Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram

Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram

When Vladimir Putin declared the partial call-up of military reservists on September 21, in a desperate effort to try to turn his long and brutal war in Ukraine in Russia’s favor, he kicked off another, parallel battle: one to convince the Russian people of the merits and risks of conscription. And this one is being fought on the encrypted messaging service Telegram, with pro-Putin actors pushing party propaganda and opposition forces offering potential ways out of the country.

“Telegram is something special in Russia,” says Alena Epifanova, a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in Russia. “On one side, it’s a symbol of freedom on the internet.” 

Telegram is one of the few platforms to survive Russia’s attempts to tamp down on free speech online against its leader. In 2018, Russian authorities tried to ban Telegram as part of a wider crackdown on internet freedoms, but failed—in part because of how the service rerouted messages outside of Russia and beyond the clutches of the country’s media regulator. It’s also thanks to the ingenuity of its users, who are well-versed in deploying VPNs and evading state oversight of their internet activity.

After failing to beat Telegram, Russia’s government decided to join it—setting up its own channels that feed pro-Kremlin narratives into cyberspace. 

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Telegram has become “an important source of information about the war in general,” Epifanova says, with both sides sharing daily updates on their military gains and opponent’s losses for an audience of domestic supporters and international onlookers.

So, as sure as night follows day, after Putin’s mobilization of reservists this week, pro-Kremlin Telegram channels began to line up dutifully behind the leader’s plans. One supposedly grassroots pro-Putin Telegram channel—which Ilya Yablokov, lecturer in journalism and digital media at the University of Sheffield, says is “clearly state-affiliated”—has been acting as a rapid-fire response organization to combat narratives critical of state policies. “They reacted quickly yesterday to the news about a million men possibly being drafted into the war in Ukraine,” Yablokov says. 

The Russian Ministry of Defense’s official Telegram channel then shared the group’s message justifying Putin’s decision as evidence of public support for the move. “The Kremlin tries to react quickly because it understands it’s a difficult moment and a difficult topic,” Yablokov adds. “They have to wage a war for the hearts and minds.”

Other pro-Kremlin Telegram channels, meanwhile, have been sharing pictures from mobilization offices of men “voluntarily” signing up to fight—images, of course, that promote the idea that the war Putin is waging is just and winnable. “You may, as an older Russian, watch pro-war Telegram channels and never see a single Telegram channel that challenges these narratives,” says Yevgeniy Golovchenko, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen who studies disinformation and censorship on social media. 

Whether this vein of propaganda is working is far from certain. For all the work the government is doing to try to control the narrative on Telegram, there’s a vibrant opposition on the same platform working to undermine it—and to offer support for those seeking to dodge the draft. 

Russia’s fiercely independent anti-Putin groups are offering suggestions via Telegram on how to avoid being called up and are even planning attempts to sabotage state efforts to drag innocent people into his war. 

Just minutes after Putin announced conscription, the administrators of the anti-Kremlin Rospartizan group announced its own “mobilization,” gearing up its supporters to bomb military enlistment officers and the Ministry of Defense with Molotov cocktails. “Ordinary Russians are invited to die for nothing in a foreign land,” they wrote. “Agitate, incite, spread the truth, but do not be the ones who legitimize the Russian government.”

The Rospartizan Telegram group—which has more than 28,000 subscribers—has posted photos and videos purporting to show early action against the military mobilization, including burned-out offices and broken windows at local government buildings. 

Other Telegram channels are offering citizens opportunities for less direct, though far more self-interested, action—namely, how to flee the country even as the government has instituted a nationwide ban on selling plane tickets to men aged 18 to 65. Groups advising Russians on how to escape into neighboring countries sprung up almost as soon as Putin finished talking, and some groups already on the platform adjusted their message. 

One group, which offers advice and tips on how to cross from Russia to Georgia, is rapidly closing in on 100,000 members. The group dates back to at least November 2020, according to previously pinned messages; since then, it has offered information for potential travelers about how to book spots on minibuses crossing the border and how to travel with pets. 

After Putin’s declaration, the channel was co-opted by young men giving supposed firsthand accounts of crossing the border this week. Users are sharing their age, when and where they crossed the border, and what resistance they encountered from border guards, if any. 

For those who haven’t decided to escape Russia, there are still other messages about how to duck army call-ups. Another channel, set up shortly after Putin’s conscription drive, crowdsources information about where police and other authorities in Moscow are signing up men of military age. It gained 52,000 subscribers in just two days, and they are keeping track of photos, videos, and maps showing where people are being handed conscription orders. The group is one of many: another Moscow-based Telegram channel doing the same thing has more than 115,000 subscribers. Half that audience joined in 18 hours overnight on September 22. 

“You will not see many calls or advice on established media on how to avoid mobilization,” says Golovchenko. “You will see this on Telegram.”

The Kremlin is trying hard to gain supremacy on Telegram because of its current position as a rich seam of subterfuge for those opposed to Putin and his regime, Golovchenko adds. “What is at stake is the extent to which Telegram can amplify the idea that war is now part of Russia’s everyday life,” he says. “If Russians begin to realize their neighbors and friends and fathers are being killed en masse, that will be crucial.”

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