People say that censorship is directly proportional to the level of authoritarianism of the regime – the more dictatorship, the more censorship, and certainly in the military field.
War censorship is essentially part of general censorship, but with its own specific features. The military life of the Soviet Union could not be uncensored; it was a natural secret in itself, and this was no surprise. Everything is a secret, from the nuclear missile to the ammunition box. The secrecy was even a kind of discipline – any unofficial talk and thoughts about life behind the fence of a military unit smacked of “treason”. The names of military units, their size, the names of their commanders, the weapons they possessed were not made public, the military use of airports and seaports was not known, and even more secrecy shrouded the military industry, the arms trade and the centres for military training. The country was full of offices with only a post office box number. There was also deliberate deception, with military factories producing household appliances or even toys ‘on paper’. And what was already published was approved, retouched, and certainly often falsified. The archives are classified and accessible only to “specialists”. From my own experience of military training, I remember that we learned about how and where to evacuate the university in the event of war, we had maps with all the calculations. However, we also knew that our maps were only educational and in case something happened, we would go to a different place…
In the first post-Soviet decade, the army became noticeably more transparent, but in principle only until the so-called Second Chechen War. Books and periodicals that had written about previously concealed episodes of the war, accidents in the army, and the war industry became popular reading. Not everything was true, but the truth was not scarce, and there was no shortage of people who wanted to know. Information about production and trade, military training programmes, and previously ‘closed’ towns opened up. The true face of the Soviet military was revealed. I would say that actually it surprised the West more than the citizens of the former USSR, who still knew something, and felt and understood a great deal more about the Soviet conspiracy. And anyway, it was no longer possible to hide everything, also because the various weaponry limitation treaties simply forced the publication of information on the number of troops, the state of readiness and the state of armaments. We should also remember that Russia, by acceding to the various conventions protecting human rights, formally committed itself to protecting freedom of expression and not to censoring it.
The first reason for the new censorship was the war crimes in Chechnya and the chaotic and unfortunate chaotic warfare, and then the general atmosphere of authoritarian rule in the country. You do not need to know much about the army, you need to believe in it. It is also better not to have any differences of opinion about the war in Georgia and the annexation of Crimea and the ‘republics’ in Donbas. Today, information about the Russian military is fragmented, unreliable and… full of false news.
The real and most comprehensive source on Russian military structures is a web page with names and chain of command. But is it real, is it… substitute, “educational”, as it was in the Soviet era? By the way, not everyone who looks like a general is the one. Russians like uniforms. Since the time of the Tsarist empire. Some civilians of the Ministry of Defence appear in public in uniform, even though they are civilians. These are pseudo-generals. Who knows whether they can distinguish – their high military ranks are marked with silver (not gold) stars. One of the few sources of information on personnel appointments in the military structures is the President’s orders. They do contain names and ranks, but often gloss over the specific job to which the person is assigned. To this day, it is still not entirely clear who was or is in charge of the ‘special operation’ in Ukraine. Only speculation.
It’s worth remembering that communications of Russia are regulated by a service called Roskomnadzor. It can issue and withdraw licences on any grounds it wishes, including political ones. And there is not much to complain about. The first victims appeared a decade ago. They were the free media and Internet portals, which often spread information related to the military or the military industry in an amateurish way. It was not difficult to rein in the “amateurs”, who often closed down after one warning after another, or switched to war stories that were no longer such important state secrets, especially if they were short on numbers and specific names.
In turn, the government has developed a military information algorithm that clearly defines who can publish “sensitive information” and when. There is even compulsory information about the Russian army, for example for secondary school students. Mandatory video clips are shown during lessons.
