“Voenkors” criminal group: Giving meaning to crimes

Text by Anton Khimiak, Analyst at HWAG, UCMC

Russian “voenkors” (short for “war correspondent”), such as Alexander Sladkov, Alexander Kots, Yuriy Kotenok, Semen Pegov, and Yevgeny Piddubny, pretend to be journalists who cover the so-called “SVO” and the military life of russian soldiers. However, in reality, they are directly involved in the Kremlin’s war crimes, spreading fakes and disinformation and justifying the Kremlin’s actions as part of a criminal group.

“Correspondents” operate in temporarily occupied territories, pretending to be journalists. They are involved in creating an alternative version of events for Russian television. In fact, “warriors” are tentacles of Russian propaganda that construct reality on the ground.

The narratives of the authorship of these imposters are the bricks from which the prominent mouthpieces of propaganda, such as Vladimir Solovyov (TV presenter-propagandist), Margarita Simonyan (chief editor of the state media Russia Today), Olga Skabeeva (TV presenter-propagandist), and others, construct the building of state media. Everything at the wish of the Russian propaganda machine:

  • Spreading hatred of Ukraine and Ukrainians.
  • Inciting and justifying atrocities.
  • Discrediting the Armed Forces.
  • Coordinated spreading of lies.

Read the HWAG/UCMC analysis of whether the “Z” stack of Telegram channels is still influential and why the “voenkors” are criminals.

The phenomenon of the “Voenkors”

The “war correspondents” networks became more active with the onset of the full-scale invasion, when numerous political public and anonymous groups were reoriented under a coordinated Z-grid. “Voenkors” are directly on the front line, on par with the Russian occupiers, and their weapons are fakes and manipulations. At the same time, they often publish photos of themselves with weapons in their hands, with which they kill Ukrainians.

Semyon Pegov (author of the WarGonzo channel)
Mykhailo Porechenkov (wearing a “PRESS” helmet) shoots from the positions of militants at the Donetsk airport. 2014 year

Some “voenkors” have been involved in the war against Ukraine since 2014. For example, Daniil Bezsonov also held the “First Deputy Minister of Information of the DNR” position in the occupation administration.

In general, covering the military aggression of the Russian Federation among the voenkors is a constant job because many of them covered both the war in Georgia and the hostilities in Syria. Here it is worth mentioning the WarGonzo (Pegov) project supporting the NKR in the Second Karabakh War 2020. During this time, Pegov and Kots actively engaged in propaganda and the creation of fakes to create the necessary information field for the Russian Federation.

Some “voenkors” try to remain anonymous and hide their affiliation with certain Russian mass media. However, they are betrayed by the narratives that they coherently spread

Connection with the authorities

In June 2023, the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, held a closed meeting with “voenkors”, at which, allegedly, the idea of close cooperation between the President’s office and “media people” was discussed. Interestingly, the invited “voenkors” are frequent guests on state TV channels or even on the staff of Russian mass media.

Evgen Poddubny is a guest on Olga Skabeeva’s program about the Ukrainian counteroffensive

Putin held a two-hour meeting with voenkors: the main”

Meetings of this level are yet another proof that control over the activities of this branch of propaganda is under the Presidential Administration, or rather, under the FSB.

If we examine in more detail what exactly the voenkors write, then the apparent affiliation of certain groups of war correspondents is observed. For example, voenkors Sladkov and Piddubny criticized the Ministry of Defense the least and promoted the narrative of “rocking the boat” the most. But the group of “Older Eddy”, Pegov, Podolyak, and Romanov do not hesitate to criticize the army and the command for inefficiency when necessary. Also, in this zoo, there is a group of war correspondents who mainly highlight the work of the mercenaries of the “Wagner” PMC and contribute the most to forming the image of “invincible musicians”.

Within these groups is a more detailed division because many “voenkors” are on the front line with not too extensive coverage but direct subordination to individual generals. This leads to the fact that when it is necessary to look for the culprit in another defeat of the Russian army, a conflict between these groups appears. On the one hand, this is the usual transfer of responsibility; on the other hand, it supports interest in their activities.

The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation is the primary regulator of Russian “media.” For the most part, this power structure is responsible for keeping the regime within the framework of “decent” informational stability. The FSB wants to maintain its reputation compared to the Ministry of Defense. It is the primary customer of campaigns criticizing the army in the person of Shoigu and Gerasimov.

Therefore, criticism of the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff, although it continues to appear, is subject to regulation “from above.”

