and self-proclaimed nationalist Igor Girkin, who was recently convicted of mass murder by a Dutch court for his involvement in the downing of the MH17 passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in 2014, said Russian generals are "untrainable in principle." On his Telegram channel, Girkin wrote that the building housing the soldiers was completely destroyed because it was also used to store ammunition. 

Boris Rozhin, a right-wing milblogger and the author of the chat "Colonelcassad," criticized the large concentration of military personnel stationed in range of  the Ukrainian artillery. Over the past months the army had adapted to the circumstances and changed its strategy to no longer deposit large amounts of ammunition and fuel in one spot. However, according to Rozhin they were not applying the same concept to people. Laying the blame at Russia's military leadership, he said: "Incompetence and the inability to grasp the consequences of war continue to be a serious problem."

Right-wing milbloggers like Igor Girkin have been vocal in their criticism of the Russian military leadershipImage: Pavel Golovkin/AP/picture alliance

Harsh criticism of how the Russian military is bungling the war effort in the eyes of Russian nationalists is nothing new per se. Pro-Russian military bloggers have been very vocal for months. But the most recent wave of outrage directed at Russia's Ministry of Defense does raise the question why this criticism is tolerated in an increasingly authoritarian Russia. Pro-war bloggers appear to be able to voice their opinions freely, while anti-war protesters face draconian penalties of potentially up to 15 years in prison, for crimes such as "discrediting the Russian armed forces" or spreading "false information" about the Russian military and its activities. 

The Putin regime cannot control the narrative completely

The difference lies in the direction of the criticism, according to Abbas Gallyamov, a former speech writer for Russian President Vladimir Putin and a political analyst on Russia. 

"Military bloggers criticize from the so-called patriotic perspective, which means that they don't touch Putin. They attack the performers, but they don't question Putin's leadership or his idea of invading Ukraine. Criticism is not allowed from people who cast doubt on his leadership and the war itself. They are perceived as foes." 

Nonetheless, Igor Girkin, one of the most prominent critics of the Russian military, has repeatedly criticized Putin directly. Just last month Girkin posted a 90-minute video on Telegram in which he said the "fish's head is completely rotten."

British historian and Russia expert Mark Galeotti says that the Putin regime is increasingly realizing it cannot control the narrative completely.

"People like Girkin are not just important in their own terms, but they're also, in some ways, the spokespeople for quite substantial factions within the military and the security apparatus. And I think the fear is that if you suppress them, first of all, you make them martyrs. And secondly, you lose your chance to get a sense of quite what their concerns are."

Are Defence Minister Shoigu (left) and General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov (right) still in Putin's good books?Image: SPUTNIK via REUTERS

Political ploy?

At the same time, says Gallyamov, Putin is also unhappy with his military leadership. "They promised him victory in three days but instead of it he was embarrassed before the whole world. On an emotional level, he understands the military bloggers." 

The motivation behind the criticism has a political dimension as well in terms of the power struggles going on within the leadership.

"Part of it is the sort of behind-the-scenes politics of Putin's court," says Galeotti. "Not everybody within the military is uniformly arrayed behind Defence Minister [Sergei] Shoigu and chief of the General Staff [Valery] Gerasimov. There is a pervasive sense that both of those men, quite possibly in this year, are going to be on their way out. I think what we see in the social media world is so much of the kind of real politics that is taking place in Russia."

Edited by: Rob Mudge