When the war in Ukraine broke out, Roskomnadzor became the great war censor. Already on 26 February, the information sources nominated so far as “foreign agents” received severe warnings: the Echo of Moscow, InoSMI, Media Zona, New Times, Dozhd, Svobodnay Pressa, Krym.Realii, Novaya Gazeta, Journalist and Lenizdat. The main motive for the warning is the dissemination of “incorrect” information using the words war, invasion and attack. According to Roskomnadzor’s instructions, information from the West can no longer be quoted and displayed (except for discrediting purposes), and information on Russian military losses can only be obtained from official Russian sources. Censorship of social networks has also been introduced. News that ‘contradicts’ the official ones is simply ‘fake news’ – lies – and the dissemination of lies is, of course, punished. By the way, the aforementioned obligatory videos contain far more lies than the independent ones. The Internet is full of clearly edited videos that have already been dubbed the TikTok Army and “reports from the scene”, filmed not even in Ukraine, etc.
On 4 March this year, the President of Russia signed an amendment to a law that imposes a prison sentence of up to 15 years for disseminating false information about the Russian army. On the same day, Roskomnadzor blocked well-known news channels such as BBC News Russia, Voice of America, RFE/RL, Deutsche Welle and Meduza as well as Facebook and Twitter. In fact, this is not censorship. It is simply a ban. The story of Novaya Gazeta is also known. Its publisher, Nobel Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, tried to appeal to European human rights organisations, but that did not help. The newspaper was no longer given a warning, but an ultimatum. A whole series of local publications and channels have paid off with fines and threats that this would be “the last time”. There are about two thousand administrative cases already, and if you look on the Internet, you can find many different examples, sometimes ridiculous, of people being fined for allegedly misquoting the phrases of heads of state or “classics”, before the “protest”, while holding a blank sheet of paper in their hand…
After 24 February, the websites of the military establishments became noticeably “poorer”, with a lot of information about the subordination of military leaders, new appointments, presidential orders, and many names that had been present until then disappearing. The websites have become inaccessible to foreigners (anyone with a foreign IP). This is a small loss, to say the least, because no official information about the war is made available to our own people – no information about what troops are being sent to this or that place, no information about casualties. Much more information is available in the Ukrainian sources. That is why Ukrainian military information today is the real information for the whole world. You may not believe it completely, but you will not get any other information. That is why the Ukrainians are winning the war of information and knowledge.
The deaths of the generals… The Russians usually do not confirm the fact. But they don’t deny it either. Krasnaya zvezda, the most important “organ” of the army, which in peacetime printed obituaries for dead generals, does not print obituaries for those killed in war. More information about the fallen holders of high military ranks can be gleaned from “unplanned” funerals. Obituaries are forbidden, even in the local press, so the source of information is often the testimony of those who attended the funeral.
Some of the attempts to conceal information are simply resonant. For example, it is still not officially known, for example, how many and who died in the sinking of the cruiser Moscow. This is not the only case.
An interesting fact is that the presidential decree, which appeared on 6 June this year and is very important for the war in Ukraine, was also not officially published in the “authority”. This decree appointed or promoted as many as 18 generals. In one case, admittedly macabre, Roman Kutuzov became a lieutenant-general on 6 June, although he himself was killed in Ukraine on 5 June. The obituary on his death was the only one published by Krasnaya zvezda. Why is that, let the specialists of the Kremlin corridors guess.
War has its own secrets. The Ukrainians, too, have been “burned” many times at the beginning of the war, when they carelessly announced the movements of their troops, which one the Russians hit and which one they didn’t… It has become clear that the enemy exploits knowledge even of its own failures… So there is much less concrete knowledge about the Ukrainian operations today than at the beginning of the war. However, as far as the secrets of the war are concerned, it should also be noted that never before has a war been so public. All the destruction of enemy equipment has been filmed or photographed, conversations between soldiers have been recorded, they are monitored by numerous cameras deliberately “hung” or simply by building security systems, much “knowledge” has been found in the mobile phones of soldiers who have been killed or captured, and Russian marauders trying to send stolen goods to their relatives have been “caught on tape” in post offices in Belarusian cities. This is excellent documentary material… but also material for liars.
This was told by one expert. The truth is only truth when we believe it to be true. At least the news that the Russians are winning is greatly exaggerated.