Putin’s Solovyov crisis: a probe of the Kremlin’s propaganda and military actions against Ukrainian attackers in the Kherson region
“The current onslaught of criticism and reporting of operational military details by the Kremlin’s propagandists has come to resemble the milblogger discourse over the past week. The narrative of the Kremlin focused on statements of progress and avoided discussions of current military operations. The failure of the war before the loss in Kharkiv Oblast prompted the partial reserve mobilization of the Kremlin.
A provocative statement, perhaps – Stremousov might perhaps be mindful of the fact that troublesome leaders of Russian-backed separatist entities have a habit of dying violently – but some of this criticism is not new. Just weeks after Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, one of his key domestic enforcers, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, urged the Russian military to expand its campaign, implying that Moscow’s approach had not been brutal enough.
In a recent interview with Russian arch-propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, the head of the defense committee in Russia’s State Duma demanded that officials cease lying and level with the Russian public.
The Ministry of Defense was hiding the truth about Ukrainian cross-border strikes in Russian regions near Ukraine, according to Kartapolov.
Valuyki is in Russia’s Belgorod region, near the border with Ukraine. The stance of Ukrainians when it comes to striking Russian targets across the border has generally been neither confirm nor deny.
Some criticism has also come from Russian-appointed quislings who have been installed by Moscow to run occupied regions of Ukraine. In a recent four-minute rant on the messaging app Telegram, the Russian-appointed deputy leader of Ukraine’s occupied Kherson region, Kirill Stremousov, lambasted Russian military commanders for allowing “gaps” on the battlefield that had allowed the Ukrainian military to make advances in the region, which is illegally claimed by Russia.
“There is no need to somehow cast a shadow over the entire Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation because of some, I do not say traitors, but incompetent commanders, who did not bother, and were not accountable, for the processes and gaps that exist today,” Stremousov said. “Indeed, many say that the Minister of Defense [Sergei Shoigu], who allowed this situation to happen, could, as an officer, shoot himself. You know, the word officer is not familiar to many.
But after Russia’s retreat from the strategic Ukrainian city of Lyman, Kadyrov has been a lot less shy about naming names when it comes to blaming Russian commanders.
Kadyrov blames Colonel-General Alexander Lapin for the debacle, accusing him of not giving enough to his troops and moving his headquarters away from his subordinates.
As the big platforms have curbed the reach of Russia’s official channels, there’s been an uptick in covert activity linked to Russia, according to officials at Meta. In the past year, the company took down two big networks trying to influence perception of the war, involving more than 3,000 accounts, pages and groups — its biggest takedowns of Russian-linked operations since 2017.
The Great Patriotic War is a preoccupation in Russia for most of the 20th century. The tactics the Red Army used to fight the Wehrmacht, such as sending punishment battalions, were praised by those in Russia’s party of war.
Kadyrov – who recently announced that he had been promoted by Putin to the rank of colonel general – has been one of the most prominent voices arguing for the draconian methods of the past. He recently said in another Telegram post that, if he had his way, he would give the government extraordinary wartime powers in Russia.
Kadyrov said that if he were his will, he would declare martial law across the country because they were at war with the NATO bloc.
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Fratea is going to purge his Facebook page of weird political adverts. He is presented with accounts every couple of days that, on the surface, seem innocent, but often share the same innocuous profile picture of a cathedral. But when he scrolls past, these pages present him with what he describes as “soft propaganda,” trying to entice him to join anti-government protests.
The ads echo the political messages of Ilan Shor, a sanctionsed politician and businessman with links to the Kremlin, who has been accused by the US government of trying to undermine Moldova on behalf of Russia. On Sunday, these ads helped promote Moldova’s most recent anti-government rally in the capital, Chinasu, which was attended by thousands of people.
The fear of an invasion was somewhat alleviated when Russia retreated to the east. But it has been replaced by another more insidious concern that Russia could take over Moldova from the inside.
Meta spokesperson Ben Waters says that Facebook adheres to US sanctions. He says that they took action on their known accounts after Ilan Shor and the or Party were added to the US sanctions list. We took action on those as well when we identified new associated accounts.
The new censorship laws made it illegal to operate any media outside of the control of the Kremlin. Western news and social media sites were cut off by the Iron Curtain.
And as authorities rounded up thousands in a crackdown on anti-war protests, a culture of fear descended on Russian cities and towns that prevents many people from sharing their true thoughts on the war in public.
Some people are getting upset over the constant jingoism on the radio. Tech-savvy internet users skirt state restrictions to access dispatches and pictures from the frontlines. Russia is having a hard time controlling the personal impact of the war as it works to boost its campaign.
