The Kremlin’s disinformation industry was caught off guard by the Wagner uprising. That’s not great for the Russian president.
Vladimir Putin had an iron grip on Russians’ views of the world. Then Yevgeny Prigozhin ripped that facade apart.
In the aftermath of the Wagner Group boss’ aborted uprising, Putin and his propagandists — national broadcasters, high-profile politicians and social media influencers — have struggled to explain how Prigozhin, an archetypal Russian hero, suddenly turned into the country’s most infamous traitor.
Five Western security officials, almost all of whom spoke privately to discuss sensitive matters, told POLITICO Putin was still fundamentally in control even though the mutiny had significantly tested his authority.
But the Russian leader’s inability to dominate public perceptions of what happened over the last week highlighted a potential fragility within his leadership, according to two of these officials. Putin and his propagandists failed to react quickly when Prigozhin launched his dramatic insurrection and in the subsequent days, their messaging veered from deafening silence to claims that it was all a Western plot.
“It’s certainly one of the most challenging, or even the most challenging, situation that Putin has faced,” said Jakub Kalenský, a deputy director at the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, a joint NATO-EU organization tracking state-backed influence campaigns. “It will also be a challenge in the information space. Prigozhin himself controlled quite a significant part of his propaganda machine,” he added. “Now, we have different branches of the propaganda machine controlled by different people.”
As Wagner troops sped toward Moscow last weekend, state-owned media outlets — where three-quarters of Russians still get the majority of their news — initially downplayed the mutiny. One even broadcast a documentary on Silvio Berlusconi, the now-deceased Italian leader, as the uprising unfolded.
At the same time, influential users of Telegram, the social media platform favored by Russian speakers, were divided on how to portray the events. A vocal minority — some with hundreds of thousands of followers — sided with Prigozhin’s criticism of Russia’s military leaders, though made it clear they were not attacking Putin.
And once the crisis was over, with the Wagner boss on his way to exile in Belarus, Kremlin-backed broadcasters attempted to shoehorn the rebellion into age-old narratives that any attack on Russia must be tied to Western aggression.
Prigozhin himself was a key figure in Putin’s propaganda machine. His own Telegram followers number almost 1.4 million people. Groups associated with the mercenary leader remain a linchpin in Russia’s global online influence campaigns, while American authorities have connected him to interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Prigozhin’s status as the archetypal strongman made it hard for the Kremlin to accuse him of being a traitor to Russia.
On Telegram, where influencers focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have become national celebrities, once active groups became eerily quiet as users struggled to decipher who was going to win, according to Eto Buziashvili, a research associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, who tracks Russian-speaking social media.
Many of these high-profile Telegram channels have been vocally critical of Russian military leaders during the invasion of Ukraine, and routinely backed Prigozhin’s criticism of how the war has been waged.
Yet once the mercenary leader’s march on Moscow fizzled out, many of these social media users did not openly attack Prigozhin, and instead called for peace between Russians — while continuing their criticism of the Kremlin’s military strategy in Ukraine. Russian-language Telegram accounts urged Wagner Group forces and the Russian military not to resort to outright civil war. “Everybody basically said ‘let’s just not do this,” Buziashvili added.
In the days following the failed insurrection, national media has shifted gears to call for unity, while portraying Putin in everyday events — including, on Thursday, at a local textile conference — to show the country had moved on. The state’s international broadcasters, which have deployed a more aggressive disinformation playbook, also quickly tried to link the aborted mutiny to NATO.
For Bret Schafer, head of the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s information manipulation team, the confused response to Prigozhin’s rebellion is reminiscent of the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.
In February 2022, the Kremlin’s disinformation industry was also caught off guard — mostly because Putin had categorically disavowed military action, even hours before his troops invaded. Russian influence operations are often developed over months, if not years, and struggle to shift into new narratives when required to do so almost overnight.
“Russia does well in propaganda campaigns because they have so many tentacles,” said Schafer. “But it doesn’t respond particularly well in moments of confusion where there’s a lack of clarity of what’s going on.”/Politico/