The Kremlin’s censors have little to monitor in terms of anti-Putin criticism, Russian investigative journalists note, after the entire opposition media in Russia was snuffed out or blocked. The Russian independent media also describe how the Kremlin has failed in recruiting mercenaries from Serbia for its Ukrainian war effort.
ISTORIES: The eye of censorship
Who and why has come under Roskomnadzor’s radar: potential foreign agents, opinion makers, mass-media, IT companies, messenger apps and people close to the Russian power circle. Russia’s top communication surveillance and censorship service blocks some of these while protecting others from criticism.
The war in Ukraine has been raging for 350 days. Russian authorities have prepared for this war not just by deploying troops to the border, but also by cleansing the media in order to cut citizens’ access to any information contradicting the official narrative. With the start of the war, nearly all independent publications were designated foreign agents and their activity on Russian territory was suspended. Every week, new names of journalists, dissidents, activists, actors, musicians, etc. are added to the list of foreign agents.
To implement this far-reaching cleansing campaign, Roskomnadzor (the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) has done a lot more than the public records of sources hostile to the government would reveal. Istories secured access to the biggest data leak in the history of the country’s number one censorship agency – “The Documents of Russian Censorship”. Journalists examined over two million documents, images and letters of Roskomnadzor’s subsidiary – the General Radio Frequency Center (GRFC). The center is in charge of monitoring Internet activity, preparing briefing notes on foreign agents, reports on identifying “forbidden information” as well as blocking sources of information […]
The first five individuals who were listed as foreign agents in official records on December 28, 2020 were three journalists, one human rights activist and a concept artist. Prior to this date, the status had been attributed to non-commercial entities and media outlets only. […]
After July 7 2021, Russian citizens started being designated foreign agents in conveyor-belt fashion. Right now, newly identified foreign agents are introduced in the registry every week, and the list is published every Friday. Over 200 people have already been listed. […]
Istories has identified the names of 804 people on whom the Radio Frequency Center collected information over 2020-2022 with a view to designating them foreign agents. Of these, 139 people have already been entered in official records. The number of potential foreign agents could be much higher, as Istories doesn’t have access to all the files of Roskomnadzor and GRFC.
Apart from drafting briefings, the Center also monitors opinion makers – 472 people are listed under this category, with a detailed description of their activity and links to their social media accounts.
So far, monitoring and blocking off people and media with a view to declaring them foreign agents is done mostly manually. According to GRFC data, since the start of the Russian invasion, Roskomnadzor has “blocked the spread of over 136 thousand illegal materials designed to destabilize Russian society” in the context of the special military operation unfolding on the territory of Ukraine. Some of these contained false information of public interest and instigations to mass riots.” Moreover, the Service “restricted access to 68 opposition websites /…/ and over 540 Ukrainian websites”.
Roskomnadzor is planning to automatically monitor the social media accounts of recognized or potential foreign agents and opinion makers. Additionally, it is trying to identify the topics of all future articles that will be targeted by automatic online tracking systems, so that any article deemed “a threat” should be blocked. For online automatic tracking software to be able to track and identify such articles, Roskomnadzor employees use the websites of media outlets recognized as foreign agents.
“Russia is bombing residential buildings”, “Russian recruits in Ukraine”, “the atrocities committed by Russian servicemen in Bucha”: the results to such queries on search engines such as Yandex or Google differ significantly. Due to data leaks, it is now become very clear why this happens. In one of its reports, Roskomnadzor points out that “Yandex” and “Mail.ru” fully comply with the requirements to remove “illegal” content, whereas Google “filters search results in 70-80% of cases”.
Another “nuisance” for Roskomnadzor is YouTube. “At present, video hosting on YouTube virtually ignore multiple requests of removing illegal content. /…/ at the same time restricting access not just to the official YouTube pages of state media, but also to the accounts of Russian federal institutions”, GRFC employees wrote in their report. Like many other websites, YouTube uses the https protocol, so that Roskomnadzor cannot block a certain video deemed “unacceptable” – it would have to block the entire YouTube domain. And that could cause a public uproar.
DOSSIER.CENTER: Roskomnadzor is watching everyone
The main censorship agency surveils the Internet and builds bot farms
Dossier has investigated the archives of the internal network of the Radio Frequency Center controlled by Roskomnadzor, which were hacked by the Cyberpartisans group, and discovered Moscow’s plans to create bot farms, an online system for searching criticism against Putin as well as what kind of data Roskomnadzor collects about Russian citizens.
On February 28, 2022, four days after the start of the Russian invasion, Valentin Degtev, a data analyst working for the Radio Frequency Center within Roskomnadzor, tasked his subordinates with monitoring websites and looking for any content that contradicts the official position of the Ministry of Defense. “We are monitoring webpages, looking for reports of the Russian Federation forces bombing (killing, wounding, shooting…) the civilian population, urban infrastructure, etc. We find these publications and mark their websites under the “E” column with the word “add””.
No more negative information
As early as the second half of 2021, the Radio Frequency Center has been monitoring “negative content targeting the president”. The GRFC has been analyzing media articles and social media content that criticizes Vladimir Putin. Additionally, GRFC censors have been compiling reports about criticism against Putin published by certain media organizations, for instance the radio broadcast of Ekho Moskvy.
