How Russian pro-war Telegram channels addressed the Wagner mutiny
Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels saw tremendous growth as some pro-war channels vacillated on which side to support
Banner: Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District amid the group’s pullout from the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023. (Source: Reuters/Alexander Ermochenko)
Over the course of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s thirty-six-hour mutiny on June 23-24, 2023, interest in his Telegram channels skyrocketed, but this did not translate into increased support for him in the broader pro-war Russian Telegram ecosystem, according to a DFRLab review of the messaging platform. Additional DFRLab analysis of twenty influential pro-war Russian channels showed that nearly two-thirds of them maintained consistent sentiment throughout the crisis, whether they were critical of Wagner, supportive of it, or attempted to encourage unity across both sides. In contrast, seven of the twenty channels vacillated in terms of who to support during the mutiny or how to respond to it, effectively leaving them caught in the middle until the mutiny ended. All twenty channels remained steadfastly supportive of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Already popular prior to Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Telegram quickly became a digital battle space. It has served as an essential tool for domestic Russian audiences, with usage of the messaging app significantly increasing after Russian authorities restricted domestic access to Western mainstream social media platforms and banned independent media outlets.
Wagner-adjacent channels experience surge in engagement
Among its findings, the DFRLab discovered that Telegram channels whose names contained references to Prigozhin or Wagner Group saw a sharp increase in subscribers during the period of June 22-29, 2023. For instance, the number of subscribers to the Prigozhin Press Service channel more than doubled in one week, gaining over 870,000 new subscribers. As previously covered by the DFRLab, the Prigozhin Press Service channel served as Prigozhin’s primary tool for posting audio messages over the course of the mutiny. On June 24 alone, the channel garnered more than 52 million views across thirteen separate posts. The pro-Wagner channel Prigozhin’s Hat garnered over 200,000 new subscribers during the same period, while another channel, Wagner Orchestra, gained 195,000 new subscribers and received 40 million views in a single day.
The impact of the mutiny on pro-war Russian Telegram channels
The DFRLab subsequently analyzed twenty pro-war Russian channels whose names directly reference Wagner, Prigozhin, or the pro-war “Z” symbol. Among these, eight channels with a history of being supportive of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) or critical of Wagner maintained that position throughout the period of June 23 to June 29. An additional four channels avoided taking sides and encouraged unity among both sides, while one pro-Wagner channel remained on its side. The remaining seven channels, however, vacillated over the course of the mutiny in a variety of ways, showing contradictory sentiments for both sides, drifting back and forth, and struggling to maintain neutrality.
The following sections highlight the sentiments of each channel before, during, and after the mutiny, including examples of posts representative of those sentiments.
Telegram channels with inconsistent sentiment
Channel: Z 105-й полк НМ ДНР: сводки с ЛБС и не только
(“Z 105th regiment of the NM DPR: reports from the Line of Contact and more”)
Number of subscribers: 25,000+
Sentiment before mutiny: Disbelief in the potential for mutiny
Sentiment during mutiny: Anti-MoD and anti-Wagner
Sentiment after mutiny: Encouraging unity, pro-Wagner, pro-MoD
According to its own description, this channel belongs to the military personnel of the 105th Infantry Regiment of the People’s Militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic. As the mutiny unfolded on June 23, the channel seemed in disbelief that the mutiny talks were real: “99.999999999999999999% – ‘Prigozhin’s topic’ is complete rubbish. We are [part of] the Russian Ministry of Defense, and we have complete silence in our unit, which would not be the case if the ‘events’ were real.”
On June 24, as the mutiny escalated, the channel blamed both the MoD and Wagner, saying that they should be left to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mercy. “All day long we have been reading pro and counter opinions concerning the emergency that has arisen,” It wrote. “We are talking about Prigozhin and [Sergei] Shoigu and [Valery] Gerasimov.” Given that the situation had escalated to “armed clashes within the country,” it continued, “Both parties to the conflict are obliged to leave their leadership positions within their structures, return the troops to the [Ukraine] front, go and personally repent to the president, and beg Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] to allow them to serve the Motherland, but in a completely different capacity.”
On the evening of June 24, after the mutiny was over, the channel posted: “Prigozhin’s people return to the front. ‘Civil war’ in Russia ended without starting.” The next day, it posted videos from Rostov, which Prigozhin occupied during the confrontation, and noted that locals had warmly said goodbye to Wagner troops. Over the coming days, the channel posted news from both sides, eventually concluding on June 28 that Wagner was repositioning in Belarus to open another front against Ukraine.
