The Military Analysts and the Negative Coverage of the War
I’ve written about the military establishment in Russia before, but it’s worth bringing up again.
There are or rather, there were nationalist political groups in Russian politics, but they were either assimilated, like Dmitri Rogozin’s "Rodina” party, which basically faded into irrelevance once Rogozin himself was offered a position in the government, or they folded like the internet journal Sputnik & Pogrom.
You’ve probably heard of Rogozin - he got into a spat with Elon Musk recently:
Leading to this cryptic tweet:
I really don’t think Rogozin is going to assassinate Musk - but hey, it’s topical to mention it.
Anyways, there’s no real point in talking about nationalist groups in Russia unless it is to mention various weirdo Neo-Nazi groups who seem to only exist so that the FSB can roll up on them periodically, send them to penal colonies and justify their budget.
The only serious bloc of patriotic voices with right-wing views, organizations and any form of political activism in Russia are basically military organizations like veteran groups and the various other support communities built up around them like “Mothers of Soldiers” and the military people who run journals, host get-togethers, summer camps, choirs, rock concerts, parades or special remembrance days.
The people running the various military journals and blogs are serious and they are respected by civil society because the military as an institution is generally well-liked in any country by the masses. There was a poll floating around about two years ago that showed that in terms of respect, Putin came in second place in Russia when compared to the respect accorded to the military as an institution.
As a result, the FSB and the oligarchs and parts of the government are quite leery of them. This is a major fault-line running through Russian civil society that few people analyze or talk about. If it wasn’t clear before, then I’m going to spell it out now - I am unabashedly on team military/team patriot and hope that they gain a greater foothold in Russian politics as a result of the war.
That being said, it’s worth realizing that these people have a dog in the political fight and since they are the only ones providing serious in-depth analysis of the war, it’s going to factor into their coverage.
Their official line is basically this: “the corrupt elements running many of the institutions in Russia now are fighting the war poorly and have proven that they need to be replaced.”
I largely agree with them, but I also generally take their analysis of the situation with a grain of salt. See, it’s in their interests to play up the mistakes of the Russian government in Ukraine (of which there are indeed many) because it fits with their political narrative. Again, I like their political narrative and am sympathetic to it. But, again, let’s acknowledge that they do have an incentive to take a pessimistic stance on the war and the way things are being run at home. So, that means that they spend a lot less time focusing on the victories and the successes on the military front and a lot more time talking about the mistakes. Like the Moskva sinking. Boy, oh boy did they have a field day with that.
Me, personally, I don’t really think it reflects poorly on the current war effort in Ukraine seeing as the Moskva was plagued with problems for years. It was supposed to be refitted in 2016 after its deployment to Syria, but it was clear that this wasn’t a priority as Russia was shifting to subs and lighter ships as part of its modernization efforts.
Bloggers like the Saker, were, at the time, praising the Moskva and the Admiral Kuznetsov with its goofy ramp and rusted out hull and denouncing anyone who disagreed as being victims of Anglo-ZOG propaganda as I recall. But the boat was objectively old and clearly near obsolete. Sailors didn’t like serving on it and some military journals at the time had no problem calling it a “white elephant” that seemed to be kept around for its symbolic value instead of any real strategic importance.
The loss of the sailors was tragic, of course, but the loss of the boat itself? People who were calling for it to be sold to China or the North Koreans all of a sudden began using the Moskva debacle as a cudgel against the Kremlin.
Overall, I don’t really see any harm in their critical posturing as the situation stands now. Although, it has to be said, that people like Igor Strelkov, the hero rebel of Donbass, are routinely posted by Ukrainian propaganda channels because of his constant criticism of the Russian government and the war effort.
To be fair, the Russian government did Strelkov dirty. He wanted to take all of Novorussia back in 2016 and he was right to call for a fast blitzkrieg. The Ukrainian Army was not ready, the cities weren’t fortified and the speed and success of the Crimean operation had them demoralized. Instead, the Russian government, the political class and people like Lavrov decided to go the Minsk I and II route. They seemed to believe that they could keep all of Ukraine by participating in the electoral process and negotiating with their “most-esteemed Western partners”.
Well, they were dead-wrong and they never apologized for losing the entirety of Ukraine through their unprofessionalism and stupidity. Say it with me: Igor was right and did nothing wrong.
Anyways, the army fighting in the Ukraine is basically Putin’s private army. It is a professional, paid force, which is only a fraction of Russia’s actual full militarized might and it is mixed with ethnic auxiliaries called up by local tribal chieftains of the various periphery republics. It is not a Russian draftee army and so, does not necessarily need to be motivated by an ideal or patriotic propaganda to do its fighting. They’re fighting because they’re getting paid to fight and because they’re good at it. Sure, they’re generally pro-Russia and there are volunteers there who are clearly Russian revanchists who believe in the ‘Greater Russia’ ideal for sure, but these people would be down for a good scrap anyways. After all, they fought in the Donbass in the early days when the situation was far more dire for the pro-Russia side simply because of their commitment to Russian
Believe me, if a general or even partial mobilization is announced, the military people will change their tune quick. At that point, the nature of the war changes and it becomes one’s patriotic duty to rah-rah-rah and not demoralize the war effort. We’re not there yet though, and it’s worth understanding that these people are engaging in political point-scoring and also in making the case that they would do a better job protecting Russia’s interests than the mystery-meat politicians running the show now.
They want the Russian government to call them in to fix the problem. They want general mobilization and total war against NATO. They see an opportunity for themselves and for Russia as a whole to move in the right direction.
Ukraine, in contrast, does not allow a single peep of criticism of their war effort. Videos of units complaining about being abandoned by their officers, sent to fight without equipment, not being paid and so on are suppressed and the soldiers who record them are charged with sedition and desertion by the secret police.
That, plus the power of Western propaganda creates a highly skewed perception of the war. One side appears to be uniformly positive and never admits to making mistakes or even losing a single battle, while the other is analyzing, debating and talking openly about what’s happening on the front.
The squeaky wheel often gets the grease though and you have to give them credit where credit is due - the military people and their talking points are starting to take hold in Russia. People are starting to ask questions about the war effort and demand that the government do more. “Mobilization” is a buzz word that’s gaining ground in the public arena.
Again, I’m biased, but if I were the Russian government, I’d just deal these people in, if only to get them to stop criticizing the special operation. But, because these people are so popular in Russian society, they represent a potential threat. Giving them more political power could be a dangerous political move that would upend the current political status quo in the country.
The way I see it, the real story isn’t to be found in the trenches of Donbass, but in the politicking happening behind the scenes on the home front.