How Telegram Became a Critical Source of Intelligence in the Ukraine-Russia War
Telegram was created in 2013 by Pavel Durov, a Russia-born tech entrepreneur who has, to a large extent, managed to withstand pressure from Russian authorities and keep Telegram free and clear of oversight. “Telegram is not a Russian social network,” a Telegram spokesperson clarified over email.
Editor’s note: This post has updated to clarify details about Telegram and its founder, Pavel Durov, both of which are currently based in Dubai. It also reflects a statement, provided by Telegram to Flashpoint on March 4, that further characterizes and amplifies the company’s independence from the Russian government.
Click here for Flashpoint’s coverage of the role of intelligence in Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Telegram comes of age
Telegram was created in 2013 by Pavel Durov, a Russia-born tech entrepreneur who has, to a large extent, managed to withstand pressure from Russian authorities and keep Telegram free and clear of oversight. “Telegram is not a Russian social network,” a Telegram spokesperson clarified over email. “Telegram has no companies or data centers in Russia. Telegram is a messenger based in Dubai. Telegram is entirely independent of the Russian government.”
This remains the key to Telegram’s power today: it’s a viable communications alternative to social platforms that are regulating or censoring content, succumbing to external pressure, and de-platforming users at their own discretion.
Over the past decade, every major social cataclysm has been linked to a social network. Facebook groups helped to organize the 2011-12 Bolotnaya Square protests in Russia against election rigging. The Arab Spring was powered by Twitter (more grim examples are also available).
In 2020, Telegram, whose owner is based in Dubai, is currently based in Dubai, enabled Belarusian citizens to organize—first to replace the government’s disastrous COVID-19 response with solidarity networks, then to protest against a rigged presidential election, and finally to maintain access to news amidst a brutal crackdown on the opposition movement.
And now, in Russia’s war against Ukraine, Telegram continues to be the go-to method of communication between Ukrainians and Russian alike, at home and in the diaspora, as well as for numerous other interested parties, including journalists, global citizens, international organizations, and anybody else looking for related information. Though a messenger and not a social media platform, Telegram is proving to be a vital source of communication—and intelligence—during the war.
How Russians rely on Telegram
Telegram has a much larger footprint in Russia than Twitter or Facebook. According to a 2021 Deloitte study, 61% of polled Russians have Telegram installed on their phones. As the Russian authorities are blocking independent media across the country and plan to make it a felony to question the government’s official account on the war, Telegram can play another important role: maintaining access for Russian citizens to first-hand news and footage from Ukraine, thereby challenging government propaganda and galvanizing anti-war sentiments, which are dampened by the state’s heavy repression apparatus and people’s general unawareness of the situation, but which are definitely present.
Apart from providing access to eyewitness accounts from the war, Russian citizens sharing content about the economic costs of sanctions—bank runs, rapid inflation, product shortages, which are already gripping Russia—can help to amplify the psychological effect and build an anti-war constituency in society.
Telegram remains independent of Russian government oversight
Unlike other Russian social networks with a similar user base, such as VK and Odnoklassniki (OK), Telegram has remained largely independent of the Russian government, which heavily polices both VK and OK. So far, Telegram has also been less vulnerable to the kind of pressure that foreign-based social media platforms, such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook have faced.
While in 2021 it removed content related to a campaign by Alexey Navalny, a jailed opposition activist, Russia is yet to limit Telegram’s flow of information. Previous attempts to block it have failed. After several years of trying to block Telegram due to non-compliance with requests from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) to hand over encryption keys, Russia’s communications regulator announced in 2020 that it stopped trying to block the service.
Notably, over the past few years, Telegram has periodically removed Salafi Jihadist accounts. While these removal campaigns have at times been sustained efforts, these actors have not been dissuaded from establishing new accounts, and the platform currently appears to have eased its endeavors to eradicate extremists.
Instead of blocking the platform, the Russian authorities learned to live with it and use it themselves. A 2018 investigation by the (since banned) investigative media outlet Proektshed light on how operatives connected to the security services have used Telegram channels to spread disinformation and influence political sentiments. Vladislav Klyushin, a businessman named in the investigation as one of the leaders of these efforts, was arrested in Switzerland in 2021.
