The Russian administration seems to be tightening its grip on military bloggers — even if a substantial number of these war-focused bloggers overtly endorse Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.
While these weblogs serve as an effective tool for disseminating propaganda and rallying public support for the war, their robust critique of errors made in Ukraine could potentially erode backing for Vladimir Putin’s regime. The detention of several prominent bloggers hints at the extent of the Kremlin’s apprehension.
In August, American researchers Donald Jensen and Angel Howard wrote in The Kyiv Independent that milbloggers have “gradually, securely, and subversively — even if unintentionally — challenged the Kremlin’s management of the war in Ukraine, the performance of the Russian military, and, consequently, the competence of the state.”
Milblogs, primarily hosted on the Russian messaging platform Telegram, have not only gained popularity among a Russian populace wary of official media but have also evolved into an indispensable resource for Western governments, think tanks, and media outlets seeking to monitor the Russian war campaign.
These blogs have brought to light blunders such as Russian troops assembling in formation only to be decimated by HIMARS rockets. They have also exposed how Russian soldiers are being dispatched into battle lacking sufficient arms and ammunition or are being used as expendable pawns in brutal confrontations, as seen in Bakhmut.
In times of war, media censorship is a common practice in democratic nations. Both the U.S. and British governments monitored and censored news reports during World War II to safeguard sensitive information and bolster morale. Even today, Israeli media is subject to scrutiny by military censors, and the British government can issue DSMA notices to request news organizations not to publish certain stories.
Nevertheless, the intricate relationship between Putin and milbloggers exemplifies the complexities of social media in an authoritarian regime.
Many milbloggers are fervent nationalists with deep-seated connections to the Russian military and intelligence apparatus. This symbiotic alliance benefits both parties: leaked information enables bloggers to amass wealth through increased web traffic from information-hungry audiences, while the leakers gain a degree of influence over the milbloggers’ agendas.
Putin engages with residents during a visit to the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on March 18. POOL/AFP via Getty Images
The mere existence of milblogs amid the Kremlin’s crackdown on most other media outlets signifies that the Russian government acknowledges their value.
Blogs also serve as weapons in the fierce realm of Russian politics. Influential politicians, such as Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, clandestinely sponsor milbloggers as conduits for their political objectives, as noted by Jensen and Howard.
Putin, whose reliance on the military, security services, and affluent oligarchs is accompanied by a sense of distrust, employs blogs to indirectly convey his preferences and signal the rise or fall of individuals. Factions within the government also utilize blogs to discredit adversaries and shift blame for errors, such as military setbacks.
However, there exists the peril that milbloggers may become uncontrollable forces. Igor Girkin, a former KGB officer who has emerged as a prominent pro-war blogger, was detained in July after labeling Putin as a “base individual” and a “timid coward.”
In August, a Moscow court ordered Girkin’s continued detention for at least another month. Another figure, Andrey Kurshin, an ultranationalist who frequently criticized the Russian military’s actions in Ukraine, faced arrest in August as well.
Russia court Igor Girkin Strelkov
Russian nationalist critic and former military commander Igor Girkin behind a glass enclosure for defendants during a court hearing in Moscow in August.
Nevertheless, the Kremlin must tread a precarious path.
On one hand, milbloggers actively promote a pro-war narrative, motivating Russians to enlist and contribute funds to the soldiers (“a portion of which they undoubtedly misappropriate,” according to Jensen and Howard).
Perhaps even more crucially, milbloggers serve as a release valve for a Russian populace that was never enthusiastic about invading Ukraine and now bears the brunt of Western economic sanctions.
On the other hand, the roots of Russia’s failure in Ukraine can be traced back to the country’s senior leadership. Despite years of substantial defense expenditures and Putin’s assertions of possessing “invincible” weaponry, Russia has been unable to subjugate its smaller neighbor, Ukraine, which has launched a counteroffensive threatening to expel Russian forces from Ukrainian soil.
Blame can be apportioned in many directions, but the crackdown on milbloggers suggests that the Kremlin is keen on preventing them from directing their criticisms at Russia’s ultimate decision-maker: Putin.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has been featured in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and various other publications. He holds a master’s degree in political science. You can follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.