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In Russia, nationalist figures and pro-war bloggers volley criticism at the Kremlin for failures and missteps by Russian forces in the war in Ukraine. Their narrative contradicts the version promulgated by the Kremlin, which otherwise has suppressed negative coverage of Russia’s performance.
In Telegram channels, critics who generally support Russia’s campaign in Ukraine are faulting the government of Russian President
for Russia’s inadequate preparation for the war, an unnecessarily high rate of casualties and the slow pace of Russia’s offensive.
“While the Kremlin continues to slowly chew the usual snot, our respected Ukrainian partners are matter-of-factly destroying everything they can reach,” wrote Igor Girkin, a far-right nationalist, after Ukrainian forces struck Russian targets with U.S.-supplied weapons in July. “The failure of the Russian military strategy in Ukraine is obvious,” he said earlier this month.
Mr. Girkin, who commanded pro-Russian separatist forces in 2014 seeking to break the Donbas region from Ukraine’s control, is among the most vocal critics of the Russian performance in the war.
Such voices—many urging the Kremlin to become more aggressive in Ukraine—could lay the groundwork for a military draft, which Mr. Putin so far has avoided, according to analysts.
“A lot of these commentators complain that the Russian government doesn’t go far enough,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “If Putin decides to escalate the war, they will support it, they would be happy with that. In that regard, they would be useful to the government.”
“Putin probably realizes that there are big military failures you can’t deny,” Mr. Lee said. “There has to be an outlet for it. Maybe, as long as it’s directed at the military leadership, rather than political leadership, it’s fine.”
Mr. Putin held a closed-door meeting with military correspondents in June, according to Russian state media.
The Kremlin didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The pro-war critics don’t toe the official Kremlin line that the war is going according to plan. They call the conflict a “war,” rather than as a “special military operation,” as required by the Kremlin, and they mock some of the Russian Defense Ministry’s obfuscations.
Earlier this month, after explosions rocked an air base in Crimea—an area of Ukraine illegally annexed by Russia in 2014—the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that ammunition at the base detonated. The ministry also said that no aircraft were damaged and that there were no injuries on the Russian air base there.
“If this was a fire, then it was a very shameful fire. Jokes aside, I bet on a strike by cruise missiles,” wrote Roman Saponkov, a war correspondent embedded with Russian troops in Ukraine. Mr. Saponkov didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A popular pro-Russia Telegram channel called “Voennyi Osvedomitel,” or “War Informer,” posted a photo of a destroyed plane at the air base and reported on injuries and a death caused by the explosions, citing local officials.
Later, satellite images showed extensive damage to aircraft on the base.
The U.K. Defense Ministry said the explosions resulted in the loss of eight combat jets but said the original cause of the blasts wasn’t known.
Telegram is one of the few information spaces easily accessible to Russians that offer a variety of views on the war. In Russia, critical commentary by think tanks and universities is censored, according to Mr. Lee. State-backed media dominate Russian news outlets and only very rarely allow any acknowledgment of Russian weakness.
“In two days of fighting in the conditions of “open fields” I lost five [fighters] irretrievably, while seven were wounded. In terms of those killed, that’s a higher count than in the three months in the battles for Mariupol,” wrote veteran Donbas commander Alexander Khodakovsky on his Telegram channel earlier this month. The post received more than 2 million views.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense said in March that 1,351 Russian soldiers have been killed in the conflict, a figure it hasn’t since updated. The Pentagon thinks as many as 80,000 Russian service personnel have been wounded or killed.
Mr. Khodakovsky said that the high casualty rate is coming with modest results, blaming the Russia’s top-down military chain of command that has stalled decision-making and the delivery of needed weapons.
“And so our offensive is thwarted, and so our defense is broken. It’s not a subjective factor, it’s 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 couldn’t be reached for comment.
Criticism by pro-war and pro-Russian commentators intensified last month, after a Russian offensive in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas slowed to a crawl.
The pro-war voices also expressed outrage that Ukraine began using U.S.-supplied multiple-launch Himars rocket systems and other precision weapons to hit Russian ammunition depots and command centers.
“Western artillery systems unpleasantly surprised us with their range, accuracy, and variety of modern ammunition,” Aleksandr Sladkov, a correspondent for Russian state television channels, who has close to 900,000 followers on Telegram, wrote in a post on Aug. 2. In the post, he compared pros and cons of Russian and Ukrainian weapons systems.
Mr. Sladkov declined to comment.
Mr. Girkin, who has faulted the Kremlin for what he says was a lack of support for his Donbas initiative in 2014, is especially critical.
Mr. Girkin called for severe punishment of Russia’s top military command, including the Defense Minister
in response to the Himars strikes by Ukrainian forces. If Mr. Girkin were in Mr. Putin’s shoes, “most likely they would not have gotten away with just a firing squad,” Mr. Girkin said in a video posted on his Telegram channel last month. He has also criticized Mr. Putin directly, a potentially dangerous gamble in Russia.
Mr. Girkin says he feels compelled to continue speaking out to help Russia achieve its goals.
Mr. Girkin, along with three others, has been charged in a Dutch court in connection with the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 and the murder of 298 people on board. He has denied the charges.
Mr. Girkin has built his Telegram audience to more than 430,000 followers from around 15,000 before the war, according to Telemetrio, an analytics service for Telegram channels. He is a former reserve officer of Russia’s Federal Security Service with monarchist and imperialist views, and a leader of a Russian nationalist organization called Novorossiya Movement, or New Russia Movement, that advocated for Russia’s expansion in Donbas and other areas uniting what he refers to as Russian people, according to Mihai Varga, a lecturer and researcher at the Institute for East-European Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, where he studies right-wing movements.
Mr. Girkin has also condemned the Russian military for indiscriminate civilian attacks in Ukraine.
The pro-war voices provide valuable information on the war’s progress for Western analysts.
“We monitor them not only because they provide a different perspective than what we see from the Russian Defense Ministry. They also provide us with on-the-ground footage,” said Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War, a research organization. Sometimes “reading Girkin feels like I’m reading my own assessments,” she added.
The military bloggers also serve as a voice for fighters on the front who might feel that 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 posted a letter on Aug. 15 that it said came from a Russian soldier fighting in Ukraine, who complained about the lack of modern equipment. The soldier wrote that most units have old armored vehicles that are of poor quality and break down.
The only criticism the Russian government appears to tolerate comes from the band of pro-war bloggers, analysts say. So far Mr. Girkin and other military bloggers haven’t been censored, despite a new law that bans discrediting 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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