Russia’s war influencers get their audience with Putin

Frontline reporters on social media are powerful pro-war advocates. But they may be posing a challenge to Putin

This week, a group of men met Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin. They spoke for two hours, on camera, and the Russian president used the occasion to talk “frankly” about the country’s war against Ukraine. Mostly dressed in black, the men around the room, many with unkempt beards, wore baseball caps and polo shirts – outfits that seemed to suggest a moment of ‘unity’ between the Russian leader and his people at war.

These men are Russia’s war correspondents, and they are in charge of the day-to-day reporting of the country’s year-long war against Ukraine online. Many work for Russian state media, others represent their own micro-media run on Telegram channels. But what unites them is their millions of followers, and the power they have in directing the feelings of those Russian citizens who actively support the war on Ukraine.

Today, the pro-war news agenda for those who keenly follow the invasion, often referred to as the ‘Z agenda’, is shaped by dozens of Telegram channels, which constantly report on the twists and turns of Russia’s war, Ukraine’s resistance, and the shadowy conflicts between the Russian Ministry of Defence and private commanders like Evgeny Prigozhin.

They do this from the frontline, travelling around occupied territories in Ukraine to show the war from a Russian perspective. And for more than a year, these war correspondents have been convincing their readers back in Russia that they are the true voices of the Russian fighters, pushing the state to meet their demands for stronger military action.

The Z agenda

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it seemed to come as a shock to the vast majority of Russians. And when Russian forces’ initial attempt to take Kyiv failed, urgent measures were required to make the war acceptable to Russian society.

What were the aims of the war? And why, exactly, was it happening? Russians needed answers to these questions, and, by all accounts, officials had to scramble to come up with them. So while they sought to maintain the illusion of a peaceful life in Russia itself, they also offered material incentives for the men and women who had to ‘sell’ the war to the Russian public. This is how the ‘Z agenda’ emerged: the pro-war public information campaign waged not just by state propaganda but also by more independent social media channels (along with less independent ones) on the popular Telegram social network. Within this campaign, the war correspondents would have pride of place.

News broadcast by Russian state media on the war has largely sought to assuage the Russian population’s fears and convince them that they are one step away from victory in Ukraine. At the same time, various talk shows pump the audience with hatred. But a special place was also given to informal, non-state channels that try to act as a forum for the most ideological and staunch supporters of the war.

Over the past year, Telegram has played a huge role in this informal media sector. Here, anonymously operated channels can enjoy a claim to independence, present news and opinion informally, and cover events on the ground quickly. They can post content that would never be published by traditional media, including footage of war crimes. And, as the most committed supporters of the war, they also reserve the right to criticise the Russian Ministry of Defence over its conduct.

Military journalists insist that their patriotic duty is to make Russia’s military failures public – thus helping the Russian war machine to improve

This has made Telegram incredibly popular for transmitting information about the war to the Russian public – and driving the mood of the pro-war segment of society. Of Russia’s 100 most popular channels, 22 are dedicated to the war, according to my analysis of data on TGStat, a ranking website. One of the most popular channels has even started selling its own merchandise, including knives and T-shirts.

So, while Russia’s state TV channels attempt to maintain at least a modicum of decency, the independent war correspondents – as the country’s new right-wing populists – do the opposite. Instead, they cynically invite their readers to enjoy the war – explosions, tragedies, murders and torture – just as it is. The reality of ‘working under fire’ in a disgusting, messy war is these journalists’ key ideological message to Russian audiences.

Independent patriots

While these channels were initially set up to help the state propaganda effort and normalise the war for the Russian people, there are signs that they have taken on a life of their own.

So far, war correspondents have shown their continuing loyalty to Putin, while at the same time criticising the Russian military command heavily for its numerous failures. This is an unusual situation, given the Russian authorities’ extreme intolerance for criticism, and the existence of new laws criminalising criticism of the Russian armed forces since the invasion.

But military journalists are free to do as they please. They insist that their patriotic duty is to make Russia’s military failures public – thus helping the Russian war machine to improve.

They first shot to prominence in summer 2022, when they managed to attract Putin’s attention to the pitiful reality at the front. Then, in autumn 2022, when Ukrainian forces pushed the Russian military out of the Kherson and Kharkov regions, these journalists did their best to attack the Russian military command.

In turn, the Russian state increasingly incorporated them into the system, giving them public jobs in order to tighten the state’s political control over the army.

Nowadays, war correspondents occupy a controversial position. They are a part of a system of ‘authoritarian checks and balances’, enjoying Putin’s attention and the support of some top political figures, such as Sergey Kiriyenko, the Kremlin official in charge of internal politics. Nevertheless, these ‘journalists’ don’t recognise themselves as a part of ‘the system’, but as independent patriots forcing the Russian bureaucracy – both civil and military – to mobilise the country to gain total victory over Ukraine.

This unusual position was on view earlier in the week at Putin’s informal meeting with the war correspondents in Moscow. The Russian president tried to portray himself as a genuine war leader. First, he recalled how, in the early 2000s, his helicopter came under enemy fire when he visited Chechnya during the Second Chechen War. Then he told a meandering story about speaking with a freshly wounded officer “who hadn’t even been operated on yet”.

But the war correspondents’ questions dismissed Putin’s attempts to cast himself as a wartime leader. They asked question after question about how Russian soldiers are denied promised payments for destroyed Ukrainian tanks, and how certain groups of fighters cannot claim their status as veterans. They questioned whether conscripts will be deployed to fight against Ukraine. And, in the process, they uncovered the president’s total ignorance of the reality of the frontline.

As we near day 500 of Russia’s senseless war against Ukraine, there’s a sense that the ‘radicals’ – the most committed supporters of the war – will feel betrayed if it does not go in the Kremlin’s favour. That may not be a problem for Putin so long as he keeps his grip on politics – but if he loosens it, or the front situation resembles a defeat, Russian officials should brace themselves for chaos provoked by those who have staked everything on victory.