Before Russia’s offensive in Ukraine, Mikhail Zvinchuk’s Telegram channel was mainly known to military buffs. Today, it boasts more than a million followers, exceeding that of many media outlets. Numerous Russian military bloggers like him have gone from obscurity to celebrity since the start of the conflict, distinguishing themselves by being more outspoken than traditional media under strict government control. They publish information before the government does, and criticise some of its decisions. To some, this makes them more credible than Russian authorities — at the risk of ruffling feathers. When Russia launched its offensive on February 24, 2022, “the (official) institutions in charge of information were thrown into turmoil,” said Zvinchuk, whose Telegram account is called Rybar, or fisherman in Russian. “Officials couldn’t agree on which narratives to release to the public,” the 31-year-old told AFP. So “we rose to defend our motherland in the world of information. We became its shield.” A military interpreter by training, Zvinchuk was decorated for his missions in Syria and Iraq and once worked for the Russian defence ministry’s press service. The Arabic and English speaker publishes on Telegram in several languages. He has a staff of around 40 people, including a data team that puts together maps and graphics with more detail than those released by the authorities and traditional media outlets — content even picked up by Western institutions. In just a matter of months, Rybar has seen its readership go from 36,000 followers to over a million. For Tatiana Stanovaya, an analyst at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre, the bloggers are responding to the Russian public’s “hunger for information”. “The Russian defence ministry provides practically no adequate picture of what is happening” in Ukraine, she said. The bloggers are “well informed, in touch with those who take part in combat.