Cannibalistic “journalism”

Criticism of the regime caused an increase in the popularity of “war correspondents.” This is because, in moments of defeat, the propaganda familiar to the Russian citizen could not effectively “let off steam” and remain somewhat in line with reality.

The conditional opposition of “war correspondents” remained in the form of criticism of the effectiveness of individual generals and officers. The formula: “the tsar is good, the boyars are bad” proved itself ideally within the genocidal rhetoric of Russian patriotism.

Some Russian mass media and propagandists also use them to reinforce their military narratives. For example, suppose Vladimir Solovyov reflects on the effectiveness of the Ukrainian counter-offensive in his TV program or Telegram channel. In that case, he refers to military correspondents to give credibility to his words.

Anonymous voenkor “Older Eddy,” an ardent defender of his “profession” has repeatedly stated that even if “war correspondents” manipulate information, it is for the army’s good. And the channel’s author despises representatives of classic state propaganda for being detached from reality.

“In front-line messages, you can (and should!) keep silent a lot, you can (and should!) not say everything at all, you can pay attention to minor points, masking the main thing, this is all a form of information struggle”

Another “war correspondent”, an Orthodox fanatic and an adept of conspiracy theories, Yuriy Kotenok, adheres to the vision of the war with Ukraine as a war with the devil. He also promotes the classic for “patriotic circles” idea of comprehensive mobilization in the Russian Federation, for a complete victory in Ukraine.

“We cannot do without general mobilization” Voenkor Yury Kotenok on the need for a new conscription”

It is also a regular practice for voenkors to help army units by volunteering and collecting equipment directly, etc… And in honour of individual voenkor, other volunteers name series of combat drones.

“Sudoplatov fighters destroyed an enemy tank with the Vladlen Tatarskyi FPV drone”
“The People’s Front handed over ATVs and equipment to the SVO participant as a result of the “Gathering of Voenkors”

These examples perfectly characterize the rhetoric and activities of “voenkors.” They consciously understand what they are doing and systematically help in Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine

How influential are they?

According to the reports of the TgStat service, all of the voenkors mentioned above for the period from July 20, 2023, to August 18, 2023, had a decrease in the number of subscribers but, at the same time, an increase in the index of citations. This means how often others refer to this Telegram channel and how often its publications are reposted.

Detektor Media wrote earlier that it is pretty challenging to determine how large the audience is, and the audience of “voenkors” also flows from one channel to another. However, according to the report, these slogans were distributed by 6,000 to 11,000 other telegram channels over the last month, regardless of the audience. At the very least, this shows that the network of “voenkors” works with a clearly defined target audience. 

Also, here we get another proof of the use of war dogs as a basis for classic TV propaganda. Solovyov referred to Alexander Kots at least 1–2 times a day, almost 3 thousand times (most of them during the full-scale invasion).

Why is this an information crime?

The issue of propaganda in the context of war crimes becomes essential because propagandists can play a crucial role in mobilizing and manipulating the masses to achieve military goals. This problem finds its counterpart in the situation of genocide in Rwanda, where the editors of “Free Radio 1000 Hills” played a role in spreading hatred and mobilizing people to murder.

The example of Rwanda demonstrates how propaganda incites people to hate, which leads to the commission of genocide, and how those who spread this propaganda can be prosecuted for these crimes. The International Tribunal condemned “Free Radio 1000 Hills” representatives for their role in crimes against humanity.

Similarly, using propaganda in the context of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has substantial weight. Using negative stereotypes and misinformation can lead to the mobilization of citizens for military conflict and violence. The precedent of the international tribunal in Rwanda underscores the need for accountability for disseminating propaganda that can underlie severe violations of human rights and international law.

Under the guise of “journalistic work,” these individuals participate in inciting conflicts, spreading fake information, provoking violence, and facilitating the preparation of disinformation campaigns. They are essential links in the chain of destabilization and the instigation of disputes, allowing the Russian government to regulate the information space.

In short, Russian “military correspondents” like Alexander Sladkov, Alexander Kots, Yuriy Kotenok, and Alexander Pegov are not objective journalists but are parts of a vast disinformation machine that contributes to the crimes of the Russian military apparatus and threats to world security.

Therefore, the only correct solution will be to not equate them with Russian propagandists who support Russian war crimes and provide information support for the genocidal policy of the Kremlin but to consider them as an organized criminal group that commits a war crime imitating journalistic activity.

It is necessary to promote their inclusion in all possible sanctions lists, classifying them as war criminals, and counter Russian claims about “Ukrainian repression of freedom of speech.”