Hello! This week our top story is an investigation into one of Russia’s biggest pro-war Telegram channels, which has been anonymous until now. We also look at how Russia ignored the extra-judicial killing of an ex-convict recruited to fight in Ukraine and the ways foreign companies are trying to ditch their Russian assets.
Unmasking Russia’s influential pro-war ‘Rybar’ Telegram channel
The war in Ukraine has created an influential new Russian media space with an audience of tens of millions — channels on messaging app Telegram that specialize in war reporting and analysis. One of the most significant among them is the anonymous channel Rybar with 1.1 million followers. Rybar publishes detailed reports and accurate maps of the front lines that are heavily used by Western media and military analysts. The Bell conducted an investigation (part one and part two) to find out who runs this key outlet.
Why it matters
Telegram has long been a major news source for Russian-speaker audiences — much like Twitter for the anglophone world. And the war in Ukraine has handed significant influence to dozens of pro-war channels with huge audiences on Telegram. Previously, these were only read by a small circle of military enthusiasts and radical Russian “patriots.” Those managing these channels are already known — they tend to be war correspondents from state-run outlets and broadcasters, activists from radical right-wing organizations and veterans of the Donbas war (such as Igor Strelkov). Rybar, which has gained renown for its high-quality, if biased analysis, of the fighting, is the most high-profile anonymous channel.
Of all the pro-Russian channels, Rybar is the most important source of information for analysts and the media. The channel publishes five or six detailed reports a day covering each theater of combat, providing highly detailed and swiftly updated maps. The channel’s data is regularly used by CNN and Bloomberg. And the influential U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War, whose work is used by all global media, can have 20 links to Rybar in a single report when a major battle is underway.
Although Rybar is openly pro-Russian, it works hard to maintain a sense of its own impartiality. Unlike most similar channels, it never uses offensive language about Ukrainians and is more or less objective in its assessments of the military situation. It’s difficult to work out which side Rybar takes in Russia’s elite disputes: on the one hand, it has criticized Russia’s Defense Ministry, while, on the other, it defended military commander General Alexander Lapin when he was attacked by hawkish critics including Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner mercenary company founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Also, unlike similar Telegram channels, Rybar is a direct player in the war. Since the start of Russia’s invasion, it has published information on the positions of Ukrainian military forces and has boasted that the Russian army uses its data for missile strikes.
What we discovered
Rybar was created in 2018. Until the start of the invasion, it had a narrow focus on military conflict and politics in the Middle East. The content made it clear that the people behind it had a good understanding of Arabic and were well-versed in even the most delicate nuances of the region. When war broke out in Ukraine, Rybar began actively reporting on the conflict and its number of followers rose from 30,000 to over 1.1 million.
Now, at least 10 people work for Rybar. According to The Bell’s source, this costs the channel’s creators up to $50,000 a month. We managed to identify the two leading figures behind the channel, and their connections to the Ministry of Defense and Prigozhin.
The channel’s second-in-command is a 44-year-old computer programmer from Moscow called Denis Shchukin. He was born in Russia but spent his childhood in Ukraine’s Donetsk Region and has lived in Moscow since at least 2002. He worked as a translator, then later as a cleaner. In 2008, he was charged with cyber-crime offenses (while he escaped jail, he lost his job). Shchukin reportedly claims to be descended from an old Russian noble family of German origin. And The Bell found out that there was some truth in this: until 2001, Shchukin was a German citizen — but he gave that up in favor of a Russian passport.
Rybar’s founder is a 31-year-old military translator, Mikhail Zvinchuk. He is a former employee of the Defense Ministry’s press service. Born in Vladivostok, he studied at a military university in Moscow, specializing in Arabic. In 2015-17, Zvinchuk was employed at the Defense Ministry and helped organize press tours to Syria for Russian journalists.
Both Zvinchuk and Shchukin are big fantasy fans who frequent the same group of Russian-language internet forums. In his student days, Zvinchuk set up a group of volunteer translators to produce Russian versions of Dungeons & Dragons books. He also ran four websites about fantasy literature and roleplay games. Rybar, the name of his channel, comes from the Fisher King, a character from the video games based on Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ novels. However, the literal translation is “angler.”
The channel started out as a hobby, but later Zvinchuk and Shchukin began to monetize it. In 2020 and 2021, Rybar had a regular column for a media outlet owned by Prigozhin and another Prigozhin employee told The Bell that Prigozhin offered to fund the channel — however, sometime in 2021 or early 2022, the parties “separated peacefully.”
After the Russian invasion, Rybar began to grow fast and started landing big advertising contracts. Quickly, the intelligence services took an interest. A source told The Bell that the channel’s creators, possibly helped by Prigozhin, held talks with representatives of the Federal Security Service (FSB). After that, the channel is expected to publish anything that the FSB wishes to make public. The Bell was unable to verify this claim.
Why the world should care
Russian pro-war channels on Telegram are the “new media” of 2022. Rybar’s post on Friday, which analyzed a video of the apparent killing of Russian prisoners, was read by almost 2 million people in just 12 hours. Now we know a little more about this shadowy media world.
Russia ignores the killing of an ex-convict turned soldier in Ukraine
Yevgeny Nuzhin was serving a prison sentence for murder in Russia, but was recruited by Wagner to go and fight in Ukraine. There, Nuzhin was captured. But he was somehow returned to Russia and, soon afterwards, a video was circulated on social media showing him being bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer.
- Nuzhin was sentenced to 24 years for murder in the early 2000s, and that term was extended by four years following a botched escape attempt. He was due to be released in 2027. In August, Nuzhin phoned his family to say that Prigozhin had visited his prison camp to recruit men for Wagner, which was fighting side-by-side with the Russian Army in Ukraine. Nuzhin agreed to fight.