“In the beginning I was supporting it,” Natalya, a 53-year-old Moscow resident, told CNN of what the Kremlin and most Russians euphemistically call a “special military operation.” I am against it now.
“What made me change my opinion?,” she contemplated aloud. “First, my son is of mobilization age, and I fear for him. I have many friends in Ukraine and I talk to them. That is why I am against it.”
CNN doesn’t use the full names of people that are critical of the Kremlin. Public criticism of the war in Ukraine or statements that discredit Russia’s military can potentially mean a fine or a prison sentence.
Gauging public opinion is notoriously difficult in a country where independent pollsters are targeted by the government, and many of the 146 million citizens are reluctant to publicly condemn President Vladimir Putin. The Levada Center reports that Russians’ support dropped by an average of 6 points per month from March to November last year.
In many respects, that is unsurprising. There is little room for dissenting voices on Russian airwaves; the propaganda beamed from state-controlled TV stations since the onset of war has at times attracted derision around the world, so overblown are their more fanatical presenters and pundits.
In a far-fetched statement that highlights the alternate reality in state TV channels exist, a pro-Russian former lawmaker claimed that everything was under control in Moscow’s war.
Though its reach spans generations and it has claimed some converts, such programming typically appeals to a small group of older, more conservative Russians who prefer the time of the Soviet Union.
Do Russians believe in state media? “We don’t believe in democracy” says Ekaterina Volkov, a 20-year-old Ukrainian citizen
The conflict has taken a personal toll on her. “My life has deteriorated a lot in this year. No one close to me has been mobilized. But I lost my job. She said that she sees radical changes around her everywhere.
And yet, Ekaterina’s initial opposition to the invasion has disappeared. “I arrived at the understanding that this special military operation was inevitable,” she said. No matter what, it would have come to this. She contrasted the false claims of victimhood at the hands of the West that state media continuously communicate with the fact that war would have been unleashed against them had we not acted first.
You can only trust them all to an extent, I think. State channels say things that calm people down, but sometimes reflect the truth, according to 20-year-old Daniil.
More than one third of Russians rely on television for news, a higher proportion than most other countries, according to Levada Center.
Everything that I hear on state channels is split in half. “I don’t think I trust anyone”, says the accountant. “One needs to analyze everything … because certain things they are omitting, (or) not saying,” said Leonid, a 58-year-old engineer.
CNN spoke with people in Moscow who stated that they were interested in state controlled TV and treated it with skepticism, but they also expressed similar feelings. And many reach different views on Ukraine.
Vocal minorities on each side of the conflict exist in Russia, and some have cut off friendships or left the country as a result. But sociologists tracking Russian opinion say most people in the country fall between those two extremes.
Natalia Savelyeva is a Future Russia Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and she says that this group of people tend to pay less attention to the war. She said that they call them doubters.
“A lot of doubters don’t go very deep into the news … many of them don’t believe that Russian soldiers kill Ukrainians – they repeat this narrative they see on TV,” she said.
She is not alone. “The major attitude is not to watch (the news) closely, not to discuss it with colleagues or friends. Because what can you do about it?” said Volkov. “Whatever you say, whatever you want, the government will do what they want.”
Anti-war protests in Russia are rare and noteworthy because of a social contract that suits the Kremlin. “People don’t want to go and protest; first, because it might be dangerous, and second, because they see it as a futile enterprise,” Volkov said.
The majority of the population disengages. “In general, those people try to distance themselves from what’s going on,” Savelyeva added. “They try to live their lives as though nothing is happening.”
“I have felt anxious ever since this began. The woman who asked to remain anonymous told CNN last month that the situation was affecting the availability of product and prices. There is no public information. People should be explained things. She said that everyone was listening to Soloviev.
A film student who hadn’t heard from her friend in two months said she didn’t know what had happened to him. It would be nice if he said that he was still alive.
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uncensored scenes from the Ukrainian frontlines are brought into the homes of Russian-speaking people via digital platforms, such as YouTube and Telegram, that are still allowed by the Kremlin.
The network states that interest has surged throughout the war. “We saw traffic spikes after the mobilization, and after the Ukrainian counter-offensives, because people started to understand what (the war) means for their own communities and they couldn’t get it from local media.”
There is a need to reach the wider audience in Russia. “We see a lot of people indoctrinated by Russian state propaganda … it will be an uphill battle but this is where we shape our strategy.”
