Recent arrests suggest Putin is quietly trying to rein in some of his most effective promoters of the war in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at the Kremlin in February 2022.

MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

The Putin regime has leaned heavily on propaganda to rally support for its war in Ukraine.
In doing so, it has come to rely on military bloggers to spread its message and back its efforts.
But some milbloggers have gained a level of influence that Putin may not be so keen about.

The Russian government appears to be cracking down on milbloggers — even if many of those military-focused bloggers actually support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

While these blogs are a useful propaganda tool to drum up public support for the war, their vigorous criticisms of mistakes in Ukraine could undermine support for Vladimir Putin’s regime. Several prominent bloggers have been arrested, a hint of the extent of the Kremlin’s concern.

Milbloggers have “gradually, securely, and subversively — if unintentionally — challenged the Kremlin’s management of the war in Ukraine, the performance of the Russian military, and, thus, the competence of the state,” American researchers Donald Jensen and Angel Howard wrote in The Kyiv Independent in August.

Milblogs, mostly found on Russian messaging service Telegram, aren’t just popular with a Russian public that has reason to distrust official media. Milbloggers also have become an indispensable tool for Western governments, think tanks, and media to track the Russian war effort.

Pro-Russian fighters patrol in Makiivka, a suburb of Donetsk, in February 2015.

DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP via Getty Images

The blogs have revealed blunders such as Russian troops standing in formation and then being wiped out by HIMARS rockets. They have also shown how Russian troops are being sent to fight without adequate arms and ammunition or used as cannon fodder in meatgrinder-like battles such as at Bakhmut.

Media censorship is common in democracies during wartime. The US and British governments monitored and censored news reports during World War II to avoid disclosing sensitive information and undermining morale. Recent US administrations have also asked journalists not to print stories for reasons of national security. Even today, the Israeli media is subject to scrutiny by military censors, while the British government can issue DSMA notices that ask news organizations not to release stories.

But the relationship between Putin and milbloggers illustrates the complexities of social media in an authoritarian state.

Many milbloggers are ultra-nationalists with deep ties to the Russian military and intelligence agencies. It’s a win-win relationship: Getting leaked information allows bloggers to grow rich from increased web traffic from news-hungry audiences, while the leakers gain some control over the milbloggers’ agendas.

Putin speaks with residents during a visit to the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on March 18.

POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The very fact that milblogs are allowed to exist as the Kremlin clamps down on most other media is evidence that the Russian government sees value in them.

Blogs are also weapons in the cutthroat world of Russian politics. Powerful politicians, such as Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, quietly sponsor milbloggers “as megaphones for their political aims,” Jensen and Howard wrote.

Putin, who is dependent on and yet distrustful of the military, security services, and wealthy oligarchs, can use blogs to indirectly indicate who he favors and who is on their way down. Factions within the government can also use blogs to embarrass opponents and redirect blame for a mistake, such as a failing war.

Yet the risk is that milbloggers will become the genie released from the bottle. Igor Girkin, an ex-KGB officer who has become a prominent and pro-war blogger, was arrested in July after referring to Putin as a “lowlife” and “cowardly bum.”

In August, a Moscow court ordered Girkin be held for at least another month. Andrey Kurshin, an ultra-nationalist who frequently criticized the Russian military’s conduct in Ukraine, was also arrested in August.

Russian nationalist critic and former military commander Igor Girkin behind a glass enclosure for defendants during a court hearing in Moscow in August.

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

But the Kremlin must walk a delicate line.

On one hand, milbloggers do provide a pro-war narrative. They encourage Russians to enlist and raise funds for soldiers (“of which they almost certainly embezzle a portion,” Jensen and Howard noted).

Perhaps more important, milbloggers provide a safety valve for a Russian public that was never enthusiastic about invading Ukraine and now bears the cost of Western economic sanctions.

On the other hand, the roots of the Russian failure in Ukraine rest with Russia’s senior leaders. Despite years of massive defense spending and Putin’s boasts of “invincible” weapons, Russia couldn’t subdue its smaller neighbor Ukraine, which has now launched a counterattack that threatens to eject Russian troops from Ukrainian territory.

There is much blame to go around, but if the crackdown is any indication, the Kremlin wants to prevent milbloggers from directing their criticisms at Russia’s ultimate decision-maker: Putin.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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