- But, in early September, Nuzhin surrendered. He quickly began appearing regularly in Ukrainian media reports and gave interviews to journalists in which he criticized the war. He also said that he wanted to fight for Ukraine. “I would rather fight on Ukraine’s side, that’s why I surrendered. Because it wasn’t Ukraine that attacked Russia, it was Putin that attracted Ukraine,” he said in one interview.
- It remains unclear how Nuzhin ended up back in Russia. Apparently, he voluntarily joined an exchange of prisoners — at least, that is what Ukrainian officials have said. The Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly stated that any Russian soldiers who willingly surrender will not be returned to Russia against their will. But Nuzhin is not a Russian soldier — he was recruited from jail. A BBC source in Kyiv, who is involved in organizing prisoner exchanges, said that, in Nuzhin’s case, there were negotiations with Wagner, which also has a budget to facilitate exchanges.
- A video of Nuzhin’s murder circulated on Telegram channels linked to Wagner. In the video, the former prisoner, whose head is taped to a brick, says he was “hit on the head” in Kyiv and “woke up in a basement.” Later in the clip, a man in military uniform kills Nuzhin with a sledgehammer. Prigozhin later said of the killing in a statement released to the media: “Live like a dog, die like a dog.”
- The Russian authorities chose to ignore the video of Nuzhin. There was no word of any investigation, nor any official reaction. President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov responded to a question about the slaughter of the former convict by saying: “This is none of our business”. Alexander Bastrykin, head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, also made no comments, as did the General Prosecutor’s Office. Valery Fadeyev, head of the Presidential Human Rights Council, also declined to intervene, saying that “anything goes” in wartime. However, according to Russian Human Rights Commissioner Tatiana Moskalkova, the video is still being studied.
- The reaction contrasts with Russia’s response to another recent video, which apparently shows Ukrainian soldiers killing Russian prisoners. Fadeyev said that information about this clip would be sent to “2,000 addresses,” including the United Nations, the OSCE and the Council of Europe. Russia’s Foreign Ministry demanded that international organizations “condemn this egregious crime.”
Why the world should care
Wagner operates in a legal gray area, which means Nuzhin was not an official Russian serviceman — removing some of the obligation to explain his death. But his murder is a striking example of how the Russian authorities can hush up uncomfortable topics.
How foreigners are disposing of their Russian assets
After war broke out, there was a stampede of Western companies out of Russia. But, in early March, the government slowed that process: all transactions between Russian companies and citizens or businesses in countries designated as “unfriendly” must now be approved by a special commission. The Bell looked at how foreigners are disposing of Russian assets.
- The new commission is predictably hostile towards investors from “unfriendly” countries. For example, Canada’s Kinross Gold wanted to sell its Russian assets to Russia’s Highland Gold Mining. Before the commission got involved, the deal was estimated at $680 million; afterwards, it was $340 million. According to Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, the logic is simple: if Western investors want to leave Russia, let them pay. Moreover, in some cases, companies are unable to sell up due to restrictions. This is why, for example, Germany’s Uniper is unable to withdraw its capital from the Unipro energy company. Finland’s Fortum, similarly, cannot withdraw from TGK-1, the leading provider of electricity and heating to north-western Russia.
- In some industries, such as pharmaceuticals, children’s food and agriculture, foreign companies cannot easily close their businesses for ethical reasons. But the bigger and better known the business, the harder it is to remain in Russia in the face of increasing political pressure. The second most common reason for leaving is the objective difficulty of continuing to do business in an era of bans on foreign trade operations, volatile exchange rates and logistical problems.
- In the first months of the war, some businesses were sold for a symbolic one dollar or one euro. But these transactions also involve the transfer of debts — and there are risks if the Russian economy continues to suffer. “The discount that many are now trying to measure is ultimately a reflection of the current risks in the Russian economy,” said Yaroslav Kabakov, strategic director at investment firm Finam.
- There is also fierce competition among Russian buyers. Some investors see the current situation as a chance to obtain a quality asset at knock-down prices and compare the current situation with the 1990s.
- Another popular option is to transfer businesses to the current management with a buy-back clause. Investment company Aspiring Capital estimates this has been the structure of about 32% of foreign asset transactions since the start of the war.
Why the world should care
Russia is currently in an uncharted business environment. While foreigners cannot always dispose of their Russian assets, some Russian investors are buying up shares despite the risks and difficulties.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has given rise to an influential new media segment with an audience of millions – Telegram channels specializing in war reporting.
With more than a million followers, Rybar is one of the most popular such channels, but – until now – its authors have remained anonymous. We wanted to put that right.
Rybar is a rare example of a channel about the war that does not adopt a clear position. It criticized the Russian Defense Ministry, but defended General Alexander Lapin when he was attacked by Russia’s pro-war elite.
Rybar also plays a part in the war. From the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the channel has published the locations of Ukraine’s forces and strategic sites. Sometimes, the channel boasts that the Russian army is using this information.
We found at least two people who run the channel. Interestingly, they are united by a love of fantasy novels. They are Denis Shchukin, a 44-year-old programmer from Moscow and Mikhail Zvinchuk, 31, a military translator of Arabic and ex-Defense Ministry press officer.
The project started as a hobby, but later its creators began to monetize it. Sources told The Bell that Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin offered to finance the channel and wanted to use its expertise for his projects in Syria. This did not work out.
Since war broke out, Rybar has landed some big advertising deals. That drew the attention of the intelligence services. While continuing its work, the channel is now obliged to publish material on behalf of the FSB, one source told The Bell.