Reaching Russians at all has not been easy. RFE/RL relocated its headquarters to the Czech Republic last year, after the Kremlin began cracking down on independent channels in Russia.
“All our staff understand they can’t go back to Russia,” Sukhotski told CNN. There are still families there. They still have ailing parents there. Some people were not able to attend their parents’ funerals in the past year.
About a quarter of Russians use VPN services to access blocked sites, according to a Levada Center poll carried out two months after Russia’s invasion.
Searches for such services on Google spiked to record levels in Russia following the invasion, and have remained at their highest rates in over a decade ever since, the search engine’s tracking data shows.
Thanks to its immense popularity in Russia, YouTube remains one of the few major global sites still accessible.
And that allows censored organizations a way in. “I watch YouTube. I watch everything there – I mean everything,” one Moscow resident who passionately opposes the war told CNN, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “These federal channels I never watch,” she said. “I don’t trust a word they say. They lie all the time. You’ve just got to switch on your logic, compare some information and you will see that it’s all a lie.”
Russian War on the War: Counterattacks on Twitter, Facebook, and the Digital Forensics of the U.S. Crimea Crisis
Telegram has spiked in popularity since the war started, and became a public square for military blogger to analyze each day on the battlefield.
“This public fighting is spilling over,” Lautman told CNN. Russia has lost control of the narrative because it used to have a smooth propaganda machine.
Scores of hawkish bloggers, some of whom boast hundreds of thousands of followers, have strayed angrily from the Kremlin’s line in recent months, lambasting its military tactics and publicly losing faith in the armed forces’ high command.
The impact of those broken bones is not known. For now, Putin can rely on a citizenry that is generally either supportive of the conflict or too fatigued to proclaim its opposition.
The analysts at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab said that to defeat Ukrainians on the battlefield Russia needed to smother all sympathy and support.
It’s a continuation of a strategy President Vladimir Putin has pursued long before February 24, 2022 — stretching back to 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and threw its support behind separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy at Facebook parent Meta, said Russian influence operations on social media have used a throw-the-spaghetti-at-the-wall approach.
Roman Osadchuck said that the point is not that people will believe each and every one of these narratives.
“The main idea is to inflate the information space with multiple false theories and denials of what actually happened in order to make people disinterested, or just be too puzzled,” he said.
Like the claim that Ukraine was developing biological weapons with the assistance of the U.S. government, which was picked up and amplified in the U.S. by far-right online influencers, followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and even Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
In Africa, Latin America, and southeast Asia, Russia has been working to expand its influence, including through local media and Russian state outlets. Researchers say that messages tap into anti-colonial sentiment to encourage distrust of western governments.
“There’s been a major focus on non-English-language information,” said Kyle Walter, head of research at Logically, a company that tracks online misinformation and disinformation. “They’re broadly going across the spectrum, both to try to change their opinions of the invasion, but also to position themselves as a better strategic partner moving forward.”
Those efforts have made a difference. DFRLab found that the Spanish-language channels ofRT get a lot of engagement on social media in Latin America. Walter links Russian messaging to lower support for Ukrainians in the south.
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“You’ve seen a lot of that manifest in different U.N. resolutions,” he said. 15 of the 20 regional countries will abstain from the vote, while two or three will actually condemn the invasion.
Researchers and the social media companies say that’s pushed Russia to adapt its tactics. It used Chinese government and right-wing figures in Europe and the U.S. to make its narratives seem more public.
Other platforms are used like TikTok and Telegram. It’s set up new web domains to try to escape restrictions on platforms such as Facebook. RT videos are posted to YouTube scrubbed of their identification with the channel, which has been banned from the Google-owned video site.
But unlike the more sophisticated influence efforts Meta has caught in the past, the company said the tactics used to target Ukraine have been more reminiscent of the spammers’ toolkit: high volume and low quality.
“These campaigns resembled smash-and-grab operations that used thousands of fake accounts across social media, not just our platforms, in an attempt to overwhelm the conversation with content,” Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, said.
As Russia’s messaging campaigns have proliferated across the social media landscape, the Kremlin has also cracked down at home, blocking Russians from accessing many big U.S. internet platforms including Facebook and Twitter. A more splintered global internet is where what you are exposed to is determined by where you are in the world.
“Everything at this point is up for debate”: The Logically researcher, A.S. Walter, Ph.D., PhD, Phys. Lett. A.M. Saunders, Israel
“It plays to the fact that everything at this point is up for debate,” Walter, the Logically researcher, said. “Truth is up for debate, democracy is up for debate, institutions and their role in providing human rights, for example, is up for debate. Everything has been brought into question by them.