Politics
Return of the Voenkor: The Military as a New Opinion Leader in Russia?
August 15, 2022
  • Agnès Wenger

    Independent Researcher, Paris

Agnès Wenger on the rising popularity of Telegram channels belonging to military officers and military correspondents (voenkory) and how these new opinion leaders can criticize the regime while maintaining their patriotic legitimacy.
General Ivashov at the 2005 Axis for Peace conference, 2005. Source: Wiki Commons
The Russian military has been dramatically impacted by the war. Not only has it had to confront the logistical and manpower challenges of the battlefield, but it has also been compelled to reassess its ideological relationship to the regime. In the Russian tradition, the military is loyal to the political elites and does not position itself as an alternative pole of legitimacy. This does not mean, however, that relations between civilian and military elites have always been harmonious. As Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan note, dissonant voices are regularly heard in discussions of army reforms, while the law enforcement agencies have their own ideas about how the state-society relationship should look.

But the level of discontent in the ranks has risen significantly with the war in Ukraine. This can be seen in the rapid rise of military Telegram channels offering a critical view of the country’s political and military elite and whether it lives up to its claim of great power status. With millions of viewers and the capacity to speak critically of the elite, these new military channels have, paradoxically, become new opinion leaders in an ever-more-repressive political system.

Dissatisfaction in the Military Ranks

Before the war was launched, very few military figures expressed doubts about such an operation’s prospects of success. One such individual was retired Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, the chairman of the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly—a small radical, nationalist veterans’ organization—and formerly a senior political-military affairs officer on Russia’s General Staff. Ivashov claimed Putin was on a “suicidal march to war against Ukraine”—a surprising statement coming from a man known for his support of such nationalist and imperialist thinkers as Alexander Prokhanov and Alexander Dugin and his exaltation of the Novorossiya project. It is unclear what Ivashov meant by “suicidal march,” but he seems to share the conspiratorial view of the regime as anti-national and ready to launch the wrong war for cover.

Ivashov remains quite a unique voice.
"To date, those military figures who publicly criticize the war do not favor ending it; on the contrary, they seek to align the military operation with the political goals advanced by Russian President Putin in his February 21 and 24 speeches."
They hope for the full conquest of Ukraine and the defeat of the regime in Kyiv, and propose that the military be given the necessary capability by officially declaring a war against Ukraine and launching a mass mobilization. Among their main arguments are the facts that Ukraine has mobilized its men and is receiving heavy support in equipment and training from the West, to which (they claim) Russia can respond only by upgrading its own commitment to the war. The most radical critics denounce the regime’s betrayal and corruption, arguing that a partial or full defeat would destroy what Russia has managed to rebuild over the last two decades.
Vladimir Kvachkov, 2008. Source: Wiki Commons
This new narrative was embodied by the change of leadership of the small All-Russian Officers’ Assembly. Ivashov stepped down to be replaced by Vladimir Kvachkov, a former Spetsnaz colonel and military intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan. He also formerly headed the ultra-right Minin and Pozharsky People's Militia (named after two leaders of the volunteer militia that drove the Polish-Lithuanian army out of Moscow in 1612), which is classified as a terrorist organization in Russia, and was tried several times over an attempt on the life of Anatoly Chubais. Kvachkov stated that Russia had lost the first phase of the war and could now succeed only by declaring all-out war. One might consider Kvachkov a marginal figure—and indeed he is in many respects—yet his view seems to be shared by some segments of Russian society, as evidenced by the growing audiences of military Telegram channels.

While many online media have been blocked, Telegram has doubled in size, becoming the main platform on which the information war is waged. Both the pro- and anti-war camps have seen their audiences explode, but—as in society as a whole—the former still dominates. Far and away the two most popular channels—with more than 2 million and 1 million followers, respectively (albeit that these numbers are probably boosted by bots)—are those of Ramzan Kadyrov, the infamous head of Chechnya, and Vladimir Soloviev, the ultraconservative television anchor. Both have built up public personas as zealous propagandists more radical than the regime, and both call for a full-scale war against Ukraine.

Beyond these usual suspects, more than 500 Telegram channels devoted to the war have been launched since February 24. Of these, about a dozen have between 100,000 and 800,000 subscribers. The most successful have commercial value, generating advertising revenue for their owners and lead editors.
Telegram-channel Operation Z—voenkory russkoi vesny, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Voenkory and Their Ideological Orientation

The most interesting of these channels are those of voenkory (voennye korrespondanty), military correspondents or embedded journalists who report from the front. Voenkory represented a prestigious professional category in Soviet times, and big nationalist names like Alexander Prokhanov have emerged from that field—indeed, Prokhanov has been nicknamed the “nightingaleof the General Staff since the publication of his writings celebrating the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the early 1980s. The far-right writer Zakhar Prilepin, said to be leading a military unit for the self-proclaimed secessionist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, has modernized the figure of the engaged writer, contributing to relaunching the war literature genre that has occupied shelves in Russia’s bookstores since the 2014 Donbas conflict.