Channel: Канал Рихарда Вагнера/Wagner group
(“Richard Wagner/Wagner group”)
Number of subscribers: 47,000+
Sentiment before mutiny: Anti-Wagner
Sentiment during mutiny: Anti-Wagner
Sentiment after mutiny: Belligerent, anti-MoD, anti-Prigozhin
Richard Wagner/Wagner group regularly posts about the war in Ukraine. Posts during the mutiny were generally reposts from other channels depicting attitudes on both sides of the conflict. At one point, the channel reposted a message from pro-war influencer Max Divnich, who stated, “Mutiny… Whoever is with Prigozhin now is against Russia.” Notably, the repost received 184 thumbs-down emojis and thirty-seven thumbs-up emojis, suggesting disagreement regarding that sentiment within the group.
Throughout the mutiny, the channel continued posting pro-war news updates from Ukraine. On June 25, it forwarded another Max Divnich post containing a video with the description, “[Defense Minister] Shoigu got in touch and told how he stopped the Wagners.” The video, however, does not feature Shoigu. Instead, it mockingly shows an Asian man at a campfire with two other men, apparently telling a story while making dramatic noises and animated hand gestures.
Despite its criticism of Defense Minister Shoigu, on June 26, the channel published comments targeting Prigozhin as well. “They say that Prigozhin is an old acquaintance, almost a friend of Putin,” it wrote. “But look how badly he knows him! Putin does not make concessions under the threat of weapons, and now Shoigu will certainly remain the Minister of Defense for a long time….In general, either Prigozhin is stupid, or vice versa – that he is so smart that we don’t understand it.”
Channel: Z НеСоциальная Сеть (Тро Барбаросса)
(“Z Non-Social Network of Tro Barbarossa”)
Number of subscribers: 72,000+
Sentiment before mutiny: Anti-Prigozhin
Sentiment during mutiny: Anti-Prigozhin
Sentiment after mutiny: Anti-Prigozhin, but expressing some begrudging respect
A channel belonging to Russian media personality Trofim Tatarenkov (AKA Tro Barbarossa) responded negatively to Prigozhin’s June 23 pre-mutiny video tirade against the Russian MoD by asking, “Did CISPO (the Ukrainian Center for Informational and Psychological Operations) metamorphose into Prigozhin?” Later that day, he compared Prigozhin to the notorious Soviet secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria: “You are either Beria or the enemy of the nation; it’s unlikely that you are both.”
On June 24, the channel reacted in frustration to a video in which people in Rostov wave goodbye to Prigozhin and reach out to shake his hand. “The greatest skill is to make a terrorist in the morning into a hero in the evening.… In a couple of years they will bring him in their arms to the Kremlin.”
On June 25, the channel showed additional frustration regarding the possibility of the Kremlin accepting Prigozhin’s demands to remove Defense Minister Shoigu. “So, my thoughts are – if a terrorist, who escaped execution and punishment, also ‘removes’ the Minister of Defense, wouldn’t that be too much? Or it’s all the same BS.” His skepticism continued into June 26, though with a hint of begrudging respect, as he dryly remarked, “The unification of Russia, Belarus and Prigozhin?”
Channel: Повёрнутые на Z войне 🇷🇺
(“Turned on Z war”)
Number of subscribers: 750,000+
Sentiment before mutiny: Pro-unity
Sentiment after mutiny: Pro-unity, but frustrated with the MoD
The admin of this channel, who claims he is a Russian army officer, wrote in the early morning of June 24 as the mutiny unfolded that he had fought alongside Wagner soldiers. “Let’s not allow bloodshed on the territory of our Motherland together,” he concluded. In an extended post on the afternoon of June 25, he stated that the Russian MoD would have stopped the mutiny if it had been capable of doing so:
By the 25th [of June], we can already see a stream of PR people such as [Russian propagandist Dmitri] Kiselyov coming out and talking about the fact that “Yes, we could have stopped this rebellion easily; we just took a pity on the rebels and forgave them when they frightenedly went to repent….Yet the capture of two cities, an armed convoy that shot down aircraft that passed through several regions to Moscow, is presented as something “insignificant,” that “they were simply allowed.”
“The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation is ineffective,” he concluded. “And everyone saw it.”
