Over the course of the war in Ukraine, a loose network of Russian military bloggers on Telegram have provided a fervently nationalistic, though at times highly critical, view of Russia’s “special military operation”. Providing more unfiltered coverage of the war and the performance of the Russian military than Kremlin-controlled state media, military bloggers have gained enormous followings and influence—as evidenced by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent meeting at the Kremlin with key members of the “milblogger” community. To better understand and analyze their outputs, the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund has created an interactive dashboard that collects, translates, and analyzes posts from 39 Telegram channels run by prominent Russian military bloggers. This piece analyzes some of the key findings from data collected from the dashboard over the past three months.
Russian military bloggers reach billions
Since May 2023, monitored military blogger channels on Telegram generated more than 17 billion views on around 62,000 posts. Those posts also prompted 350 million reactions, 45 million forwards, and 5 million replies. Five individual channels gained more than a billion views over three months. Operation Z, the most viewed channel, had nearly 2.5 billion views. The World Today with “Yuriy Podolyaka” has earned more than 67 million reactions since May. By comparison, Russian state media Twitter accounts monitored on Hamilton 2.0 only received roughly 2.2 million retweets and 7.8 million likes between mid-April and mid-July 2023.
They remain split on the Wagner Group
In the month before Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group’s aborted mutiny, the ten most viewed posts mentioning “Prigozhin” or “Wagner” were almost uniformly supportive of the private military organization and its leader. Monitored bloggers credited the Wagner Group with facilitated prisoner exchanges, said it was going to neutralize Ukraine’s counteroffensive, and wished Prigozhin a happy birthday, noting that he was a “true patriot” who symbolized “military valor, courage, and the highest professionalism”.
Top viewed posts on June 23 and 24, the days when the Wagner Group was advancing towards Moscow, showed that influential military bloggers reacted differently to the unfolding mutiny, with some appearing disappointed and others expressing anger. A post that was seen nearly 3 million times paid “tribute” to the Wagner Group while calling for the state to retain a “monopoly on the use of force”. Another blogger called for the Russian defense minister and the chief of General Staff to step down and for the Wagner Group to sign a deal with the military. Rybar, one of the most influential bloggers, pointed to the deaths caused by the mutiny and called for the state to retaliate.
Russian military bloggers have continued to disagree about the Wagner Group. Top viewed posts from July show some Telegram channels commemorating those who died during the revolt, praising the Kremlin’s seemingly restrained reaction to the mutiny, speculating about the group’s future, and arguing that dismantling Wagner’s Africa operations would be a “shot in the foot”. Other posts debated the role Wagner played in Ukraine. Some called it “strong and effective”, while others claimed its combat skills were a “myth”. Bloggers also criticized each other for so quickly changing their attitudes toward the private military outfit.
Military bloggers are helping to fund Russia’s war effort
Russian military bloggers use their influence to solicit funding for everything from humanitarian assistance and memorials for fallen soldiers to traditional military equipment like anti-drone air defense systems, thermal imagining equipment, and reconnaissance boats. They also use their networks to crowdfund their own work, and to provide legal defense funding for fellow military blogger, Kremlin critic, and former FSB officer Igor Girkin (also known as Igor Ivanovich Strelkov), who was jailed in July on charges of inciting extremism.
From May 1 to July 31, 2023, monitored military bloggers produced nearly 1,000 posts that included links to bank cards or accounts at various sanctioned Russian financial institutions, led by Sberbank (787 posts), Tinkoff bank (170 posts), and Alfa Bank (87 posts), with many providing multiple donation options per post. Although Russian entities have largely been blocked from using Western crowdfunding platforms, there were roughly 80 posts linking to crypto wallets at Bitcoin or Ethereum and several more that asked readers to donate through DonationAlerts, a crowdfunding platform linked to Russian social media site, VK. While Ukraine has effectively used digital platforms to solicit aid for its defense, it appears Russia is also attempting to crowdfund its war effort, albeit through a largely different digital financial ecosystem.
Bloggers frame the conflict as a war against the West
The United States was the third most mentioned country (roughly 3,700 mentions) after Ukraine and Russia in monitored posts between May 1 and July 31, 2023. It received three times more mentions than Germany or the United Kingdom, which ranked fourth and fifth respectively. But the collective “West” was mentioned more than 5,000 times, receiving roughly 35% more mentions than the United States. (Due to the different terms that could be used to describe the United States and the West, calculations are imperfect.)
In coverage of Ukrainian equipment losses, bloggers regularly cite the country of origin of destroyed or captured equipment, presumably with the intent of framing the war as being fought not just against Ukraine but the “Western world”. This also fits into a narrative promoted by many military bloggers that portrays, ironically, Russia as the proverbial David in the conflict. Like Russian state media, military bloggers on Telegram also regularly seek to validate their perspectives by amplifying critical voices in the West like Scott Ritter, an American former UN weapons inspector and RT regular who was mentioned in nearly 50 posts in the last three months. In those posts, he promoted the idea that Russians have a higher standard of living than Americans, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is an “agent” of the West, and that Russia is “on the right side of history”.
They are at times critical of the Russian military, but not of the war itself
Despite occasional criticism of the Russian military brass and Russian “elites” (though that rarely includes Putin), Russia’s most influential military bloggers are uniformly pro-war, describing it as “honorable work” and a “glorious liberation…from the Nazi infection”. Though the Nazi narrative obviously has been prominent in mainstream Russian discourse since the start of the war, military bloggers are even more committed to the idea that Ukraine is a Nazi state that must be “liquidated”. Over the past three months, more than 2,000 posts have mentioned Nazis or Nazism in Ukraine, with many posts referring to all Ukrainian combatants as Nazis and the Ukrainian government as “euro-Nazis” or the “neo-Nazi regime”.
Efforts to dehumanize Ukrainians go beyond the Nazi narrative. Descriptions of Ukrainians range from “scum” to “fascist reptile” to, most commonly, “the enemy”. Military bloggers also routinely reference memory politics and the “Great Patriotic War” to justify Russian aggression in Ukraine as part of a grander historical struggle.
While Russia’s military blogger community provides a more balanced assessment than state-controlled media of Russia’s war effort, no one should mistake their coverage as objective journalism. Military bloggers are virulently anti-Ukrainian and pro-war, and they have used their channels not only to further radicalize the Russian population, but also to provide material support to the Russian military. With a viewership and reach that perhaps even exceeds that of state media, at least online, their perspectives are important to monitor and analyze—if for no other reason than to gain a more unfiltered understanding of Russians’ view of the war and the state of the world.
Try out the War in Ukraine: Military Bloggers dashboard here.