‘We have already lost’: far-right Russian bloggers slam military failures. Source: The Guardian

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Ukraine

‘We have already lost’: far-right Russian bloggers slam military failures

Military pro-war bloggers with frontline contacts offer rare insight into Russia’s performance on ground

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A Ukrainian serviceman fires a ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft cannon near a frontline in the Kharkiv region.

A Ukrainian serviceman fires a ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft cannon near a frontline in the Kharkiv region. Photograph: Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Reuters

Pjotr Sauer Thu 8 Sep 2022 13.35 BST First published on Thu 8 Sep 2022 13.34 BST

    “The war in Ukraine will continue until the complete defeat of Russia,” Igor Girkin, a far-right nationalist, grumbled in a video address to his 430,000 followers on Telegram on Monday. “We have already lost, the rest is just a matter of time.”

    Girkin, a former Russian intelligence colonel who became a commander of the pro-Russian separatist forces in 2014, is arguably the most prominent voice within an increasingly loud and angry group of ultra-nationalist and pro-war bloggers who have taken to berating the Kremlin for its failure to achieve its tactical objectives as the fighting in Ukraine has entered its seventh month.

    After Ukraine’s latest counter-offensive in the south and the north-east of the country, these bloggers – who have so far been granted a public platform denied to many – have intensified their criticism of the Kremlin, slamming the army’s inadequate performance in the war and urging Vladimir Putin to declare a full-scale mobilisation.

    Ukrainian soldiers on the Sloviansk front, Donetsk region, one of the areas where advances have been made.

    “They are certainly getting angrier, and with good and obvious reason, especially as the gap between the official line and the reality on the ground widens,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert in Russian security affairs.

    On Wednesday, Ukraine launched a surprise counterattack near the country’s second biggest city of Kharkiv, encircling Balakliia, a strategically important town of 27,000 people, and recapturing several smaller settlements.

    The military bloggers, who are often former veterans with contacts on the frontlines, also provide a rare insight into Russia’s real performance on the ground. “Some are very dubious sources but there are also those – like Girkin – who know what they’re talking about and clearly are in touch with people at the front or who otherwise are in the know,” said Galeotti.

    The Russian government has not published its own losses since 25 March, when it gave a total of 1,351 killed and 3,825 wounded. Western intelligence believes as many as 80,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded since the start of the war.

    Instead, since the onset of the war, the Russian defence ministry has repeatedly issued improbable statements about its successes on the battlefield, boasting of having destroyed more than 40 western-made Himars rocket launchers and claiming to have decimated the Ukrainian air force.

    State television, the most popular source of information in Russia, similarly continues to paint a rosy picture of Russian successes in Ukraine. In a combative speech on Wednesday, Putin reiterated that Russia had “lost nothing” in a war he said was going according to plan.

    However, that optimism was not shared by others as Ukraine encircled Balakliia on Wednesday, pulling off what has already been labelled as one of the war’s most impressive strategic moves and hailed as “good news” by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on Wednesday night.

    “It must be stated that in Balakliia, the armed forces of Ukraine have completely outplayed our command,” Starshe Eddy, a popular pro-war Russian blogger, wrote on his Telegram channel.

    Starshe Eddy’s audience on Telegram, like those of other war bloggers, has ballooned since the start of the invasion, from about 28,000 in January to 500,000, according to Tgstat, an analytics service for Telegram channels.

    Pointing to Russia’s non-reaction to the Ukrainian offensive, Aleksandr Kots, a pro-Kremlin war journalist, accused the authorities on Wednesday of hiding “bad news” about the situation on the ground. “We need to start doing something about the system where our leadership doesn’t like to talk about bad news, and their subordinates don’t want to upset their bosses,” he said.

    Ukraine’s latest offensive has also led to renewed calls from the far-right nationalist for a general mobilisation, a move Putin has so far opted against despite growing signs the Russian army is facing an acute lack of new soldiers.

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    “Mobilisation is, let’s put it bluntly, our only chance to avoid a crushing defeat,” wrote Andrei Morozov, another popular blogger.

    For now, the Kremlin seems to be willing to accept the criticism coming its way from the band of pro-war bloggers. Girkin has repeatedly called for the firing of the defence minister and close Putin ally, Sergei Shoigu, urging in one post for the minister to be executed by firing squad.

    • The Kremlin’s tolerance of the bloggers’ comments is remarkable, experts say, given the newly introduced laws under which criticism of the war can be punished with up to 15 years in jail.

    Pavel Luzhin, an independent Russian military expert, believes the bloggers are left “untouched” because they provide an outlet for a section of the Russian population to vent their anger about the failures in Ukraine. “The Kremlin is too scared to simply ignore the nationalist section of the population,” Luzhin said, adding that some of the bloggers were probably operating with the tacit approval of the security services.

    • Galeotti similarly said “many” of the bloggers were “connected to or protected by figures within the military or security agencies”.

    For now, Girkin and other military bloggers are likely to keep up their daily criticism as Putin’s bloody military offensive has stalled in Ukraine. “Don’t EXPECT ANY BIG WINS in the next 2–3 months,” he wrote in a post this week. “If our Kremlin elders do not change their tactics, we will be seeing catastrophic defeats by then.”

    Girkin declined to comment for this article, saying he considered the western media “his enemy”.

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