With the start of the war, the targeted surveillance of publications hostile to the Russian president has been performed on a daily basis, according to internal Roskomnadzor documents. Service censors are monitoring 1,490 sources: 1,100 accounts on social media that are still operational in Russia (534 of which are on Telegram), 237 federal and regional publications, 116 websites that are not listed as press agencies and 37 foreign publications.
In August 2022, the GFRC’s department for press surveillance encountered an unexpected problem: it ran out of content to monitor. The document that Dossier has found in Roskomnadzor’s internal correspondence states that very few federal and regional publications remain that would dare challenge Russian officials, since most of the opposition media have been staved off, stopped operating altogether or complied with state censorship requirements.
“Furthermore, even the staunchest critics have now toned down their statements, so that their comments should not be unequivocally interpreted as criticism against the President of the Russian Federation”, the document also states. […]
Since the start of the war, Roskomnadzor has become interested not just in negative comments about Putin, but also negative information about the authorities in general. Surveillance methods also allow for an assessment of criticism targeting the authorities and Russia’s war. According to Roskomnadzor’s reports, every region of Russia has publications that are free to operate on social media and openly militate against the war.
These reports not only refer to criticism of the war or Russian policy-making, but also to neutral topics such as comparing living standards in Russia to elsewhere abroad, corruption investigations, etc. For instance, one article published by biwork.ru (The Byisk Worker) was rated as critical of the authorities. The article mentioned the residents of Borovoe in the Biysk district of the Altai region had no access to water for four days. The publication is owned by Alexander Prokopiev, a State Duma deputy representing United Russia.
Furthermore, Roskomnadzor also tracks the videos and streams of every opposition channel on YouTube, and regularly monitors the “Popular Politics” show produced by Alexey Navalny’s team.
THE INSIDER: You are no brother of mine. Why all Kremlin efforts to recruit fighters in Serbia for the war in Ukraine failed
At the start of this year, the Wagner PMC attempted to begin recruiting volunteers from the Balkans for deployment in Ukraine. However, the Serbian authorities swiftly declared the organization undesirable and warned prospective mercenaries of the legal consequences. Despite this, the pro-Kremlin RT television channel, Serbian-language Telegram channels with thousands of followers, and fringe radical groups are actively promoting Wagner's image in the region. Some of the initial Serbian mercenaries have called on their countrymen to join the front lines without delay. Despite this fervent propaganda, there has been no significant surge in fighters, with only videos of fake “Serbian fighters with no combat experience” surfacing.
Early in 2023, the Balkans once again emerged as a potential hub for mercenary activity, following the publication of a “lucrative offer” from PMC Wagner by RT Balkan, the pro-Kremlin television channel under international sanctions for propaganda and disinformation. The offer promised payments of 240,000 rubles (around 3,140 euros) per month, with bonuses of up to one million rubles (13,000 euros) for exceptional performance. In the event of death, families would receive five million rubles (approximately 65,700 euros), with Wagner taking care of all funeral and transportation expenses. This level of compensation, particularly in the face of high unemployment in the Balkans, proves tempting for some.
However, participating in foreign conflicts carries a risk of up to 10 years in prison for Serbian citizens, a fact well known to the staff of RT Balkan. In addition to its website, which went live in November, RT Balkan has a strong online presence through its Telegram, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube channels. This allows the project to reach audiences not just in Serbia but also in Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and other countries with a Yugoslav diaspora. […]
Recently, new photos of “Serbian fighters” have appeared online, but their authenticity cannot be verified. Typically, their faces are concealed, and Russian media rarely provide their readers with details of the exploits of the “Slavic brothers”. Belgrade analysts who were polled by The Insider estimate Wagner's chances of attracting new mercenaries in the Balkans as low. Some believe it could be a few dozen potential fighters, while others believe it could be hundreds, but they all agree that it won't have a significant impact on the units' combat efficiency. […]
According to Ukrainian sources, several hundred Serbian mercenaries may have been involved in the conflict in Donbass since 2014. However, the Serbian government has not disclosed any official data on this matter. In recent years, more than 30 Serbian citizens have been brought to trial for their participation in the conflict, but only a few have received substantial sentences, often for short prison terms.
A Belgrade-based expert, who requested anonymity in relation to mercenary activities, told The Insider that Wagner has been recruiting mercenaries from the Balkans since the conflict in Syria. The expert stated: “These were combat season fighters who fought in Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo or Liberia. The individuals who went to Donbass from 2014-2022, of which there were only around 100-150 in total, are a joke. The Balkans are unlikely to become a hub for mercenary activities. The Serbian government can't legally stop its citizens from traveling to Russia. They simply hope that the mercenaries will either die in Ukraine or not return. Those who traveled abroad as mercenaries have either died or settled somewhere else, while the few that returned have been convicted. Wagner doesn't have a physical presence in Serbia, but its main operations are carried out through several far-right groups. There are few potential mercenaries in the region, and it is likely that the Vučić government will crack down on them as Serbia moves further away from Russia.”