In Russia, nationalist figures and war bloggers have criticized the Kremlin for omissions and missteps by Russian forces in the war in Ukraine. Her account contradicts the version disseminated by the Kremlin, which has otherwise suppressed negative coverage of Russia’s appearance.
In Telegram channels, critics who generally support Russia’s campaign in Ukraine accuse the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin of Russia’s insufficient preparation for the war, an unnecessarily high number of casualties and the slow pace of the Russian offensive.
“While the Kremlin continues to slowly chew its usual snot, our respected Ukrainian partners are objectively destroying anything they can get their hands on,” wrote Igor Girkin, a far-right nationalist, after Ukrainian forces attacked Russian targets with US-supplied weapons in July. “The failure of Russia’s military strategy in Ukraine is evident,” he said earlier this month.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared at a military forum in Russia earlier this week.
Photo: Kremlin Pool/Zuma Press
Mr Girkin, who commanded pro-Russian separatist forces trying to liberate the Donbass region from Ukrainian control in 2014, is among the most vocal critics of Russia’s performance in the war.
Such voices – many of which are urging the Kremlin to become more aggressive in Ukraine – could lay the groundwork for a military operation that analysts say Mr Putin has so far avoided.
“Many of these commentators complain that the Russian government is not going far enough,” said Rob Lee, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “If Putin decides to escalate the war, they will support him, they would be happy with that. In that respect, they would be of use to the government.”
“Putin is probably aware that there are major military failures that you cannot deny,” Mr Lee said. “There has to be a way out of this. Maybe it’s fine as long as it’s addressed to the military leadership and not the political leadership.”
According to Russian state media, Mr Putin held a closed meeting with military correspondents in June.
The Kremlin did not respond to a request for comment.
Those in favor of war are not following the official Kremlin line that the war is going according to plan. They label the conflict a “war” rather than a “special military operation” as the Kremlin is demanding, and ridicule some confusion by the Russian Defense Ministry.
Earlier this month after explosions rocked an airbase in Crimea — a territory of Ukraine illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 — Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed munitions at the base had exploded. The ministry also said no planes were damaged and there were no casualties at the Russian air base there.
“If this was a fire, it was a very shameful fire. Jokes aside, I’m betting on a cruise missile attack,” wrote Roman Saponkov, a war correspondent stationed with Russian troops in Ukraine. Mr Saponkov did not respond to a request for comment.
Some pro-Russian voices in Russia shared information about the extent of damage at an airbase in Crimea following an explosion there, despite the Russian government’s attempts to downplay the incident.
Photo: Associated Press
A popular pro-Russian Telegram channel called “Voennyi Osvedomitel” or “War Informator” published a photo of a destroyed plane at the airbase and reported injuries and deaths from the blasts, citing local officials.
Later, satellite imagery showed extensive damage to aircraft at the base.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said the blasts resulted in the loss of eight fighter jets but said the original cause of the blasts was unknown.
Telegram is one of the few information spaces that are easily accessible to Russians and offer a variety of views on the war. In Russia, according to Mr. Lee, critical comments from think tanks and universities are censored. State-backed media dominate Russian news agencies and rarely allow for an admission of Russian weakness.
“In two days of fighting in the “open field” I lost five [fighters] irretrievably while seven were wounded. In terms of those killed, this is a higher number than in the three months of fighting for Mariupol,” veteran Donbas commander Alexander Khodakovsky wrote on his Telegram channel earlier this month. The post received more than 2 million views.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in March that 1,351 Russian soldiers were killed in the conflict, a number it has not updated since. The Pentagon estimates that up to 80,000 Russian soldiers were injured or killed.
A member of the Ukrainian armed forces worked at the exhumation of killed Russian soldiers near Kharkiv, Ukraine, in May.
Photo: Andrii Marienko/Associated Press
Mr Khodakovsky said the high casualty rate has come with modest results, blaming Russia’s top-down military chain of command for stalling decision-making and delivering needed weapons.
“And so our offensive is thwarted and our defenses broken. This is not a subjective factor, but how the system is set up,” Mr. Khodakovsky wrote. “It is obvious to everyone that we were less prepared for the operation than we would have liked,” he wrote in July.
Mr. Khodakovsky could not be reached for comment.
Criticism from pro-war and pro-Russian commentators intensified last month after a Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region was slowed to a crawl.
Pro-war advocates also expressed outrage that Ukraine began using US-supplied multi-launch Himars missile systems and other precision weapons to hit Russian ammunition depots and command centers.
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“Western artillery systems have unpleasantly surprised us with their range, accuracy and variety of modern ammunition,” wrote Aleksandr Sladkov, a correspondent for Russia’s state television channel, who has nearly 900,000 followers on Telegram, in an Aug. 2 post. In the post, he compared pre- and disadvantages of Russian and Ukrainian weapon systems.
Mr Sladkov declined to comment.
Mr Girkin, who accuses the Kremlin of giving a lack of support to his Donbass initiative in 2014, is particularly critical.
Mr Girkin called for severe punishment of Russia’s top military command, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in response to the Himar attacks by Ukrainian forces. If Mr Girkin were in Mr Putin’s place, “they most likely wouldn’t have gotten away with just a firing squad,” Mr Girkin said in a video posted to his Telegram channel last month. He has also directly criticized Mr Putin, a potentially dangerous game in Russia.
Mr Girkin says he is committed to continuing to raise his voice to help Russia achieve its goals.
Mr Girkin, along with three others, was charged in a Dutch court in connection with the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 and the killing of 298 people on board. He has denied the allegations.
According to Telemetrio, a Telegram channel analytics service, Mr Girkin has grown his Telegram audience from around 15,000 before the war to more than 430,000 followers. He is a former reserve officer of the Russian Federal Security Service with monarchist and imperialist views and a leader of a Russian nationalist organization called the Novorossiya Movement or New Russia Movement, which advocated for Russia’s expansion in the Donbass and other areas and united what he terms Russians, says Mihai Varga, lecturer and researcher at the Institute for East European Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, where he researches right-wing movements.
Igor Girkin, center, a far-right Russian nationalist, has criticized the Russian military for indiscriminate civilian attacks in Ukraine.
Photo: Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press
Mr Girkin has also condemned the Russian military for indiscriminate civilian attacks in Ukraine.
The pro-war voices provide western analysts with valuable information on the progress of the war.
“We’re not just watching them because they offer a different perspective than what we see from the Russian Defense Ministry. They also provide us with on-site footage,” said Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia researcher at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, DC, a research organization. At times, “reading Girkin feels like I’m reading my own assessments,” she added.
The military bloggers also serve as a voice for combatants on the frontlines who might feel their commanders aren’t responsive to their needs, said Frederick W. Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Telegram blog Rybar published a letter on Aug. 15 saying it came from a Russian soldier fighting in Ukraine who complained about the lack of modern equipment. The soldier wrote that most of the units have old armored vehicles that are of poor quality and break down.
The only criticism the Russian government seems to tolerate comes from the group of war bloggers, according to analysts. So far, Mr Girkin and other military bloggers have not been censored, despite a new law banning discrediting of the Russian armed forces. Mr Putin’s government has opened thousands of criminal cases against critics of the war.
write to Yuliya Chernova at [email protected]
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