There is a strange dissonance in Moscow as Russia awaits the long-expected Ukrainian military offensive with its new Western-armed brigades. While TV channels and the mainstream media mock Ukraine for postponing, Russian Telegram channels have exploded with news of Russian retreats.
The nervousness around the Ukrainian counteroffensive is palpable, and it seems the public messaging is far from under Kremlin control.
First came the rumors that the long-awaited Ukrainian counter-offensive was already underway. It was mostly discussed on Telegram channels: the so-called voenkors, Russian journalists who are embedded with the army, provided details of local battles around Bakhmut. Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin then stepped in, confirming rumors of retreats by some detachments of Russian troops, which he called “a rout.” The official line was to continue poking fun at the Ukrainians for postponing their counteroffensive (which would be hard, given they have never offered a starting date) and later to admit there had been a tactical regrouping.
Next came the downing of four Russian military aircraft – two combat aircraft and two supporting helicopters on May 13 over Russian territory. These losses — from a still-unknown cause — were met with complete silence on Russian television. The news was covered by the Kommersant news outlet, but the complete absence of an official narrative or explanation was startling. While TV channels ignored the news, telegram channels, including the channels of pro-war bloggers, exploded with conspiracy theories – ranging from a Ukrainian ambush linked to treason to the friendly fire by Russian air defense. Voenkors, who had developed a strong rapport with frontline soldiers in this war, indulged in a blame game. Prigozhin, true to his nature (and to his role as Vladimir Putin’s wicked, licensed court jester) added fuel by supporting the theory of friendly fire.
Thereafter, Russian parliamentarians suggested the introduction of military censorship, and the Kremlin news agency RIA attacked voenkors for misinforming the public about the counter-offensive. The Voenkors counterattacked, and both sides joined a melee of mutual contradiction with extensive references to Stalin’s handling of information during World War II.
Taken together, this maelstrom of mixed messaging and confused responses were a literal repetition of the reaction among Russian pro-war circles to the Ukrainian offensive in September. That too saw the same fundamental clash over what was happening: the official rosy version was presented by the officials (primarily the Ministry of Defense ), while voenkors, Prigozhin, and the Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov promoted a far more critical version, which was near-damning of Russian military performance.
Back in September-October, the clash of narratives caused bitter infighting, including Russia’s General Staff asking prosecutors to investigate nine military critics on charges of spreading fake news. This new crisis looks very similar, with some minor differences — this time Kadyrov is out of the picture, and voenkors have restrained from attacking named generals, a feature of their September commentary.
This is not just about spats between different factions. The confusion might indicate that the Kremlin, which has been eager to achieve information control since the beginning of the invasion, is both incompetent and weak in dealing with the emerging crisis.
But there is another explanation.
The voenkors are not a force of nature, and an instinctively repressive regime could quite easily force them to toe the line. After all, when they were told to stop attacking the generals and praise the military command last fall, they immediately did as they were told.
This, therefore, looks more like a conscious effort by Putin to keep his military off balance. In this game, Putin uses the voenkors and the endlessly talkative Prigozhin as an alternative channel of reporting on the army’s shortcomings. In the fall of 2022, Putin didn’t allow prosecutors to investigate the voenkors. Instead, he added Alexander Kots, a military correspondent for the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, to the Human Rights Council, a body enjoying some access to Putin, and awarded another voenkor Semyon Pegov (who has a huge following on the Telegram channel, WarGonzo) the Order of Courage. It might seem odd to outsiders, but vocal critics like Prigozhin and the Voenkors appear to have an official license to attack the official authorities.
In the absence of any accountability of the government and the security services, traditional Russian methods of control have always been primitive — ensuring competition between officials and agencies for access to resources and to the leader.
Boris Yeltsin used this approach a lot. He did not disband the KGB, but split the monster into several warring agencies and encouraged rivalry in the splintered intelligence community. That was his idea of checks and balances. And to some extent it was effective; he retained his grip on power in the turbulent 1990s.
The war in Ukraine is the biggest crisis Putin’s system has ever faced. While it may be too early to describe the outright invasion of Ukraine as a regime-menacing failure, it has created severe and worsening problems. Many in the government and in Russian business circles are unhappy that the war is dragging on. Mobilization, and the threat of another call-up, has put the Russian people in a state of constant anxiety, while radicals are furious about the Russian army’s dismal performance in Ukraine.
More than aware of the bubbling undercurrent of discontent, Putin feels he must retain control over the army and over the Ministry of Defense, and needs good information about what’s really going on the battlefield. The price of this is the dissonance with the main state propaganda narrative from Kremlin TV channels and other official media.
But the Russian leader is willing to allow voenkors the limited freedom to tell something akin to the truth about events at the front. This too is one of the tasks assigned to Prigozhin.
If this counter-narrative provides another opportunity to show Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov that he cannot be fooled, so much the better.
This overtly medieval system of mutual denouncement and competition has its flaws, but given the vertical nature of power, created by Putin, it is essentially the only option available to him.
Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov, both non-resident senior fellows at CEPA, are Russian investigative journalists, co-founders, and editors of Agentura.ru, which monitors Russian secret service activities. Both have covered Russian security services and terrorism for more than two decades.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.