Several of the leading Telegram military channels belong to voenkory: “Wargonzo” and “Operation Z—voenkory russkoi vesny” boast over 1 million and almost 900,000 subscribers, respectively. The “Wargonzo” channel (in existence since 2017) is administered by Semyon Pegov, who is celebrated by Eduard Limonov and Zakhar Prilepin as the most courageous of the contemporary voenkory. A former journalist for the Russian LifeNews TV channel who is now embedded with the Donetsk army, Pegov speaks to about 800,000 followers on YouTube and over one million on Telegram.

One should also mention Vladlen Tatarsky (a pen name for Maksim Fomin), correspondent for the Vostok Battalion, one of the main Russian militia groups in Donbas. He curates Reverse Side of the Medal, the Telegram channel of the mercenary community likely linked to the Wagner Group. Tatarsky has been one of the most outspoken voenkory, not hesitating to denounce the regime and the higher echelons of the military for their incompetence and to call for the mobilization of 600,000 to 800,000 men to defeat Ukraine.

The name of one of the main channels, Operation Z—voenkory russkoi vesny, gives us a window into the ideology of many of the voenkory. They refer to the 2014 Russian Spring, the nationalist movement calling for the creation of Novorossiya (the names given to eastern and southern Ukraine in Russian historiography) but also hoping for a nationalist revolution in Moscow.
"Many of them consider today’s war the long-awaited continuation of business left unfinished in 2014; they were long critical of the Kremlin’s lack of ambition to conquer and annex the whole of Donbas as it had Crimea."
Igor Strelkov, 2015. Source: Wiki Commons
This view is embodied by Igor Strelkov, the main Donbas warlord back in 2014 (and one of the chief suspects in the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17). Over the years, Strelkov has been able to maintain a difficult balance between criticizing the Kremlin and continuing talking to military elites. His knowledge of the Ukrainian field as a professional soldier and his stylistic skills have rebranded him: his Telegram channel has become one of the most read for military developments in Ukraine, with almost 400,000 subscribers. For Strelkov, as for all the voenkory, the political elites are betraying their own stated aims, cannot keep their promises, and should give the military the tools necessary to conquer the whole of Ukraine.

The main voenkory channels also repost videos of soldiers and officers filming themselves in combat and covering the situation on the ground. It is difficult to assess if these military men are being censored and monitored. We do not know if their reporting is closely curated by the Defense Ministry, which might see it as a helpful tool for spreading the official message of the war, or if they are merely tolerated. What is quite clear is that those channels belonging to Chechen militia figures are very propagandistic and clearly coordinated in their narrative and staging, while those of the voenkory appear more genuine.

One should also note that, unsurprisingly, there is a certain leeway to express dissenting views on Telegram that does not exist when it comes to television. Those military voices from the ground (often from Donetsk and Luhansk) who appear on state television and especially on the most infamous political talk-shows—such as Sunday Evening with Vladimir Soloviev, 60 Minutes on Rossiia 1, and Time Will Tell on Pervyi kanal—report on the battlefront without criticizing political decisions: they speak to a more loyal audience than that reading Telegram, one not interested in hearing critical views.

Conclusions

Putin is reportedly concerned about any generals garnering popularity from their exploits on the battlefield. Hence, the Kremlin celebrates Russia’s achievements on the ground without attaching names to them. Only ordinary soldiers and officers are recognized, with their faces reproduced on street billboards all over Russia. But while fear of competition from military leaders is not new—Stalin, for instance, was worried about Marshal Zhukov’s popularity—the emergence of the military as a key opinion leader is quite a novel phenomenon for Russia.

Any military revolt against the Kremlin seems unrealistic. As Telegram does not allow the scraping of data on followers for privacy reasons, we do not know if the voenkory’s followers are members of the military or ordinary civilians. Yet
"The fact that a large group of people, with hundreds of thousands of followers, expresses both patriotism and dissatisfaction toward the ruling political elite could impact the regime’s equilibrium."
Unlike liberal figures, military professionals and voenkory have no legitimacy issue. The army is among the most trusted institutions in Russia, just below the president and above the Church. Voenkory can thus criticize the regime and the higher echelons of the military hierarchy in front of the Kremlin’s most loyal constituencies without losing their audience or credibility, a fact that confirms that any political challenge to the regime looks set to be conservative/nationalist, not liberal.

These voenkory serve to consolidate the existing illiberal civil society in Russia, i.e., the segment of the population that genuinely believes in the ideology advanced by the Kremlin and wants the latter to put words into action. In contrast to liberals, who criticize the regime for its ideas, voenkory criticize it for failing to implement its ideas. By criticizing the elite on the grounds of their ineffectiveness, they contribute to disassociating Russia’s great power future from the current elite. The rise of critiques of the regime’s effectiveness and the emergence of the idea that Putinism could be carried out even better without Putin—as noted, for instance, by independent journalist Abbas Gallyamov—may follow.

Leading military channels on Telegram and their growth, February-June 2022
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