Unmasking Russia’s influential pro-war ‘Rybar’ Telegram channel

The Bell

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.

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