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‘A general like that would inevitably become popular’ The pro-Kremlin media downplays the role of Russia's military leaders in Ukraine — because they make Putin nervous

Source: Meduza
Mikhail Klimentyev / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Russia’s pro-government media regularly reports on the Russian military’s “achievements” in Ukraine, but mentions of the specific commanders responsible are extremely rare. Judging by reports from Russia’s propaganda outlets, it would seem that the generals themselves spend all their time either receiving medals from Vladimir Putin or giving medals to their subordinates. That, Meduza has learned, is no accident: Putin is personally opposed to the idea of any top military leaders getting too much glory as a result of the war in Ukraine.

Three sources close to the Russian presidential administration (AP) all told Meduza the same thing: Vladimir Putin is concerned about Russian generals garnering “excessive popularity” from Russia’s war in Ukraine. As a result, pro-government media have avoided reporting on the actions of the country’s top military leadership almost completely. Instead, news reports on Kremlin-controlled networks regularly highlight the accomplishments of soldiers and of lower and middle ranking officers.

When generals are mentioned at all, it tends to be in stories about them either awarding soldiers for “carrying out tasks assigned by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief” or receiving their own awards from the president.

Colonel General Alexander Lapin and General Major Esedulla Abachev, for example, were named Heroes of Russia in early July. According to a transcript of a conversation between Putin and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, the awards were in response to the generals’ role in Russia taking control of Ukraine’s Luhansk region.

Lapin is the commander of Russia’ Central Military District and led the troops that captured the Luhansk region. In the spring, he caught journalists’ attention when he gave his own son a medal for courage and bravery in the operation to “liberate” the Chernihiv region, though Russia announced it was retreating from the region the same day.

Putin referred to Esedulla Abachev as the deputy commander of the 8th Army of the Southern Military District, though according to unofficial sources, he’s the commander of the 2nd Army Corps of the “People’s Militia” of the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” (and sometimes even the head of the entire “LNR People’s Militia”).

According to the official award declaration, Lapin and Abachev were being recognized for “the courage and heroism they exhibited in the line of duty,” but exactly what they did to exhibit that courage and heroism is not specified.

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‘A lot of people would listen to a military general. Nobody needs that’

One of the sources Meduza spoke to emphasized that Putin “clearly remembers the 1990s” — and that he doesn’t want there to be “another General Lebed.”

Over the course of his military career, Lieutenant General Alexander Lebed led the 106th Airborne Division, which helped suppress mass demonstrations in Tbilisi in April 1989 and in Baku in January 1990, and served as commander of the 14th Guards Combined Arms Army, stationed in Transnistria, among other things. Under Lebed’s leadership, the conflict in Transnistria was frozen, and Moldova and the unrecognized republic reached a ceasefire. In 1994, Lebed, by then decently popular in Russia, called Russia’s invasion of Chechnya “foolish and stupid,” butting heads with then-Defense Minister Pavel Grachev. In 1995, Lebed resigned from the military and launched his political career.

General Alexander Lebed, then secretary of the Russian Security Council, at a military base in Khankala. September 5, 1996
Anatoly Morkovkin / TASS

In the 1995 elections, the Congress of Russian Communities, the political bloc Lebed shared with several other conservative politicians, failed to reach the five percent threshold necessary to enter the State Duma — but Lebed himself won in a single-mandate district. In 1996, Lebed ran for president and came in third place, with 14.7 percent of the vote. In the second round of voting, he endorsed President Boris Yeltsin, who later appointed him head of the Russian Security Council in return. It was in that capacity that Lebed signed the Khasavyurt Accord with Chechnya’s leadership, marking the end of the First Chechen War. 

In 1998, General Lebed was elected governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai. In 2002, he died in a helicopter crash in the same region.

Other past military leaders have become decently popular, too, including Generals Gennady Troshev, Vladimir Shamanov, Viktor Kazantsev, and Konstantin Pulikovsky, all of whom appeared frequently in the media and enjoyed relative independence. In 2000, Shamanov was elected governor of Russia’s Ulyanovsk region. In 2002, Troshev publicly refused to carry out an order from then-Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov to head the Siberian Military District; he was dismissed as head of the North Caucasus Military District, but was later named the Presidential Advisor for Cossack Affairs. Kazantsev and Pulikovsky were both named presidential envoys to federal districts.

The war in Ukraine, though, is yet to yield any high-profile generals. In fact, the pro-Kremlin media has refrained from even reporting which generals are leading the country's army. In April, sources told the BBC that Army General Alexander Dvornikov, head of the Southern Military District, had been given command of Russian troops. Dvornikov is known for having “extensive experience with operations in Syria.” Later, the investigative group Conflict Intelligence Team, citing their own sources, reported that Deputy Defense Minister Gennady Zhidko was leading a portion of Russia’s troops.

Even Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu has received notably little attention. After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, for example, Shoigu didn’t appear in public for three weeks, and he didn’t go to the front until June.

“A considerable number [of Russians] support the ‘special operation.’ If there were a general people were hearing from constantly, someone who often appeared in the news, he would inevitably become popular. He would get credit for the victory. Who knows what that popularity could turn into among supporters of the war,” a source close to the AP told Meduza (Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov did not respond to Meduza’s questions).

The source added that in the 1990s, generals were able to capitalize on their name recognition to wield significant influence in the political realm. “Today, somebody like that could say [for example], let’s focus all of our forces on Kyiv. Or the opposite: it’s time to think about peace. A military general is someone a lot of people would listen to. That’s not what anybody [in the Kremlin] needs. But officers and soldiers are a dime a dozen — they’re not major figures, so [the media] can talk about them as much as it wants.”

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Sam Breazeale