Later that evening, the channel published a photo showing a tank decorated with a bouquet of flowers inside its main gun. “Just a great photo from Rostov,” he wrote. “Thank God these events are behind us. Russians should not chop down Russians.”
Number of subscribers: Approximately 242,000+
Sentiment before mutiny: Anti-Wagner
Sentiment during mutiny: Confusion
Sentiment after mutiny: Anti-MoD
The Zergulio channel is published by pro-war blogger Sergey Kolyasnikov. After Prigozhin published his June 23 video criticizing the Russian MoD’s handling of the war, Kolyasnikov wrote a long post challenging Prigozhin’s remarks that Ukraine wasn’t an imminent threat prior to the invasion. “The fact that the Ukronazis were preparing an attack on the Donbass is a reality,” Kolyasnikov insisted. “This is confirmed by so many sources that it is frankly strange to doubt it. They would have broken through the defenses of LNR and entered Donetsk, there would have been tens, if not hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties.” He added, “I categorically do not understand the reasons and meaning of Yevgeny Viktorovich’s statement yesterday.”
Over the course of the mutiny, Kolyasnikov published news and statements from both sides. On June 24, after Prigozhin backed down, Kolyasnikov posted critical comments about Defense Minister Shoigu: “The main misunderstanding of the last days, regardless of everyone’s views or sides: Where was Shoigu?”
On June 25, he continued his criticism of the MoD, expressing admiration for Wagner’s capabilities but warning against allowing private military companies (PMCs) to grow too strong. “The effectiveness of PMCs should serve as a pretext for deep reforms in the army and its management. And not a reason to produce these PMCs uncontrollably and let them grow into armies.” Kolyasnikov noted that the mutiny exposed “a serious crisis in the MoD, since it allowed the situation to get it to this stage, deliberately ignoring the problem, without commenting on it or resolving it. What could have been solved many months ago, simply by tempering personal pride, almost grew into a civil war.”
Channel: Военкор Котенок Z
(“War Correspondent Kitten Z”)
Number of subscribers: 418,000+
Sentiment before mutiny: Pro-unity
Sentiment during mutiny: Pro-Putin, anti-Wagner
Sentiment after mutiny: Pro-unity but frustrated
War Correspondent Kitten Z is a popular voenkor (war correspondent or military blogger) with a strong pro-war stance. After Prigozhin’s June 23 video, the channel expressed concern that Prigozhin’s rhetoric was already being weaponized. “Hysteria is being whipped up, panic is being pumped up, that military operations are allegedly going on between our own [forces],” he wrote. “All of this is fluff, which is very beneficial for the enemy at the moment when he is trying to push through our defenses in a number of areas….I hope that common sense will prevail, no one will allow anarchy, lawlessness and illegal actions.” He added: “I advise everyone who is trying to amplify the topic of hostilities between Wagner PMC and the Ministry of Defense to bite their tongues and shut up.”
During the mutiny, the channel actively reposted Kremlin criticism of Prigozhin, including a quote from Putin’s June 24 public address: “What we are facing is betrayal and treason.” After Prigozhin backed down and it became clear that the Kremlin would allow him and his forces to relocate to Belarus, Kitten Z’s frustration was palpable:
One of the longest and most difficult days in the history of modern Russia is over. Of course there will be consequences. And there will be even more jokes about those who ran to buy tickets to Istanbul….It’s just that I don’t want to laugh. As the floodwaters clear, the sediment remains: thirteen dead Russian pilots cannot be returned. And you need to ask, clearly and specifically: on whose hands is their blood?
By June 27, the channel remained critical of Prigozhin but praised both sides of the conflict for resolving their differences. “The speed with which the crisis created by Prigozhin was averted sent the West into a catatonic stupor. Civil war in Russia was not allowed, although they walked to the very edge of the precipice.” He also stated that the West should fear Wagner’s relocation to Belarus and warned Poland that any provocative actions could lead to “a warm welcome from the ‘musicians’ of the best ‘orchestra’ in the world.” The Wagner Group is named after the composer Richard Wagner, and musical allusions often appear in discussions of the PMC.
In its final comments, the channel described Wagner forces as “hero stormtroopers” but bitterly noted that the mutiny had come with a price tag. “Yesterday, the president called them ‘patriots of the Motherland who proved it with their courage on the battlefield.’ This recognition is costly.”
