Russian troops use social media channels to discuss war despite potential penalties. The Kremlin won’t like that.
In May, the entire Russian army began to feel the strains of war. That high losses carried by the troops and the fact that the best units were already stationed in Ukraine became a hot topic of conversation not only among liberals and journalists, but also among the military.
The May 9 Victory Day Parade in Red Square played a large role in these talks – not only because Vladimir Putin scorned the opportunity to mobilize to increase the ranks of the military, as many expected, but also because of the way in which how the parade was conducted. Most observers noticed the absence of Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov from Putin’s senior circle. Military professionals also noticed something else: the absence of numerous other generals from the parade.
Russian military parades have been conducted in Red Square in more or less the same way since the days of Stalin – the key element is always a column of dozens of so-called parade units, representing the march across Red Square to represent all branches of the armed forces and other security agencies .
These parade units march in square formations – ten lines of soldiers in ceremonial dress, led by a commanding officer who is tasked with maintaining the appropriate spacing between formations. And indeed, when the formations of the Russian military academies marched, the generals did march proudly at their head.
But when the regular troops emerged, like the elite Kantemirovskaya and Tamanskaya divisions, they were led by lieutenant colonels, not their general officers. And when it came to the tanks, a highlight of any parade, it fell to senior lieutenants to lead the units that snarled across Red Square.
The change was as clear as daylight to the military, and understandably they had an urge to discuss what they had seen. But where can you have these sensitive conversations?
The Russian army has always been shrouded in the utmost secrecy, except for a brief period in the 1990s when the media enjoyed relative freedom. When Sergey Shoigu became defense minister 10 years ago, he tightened the secrecy rules even further (He proudly told an interviewer in 2019 that he had not spoken to a journalist for seven years.) There is no parliamentary control over military spending, and the minister and his generals are not required to respond to MPs’ inquiries about what is going on with the military . Shoigu also resurrected the Soviet main policy department, which in Soviet times had overseen the brainwashing of soldiers within the framework of communist ideology. Today it is their duty to oppose Western attempts to undermine the fighting spirit of the Russian army – and Shoigu believed journalists’ requests for casualties could be described as such. Therefore, any military-related conversation that is not authorized by the Department of Defense is considered a crime against the state.
Russia’s military professionals have not been able to speak out about their problems in the media because the State Secrets Law was amended to ban journalists from writing about the army’s problems. And Shoigu had personally forbidden prevent the media from reporting on the deaths of special forces officers and soldiers or speaking to the families of those killed on the battlefield.
This system of total cover-up may be viable in peacetime, but it cannot survive direct confrontation with the reality of a full-blown war. Ridiculous coverage of the conflict has shattered any remaining credibility in the pro-Kremlin media – not only in liberal society but also in the military, which knows better than most the true cost of the war in Ukraine.
A pro-war channel affiliated with the Russian military on Telegram recently conducted a survey among subscribers (mainly military personnel and veterans). Amazingly, only 2% said they trust Russian media as a source of information about the officially designated military special operation. Interestingly, 38% said they rely on bloggers as their primary source.
And that mainly means relying on authors using Telegram channels. Russia’s newly introduced and highly punitive Information Law makes it a crime for anyone to call war war. Any reference to the Kremlin’s operation must cite official sources, and this ban extends to the military as well.
But the truth about Russia’s defeat outside of Kyiv was clear to anyone who witnessed the battles first-hand or spoke to a participant. Soldiers and their officers began to turn to the telegram channels, as this was the only space available to discuss the problems of the war.
The app, mostly known in the West as a Russian-owned messenger, plays a disproportionately large role in Russian society – it is the country’s most popular mass medium. Telegram allows anyone to open a channel and post any information or video, uncensored and mostly unverified, and can be set to allow reader feedback. In a country where authorities have long been closed to the public and decisions are made in complete secrecy, Telegram channels offer a keyhole of sorts — many channels purporting to be run by anonymous “insiders” — into the Kremlin or the security services . They serve much the same role as rumor and gossip did during the Soviet era—satisfying desperate demands for information (although they’re not necessarily true).
As the war began, new voices emerged on Telegram. Army veterans also stood out, alongside independent media outlets that set up channels to reach audiences that were barred from them under Russian law. Military circles, always mistrustful of liberal media, chose to eschew journalistic middlemen and trust only their own when discussing what was really going on on the battlefield. Many of these voices are not entirely anonymous — the military knows who is behind them, and this acceptance gives them credibility.
When these channels said that the Ukrainian army’s air defenses were still very operational, it caused a serious soul-searching within the air force. It works both ways – a relatively honest debate about the problems of the military led to the emergence of military-civic activities – the broadcasters first reporting equipment shortages and then crowdfunding for radios, medicines, body armor or night vision goggles. This, in turn, prompted those channels’ audiences to ask why the ministry was unable to provide the army with much-needed equipment.
This new civil society activity in military circles is developing in an unexpected way – when the stations asked their subscribers not to talk about the losses suffered by the army in their ranks disastrous attempt Crossing the Siversky-Donets River and postponing the discussion to the post-war period, subscribers were furious.
In the three months of war something unprecedented has emerged – a space for debate within the Russian army, uncensored and outside the control of the Defense Ministry. This room is mostly manned by trustworthy, hardened veterans, many with the rank of major or lieutenant colonel, no higher. Make no mistake – these are not peaceniks in the making. When they criticize the army and the Kremlin, they do so from more radical positions. For example, both the audience and the authors of military Telegram channels have demanded that the Ukrainians captured after 82 days defending the Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol be tried and executed, and not exchanged for Russian prisoners of war should.
But despite their radical, pro-war discourse, such illicit activities will not be welcomed by the regime. It puts an extra burden on the military leadership and opens the way for the kind of unauthorized activities by trained and uniformed men that can only provoke uneasiness among the Kremlin’s instigators of war.
Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldierov are non-resident Senior Fellows at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). They are Russian investigative journalists and co-founders of Agentura.ru, a surveillance agency for Russian intelligence activities.