Russia-linked actors used Telegram profusely in the context of the present war as well. As Flashpoint reported earlier, Telegram channels were used to conduct recruitment of “volunteers” to fight on the side of Russia-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine.
Russian-linked channels have spread disinformation in the context of the war. However, while there is also a lot of disinformation spreading in Telegram groups in the context of the present war (as well as in general), Ukraine’s fact-checkers have so far done an excellent job debunking misleading narratives quickly.
Sharing possible war crimes
In the context of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Telegram has served a similar purpose: it provides Ukrainian citizens with an opportunity to share videos and pictures of Russian troop movements and incoming attacks, as well as to document potential war crimes committed by Russian soldiers against Ukraine.
One example of how Telegram is being used in the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine is the “Свидетель Украины” or “Ukrainian Witness” channel, which has been collecting and publishing footage from areas impacted by the war, including war crimes. The group has close to 100,000 subscribers as of March 1.
Importantly, the messages in the group also target Russians. The screenshot above includes pictures and videos posted by the channel of Russian soldiers who surrendered to Ukraine, with language suggesting to Russian soldiers and their families that this is what awaits them if they conduct war against Ukraine.
“Listen to your captured fellow citizens who ask you to end the war. You are being deceived, you are being used,” reads the caption.
Another channel, “Find Your Own”, where Ukrainian officials have shared videos of captured Russian soldiers, brought the idea of reaching out to the families of Russian POWs directly, to Telegram. The Ukrainian authorities originally did this through a telephone hotline, which however was quickly blocked in Russia.
These messages fit into attempts by Ukrainian officials to reach out directly to Russian citizens and soldiers, many of whom had been reportedly kept in the dark about invasion plans until the last minute and were shocked when they had to conduct a war against a “brotherly nation.”
The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose native language is Russian, has addressed Russians several times. Ukrainian cities under siege put up billboards reminding Russian soldiers of their families and calling on them to lay down their arms. Ukraine’s Minister of Defense, Oleksandr Reznikov shared an appeal to Russian soldiers to surrender with their equipment in exchange for amnesty and 50,000 rubles (roughly $500) of payment (the European Union is reportedly planning to offer asylum for Russian soldiers who defect and have not committed war crimes).
However, as traditional means of communications are blocked in Russia, Telegram may be the single most efficient means of getting these appeals and unvarnished information about the war to Russian soldiers and citizens. It may also become the platform where journalists whose platforms were made inaccessible by the Russian authorities, can share content in a way that Russians do not have to rely on VPNs or the Tor browser to access.
In the longer term, a combination of documentation, sharing and fact-checking can help make war criminals accountable before an international tribunal. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has already announced opening a probe into war crimes committed in Ukraine. Flashpoint monitors Telegram and these activities to provide our customers with real-time insights into pertinent activity.
Can Russia overcome Telegram?
It is unclear whether between 2020 and now Russia has acquired technical capabilities to block Telegram in the country. The network’s main strength lies in its decentralized nature, which allowed it to work out crowdsourced solutions to get around bans before. In a crisis, however, even a couple of days of downtime can make a difference.
The alternatives look less effective and appealing, but they are there. Since the beginning of the Russian aggression, Russian celebrities who normally face less scrutiny from censors due to the non-political nature of their posting, have shared anti-war messages on their mainstream social media accounts. Footage from the war and anti-war appeals have been prolifically posted on TikTok, a Chinese video sharing app. To be able to get the message across to a larger audience in Russia if even for a short time, Ukraine has unblocked VK, which it banned in 2017 due to their affiliation with the Russian authorities. It is worth noting, however, that these platforms lack the nimble and efficient features of Telegram (e.g. large anonymous group chats) and after a significant ramp-up of repression in recent years, Russian citizens have come to expect repercussions or even criminal liability for sharing undesirable content in ways that can be traced back to them. As of March 2, the Russian parliament has started discussing a bill, which would make it punishable by a prison sentence of up to 15 years to share “fakes” on the activities of the Russian military (read: anything that diverges from the government’s official account). The “nuclear” option for Russia, at least in the information space, would be a complete block of connections between the Russian internet and foreign content. The Russian authorities have been testing these capabilities since 2019. Officially, the tests were successful. However, due to the large economic costs of such a move, it is doubtful how long this radical cut-off could be maintained.
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