Channel: Donbass Media Group Z “ 🇷🇺
Number of subscribers: 27,000+
Sentiment before mutiny: Pro-war
Sentiment during mutiny: Confusion, then pro-unity
Sentiment after mutiny: Pro-unity, hawk
The channel, which positions itself as a news sharing platform, responded to Prigozhin’s June 23 verbal targeting of Defense Minister Shoigu by rhetorically asking him, “Motherf*cker, what’s going on?” As Prigozhin released more audio clips fomenting the mutiny, the channel appeared to be in a state of disbelief. “I just don’t know,” it acknowledged. “Let’s wait and see, of course, but this whole story looks like the plot of some kind of action movie. Everything started too abruptly. I still think Prigozhin’s voice is a deepfake.”
On the morning of June 24, as the mutiny was reaching its peak, the channel published an image with the slogan, “For the army, For courage, For truth,” replacing the first letter of the word за (“for”) with the pro-war letter “Z,” as both versions are pronounced the same way: za.
Below the image, the channel encouraged Prigozhin and Shoigu to pick up the phone and meet with each other, rather than continuing to engage in the equivalent of dual combat:
We are for Truth, right? Both Shoigu and Prigozhin have mobile phones….One made his move on the chessboard… In order to preserve the troops and remove panic among the population, the best way out would be a personal meeting… As in the days of Troy, the troops are standing, and the two best fighters are fighting, so to speak.”
After Prigozhin halted Wagner’s march on Moscow, the channel celebrated, “Wagner is back in position!” Once it became clear that Wagner would relocate to Belarus, the channel acted as usual and returned to its pre-mutiny pro-war position, sharing news updates from both sides.
Other pro-war Telegram channels remained consistent in sentiment
As previously noted, the thirteen other channels analyzed by the DFRLab maintained consistency throughout the crisis, with eight channels remaining anti-Wagner, one channel remaining pro-Wagner, and four others encouraging unity among both sides.
Number of subscribers: 38,000+
WAR CORRESPONDENT consistently posts pro-war, anti-Ukraine content. On the morning of June 24, the channel acknowledged that Wagner troops had captured Rostov but presented the situation without particular sentiment. Later that day, it warned readers that Ukraine might attempt to exploit the situation “to demoralize us and increase social tension due to ongoing events.” A few minutes later, when word began to spread that the mutiny had ended, the channel announced that “the musicians” (Wagner) had talked things out with the military. “We are all brothers; we will not fight among ourselves,” it added.
Channel: АРХАНГЕЛ СПЕЦНАЗА Z
(“ARCHANGEL SWAT Z”)
Number of subscribers: 918,000+
On June 24, the channel urged its subscribers to remain calm and vigilant: “We ask all subscribers of our channel and citizens of the Russian Federation not to succumb to [Wagner] provocations and focus only on official news sources!” Later that day, it praised the 217th Parachute Regiment of the 98th Airborne Forces for doing their jobs, remaining loyal to Russia and not going over to Wagner’s side. On June 26, two days after the mutiny ended, it wrote, “Glory to Russia. We continue to destroy the enemy; there was a five-minute break.”
Channel: WAGNER Z GROUP/Z PMC WAGNER’Z
Number of subscribers: 74,000+
When Prigozhin criticized the MoD on June 23, the channel, allegedly run by two military officers, published a lengthy post summarizing his main points, generally agreeing with most of them, and concluding that the current situation was due to military leaders “attempting to prove their power” by not listening to rational advice from their subordinates. Over the course of the mutiny, the channel supported Prigozhin and routinely reposted his audio updates, including sometimes attempting to translate them into English. On June 25, the day after the mutiny ended, the channel noted that the previous day was the anniversary of a Soviet victory parade following the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 and that Prigozhin had successfully made his point. “Now is the day of the March of Justice,” they wrote. “The smell of justice is in the air now, like ozone after a thunderstorm.” That same day, they posted photos allegedly showing Wagner forces training with Belarusian soldiers, suggesting that Wagner forces had already gone back to work.
Channel: Стрелков Игорь Иванович #КРП
(“Strelkov Igor Ivanovich #KRP”)
Number of subscribers: 799,000+
Sentiment: Anti-Wagner, but highly critical of the Russian MoD
Igor Strelkov, a popular war blogger whose real name is Igor Girkin, formerly served as a Russian security service (FSB) officer, playing a significant role in Russia’s 2014 invasion of the Donbas region and annexation of Crimea. On June 24, Girkin issued a statement on behalf of himself and his readers, who he refers to as his “Angry Patriot Club.” Girkin said that he had previously warned that Russian military failures might lead to a mutiny. “[T]he system of power in the Russian Federation is on the verge of political collapse,” he warned. Despite his criticisms of the MoD and general dislike of Prigozhin, Girkin concluded, “We call on everyone to support Russian patriotic forces. We call on everyone to protect our Motherland.”
