Since the start of Russia’s so-called “special military operation” in late February 2022, the pro-Kremlin “milbloggers” have carried water for President Vladimir Putin without question. However, following the short-lived Wagner Group coup earlier this year, there have been cracks in the support that the propagandists have offered.
As Ukraine’s counteroffensive has picked up steam and made success in recent weeks, the milbloggers have become increasingly critical of the war effort—if not Putin directly. It now appears that Moscow may be forced to take action and reel in any dissent.
“The Kremlin was already worried about outside perception of its war on Ukraine. They blocked Facebook as well as major foreign news outlets that reported the truth about the invasion,” explained Jason Mollica, professorial lecturer in the School of Communication at American University.
The milbloggers could be the next to be silenced, at least if they offer real opinions or are too critical of the Kremlin—specifically of Putin.
“Journalistic freedom isn’t the same as it is in the United States,” added Mollica. “There will be reporters/bloggers who are fearful of telling the truth due to a lack of protection. The world outside of Russia understands what is happening, though. It’s possible to restrict some true reporting about the war, but with social media, it’s tough to stop the entire flow of information. Telegram has been successful in reaching those who want news without interference from the Kremlin.”
Against The War Effort
It is also possible that the Kremlin could “spin” the commentary from the milbloggers, at least those that haven’t criticized Putin. This could be a clever way for the regime to push a narrative that a few generals or other leaders are responsible for the failures.
“There is a swing in momentum within the Russian milblogger community against the way the war in Ukraine is being conducted specifically. Note that these propagandists aren’t necessarily against the war, but rather, that Russia is not achieving its goals against Ukraine,” suggested Dr. Craig Albert, professor of political science and graduate director of the Master of Arts in Intelligence and Security Studies at Augusta University.
However, even some of the more anti-Putin voices about the war are being heard.
“With this, however, has also come more censorship, more control by the regime, and the disappearances of even the most pro-Russian propagandists,” added Albert. “Russia has the potential to increase its surveillance and censorship activities domestically to control the information space and is likely to do so the more challenged Putin is, and the more ground Ukraine takes back.”
This is very much business as usual as Russia has a history of employing fake commentators, especially on state-owned outlets, and the international community and Russia’s domestic population should expect this to continue.
“Russia has gone so far as to try and ‘plant’ fake experts even within major U.S., cable news outlets, though this has not been generally successful,” Albert continued. “It is reasonable to expect more of this type of behavior as Russia continues to lose ground.”
Not A Breaking Point
A question to ask again is whether the Kremlin could face that “Cronkite moment” with this war. That of course never happened during the Soviet Union’s decade-long war in Afghanistan, but that conflict occurred before the era of social media.
“These moments can’t be compared to Cronkite’s Vietnam War report and President Lyndon Johnson’s alleged statement that if he ‘lost Cronkite, I lost middle America,'” said Mollica.
“Frankly, while propagandists may be turning on the Kremlin, it remains to be seen whether Putin is truly affected,” Mollica added. “Putin still has the power to frame the message how he sees fit through the Russian Ministry of Defense. In July, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War, the MoD was attempting to silence military bloggers who didn’t frame a story to show a Ukrainian defeat. In fact, the battle was still ongoing.”
The first casualty of war is the truth, but in this conflict, the truth could be hurt—but it is far from dead.