Four weeks later, authorities arrested Girkin for continuing his criticisms of the military and the Kremlin once the mutiny had ended.
Channel: Захар Прилепин
Number of subscribers: 304,000+
Zakhar Prilepin, a pro-war blogger and politician previously covered by the DFRLab for his prior role as deputy commander of the 4th Reconnaissance and Assault Battalion, claimed that his former battalion had been put on alert to potentially fight Wagner mutineers. Acknowledging that the battalion must remain loyal to Russia, he nonetheless lamented the situation. “The Lord teaches Russia without mercy,” he wrote. “From what is happening, all parties must finally draw the conclusion that this is no longer a conflict, but a tragedy. But like all thinking people, I still hope that Russian blood will not be shed.”
On June 26, after the mutiny ended, he forwarded a story published by the Prigozhin-owned outlet RIA FAN calling out hypocrites “who glorified Wagner yesterday and called for their punishment today” as “disgusting.”
Channel: СИЛОВИКИ 🇷🇺
Number of subscribers: 292,000+
This military news channel published positive messages about Wagner before the mutiny, including praising their combat surgeons.
During the mutiny, they warned readers that there were “too many fakes” trying to undermine Prigozhin and called for critical analysis. Overall, the channel did not publish much original content during the analysis time frame, mainly focusing on forwarding news from other channels.
Channel: Кремлёвский БезБашенник
Number of subscribers: 72,000+
Sentiment: Pro-Kremlin, but avoided taking sides
Kremlin Crazy avoided taking a stance by mostly sticking to forwarding messages from both Prigozhin and Russian officials. One notable exception was an original post that acknowledged Prigozhin was “rocking the boat of the system,” but “not without the blessing of its participants.” It concluded that preparations for the next Russian presidential race were now under way.
Channel: Образ будущего
(“Image of the future”)
Number of subscribers: 190,000+
This pro-Kremlin Telegram channel mostly forwarded messages with an anti-Wagner slant, such as a video of someone calling out to Wagner soldiers in central Rostov, “Did you hear what Putin said?!?” The channel added, “There is no popular support for an intra-elite rebellion. The people believe in stability.” In another post, it claimed that Prigozhin’s intention was to humiliate the Kremlin. “Prigozhin’s main goal was to make it clear to the whole world that it was possible to reach almost Moscow without resistance, then turn around and leave. And to indicate this to players in the West as well.” During the height of the mutiny on June 24, it dismissively insisted that Wagner had only managed to occupy a handful of military buildings in Rostov and that its main success was that it had “captured the information space.”
Channel: Скурлатов live
Number of subscribers: 300,000+
Igor Skurlatov, a pro-Kremlin commentator and politician, described Wagner as an anti-Russian “liberal project” (“либерастный”), stating that it “neglected the people’s hope for change.” In an official statement posted on behalf of his political party, Skurlatov insisted that Prigozhin did not represent the opinions of the Russian public and that he would not get any “popular street support.” He added, “We are not supporters of Prigozhin in connection with his desire to capitulate in the war with NATO, which is trying to destroy the ‘Russian world’ and Russia using the ‘hands’ of Zelenskyy’s criminal regime, and we offer to deal with those who pushed him to an armed uprising.”
DFRLab analysis of pro-war Russian Telegram channels before, during, and after the Wagner mutiny suggested that, while it significantly increased interest in Wagner’s presence on Telegram, it did not necessarily translate into increased support for them. However, the most influential Russian Telegram channels by reach of their posts did not push pro-Wagner and pro-Prigozhin narratives, while pro-war Telegram channels were divided: some of them supported Wagner and its leaders and others supported the Russian government.
Cite this case study:
Givi Gigitashvili, Ani Mejlumyan, and Roman Osadchuk, “How Russian pro-war Telegram channels addressed the Wagner mutiny,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), August 15, 2023, https://dfrlab.org/2023/08/17/how-russian-pro-war-telegram-channels-addressed-the-wagner-mutiny/.