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‘Russian Spring’ Meduza investigates who’s behind one of the major propaganda outlets covering Russia’s war against Ukraine
Story by Daniil Belovodiev. Abridged Translation by Meghan Vicks.
The website Russian Spring (along with its Telegram channel “Operation Z: Russian Spring War Correspondents”) is one of the largest propaganda outlets writing about the war in Ukraine. Since 2014, it has raised funds from readers to help Russian proxy forces and civilians in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DNR and LNR), and since 2022 it has been popularizing videos showing the deaths of Ukrainian soldiers and spreading fake news stories about the Ukrainian military pumping its troops full of drugs. The website’s editorial staff and owners are unknown. For Meduza, journalist Daniil Belovodiev — the creator of the open-source intelligence Telegram channel DR417 — investigated possible connections between Russian Spring, the Putin administration, the Russian Orthodox Church, and State Duma lawmaker Dmitry Sablin. Here’s what he found.
The online publication Russian Spring has long broadcast a “patriotic” view of events associated with Ukraine and the war in the Donbas. As of June 2022, Russian Spring was ranked twentieth among the top Russian sites in the “News and Media” category (with nearly 30 million monthly visits, of which 13 percent came from users in Ukraine). In March, at the height of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the number of site visits reached 41 million.
The site’s Telegram channel, “Operation Z: Russian Spring War Correspondents,” publishes exclusive materials from the front: photographs and videos of warfare, monologues by captured Ukrainian soldiers, and military analysis. By mid-June 2022, the channel boasted nearly 900,000 subscribers. According to The Bell, “Russian Spring War Correspondents” is the most popular anonymous political Telegram channel in Russia.
Russian Spring’s homepage says it began publishing on March 16, 2014 — the day of the referendum that paved the way for Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Back then, it mainly featured articles concerning “the military-political situation in the Donbas” and news reports about “Novorossiya.”
Even before the full-scale war began, Russian Spring was known for spreading anti-Ukrainian disinformation. For example, the outlet once published a fake news story using a photo of an actor on the set of the Russian filmWe are from the Future pretending to eat a severed hand. The article was given the headline, “‘Uke eats Rusky’s hand’ — fiendish humor from Banderite blogs.”
When Russia launched a military operation in Syria in September 2015, Russian Spring began publishing operational military reports. During the eight years of its existence, the outlet has received letters of appreciation from the command of the Russian military group in Syria for “helping to establish peace in the long-suffering Syrian land”; from the LNR’s “communications ministry” for its high-degree of professionalism; and from the DNR’s “information ministry” for “significant media support.”
In 2017, Ukraine’s Information Policy Ministry recommended that the country ban Russian Spring for “inciting ethnic hatred, calling for the overthrow of the constitutional order, and violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
There is no information about its owner or editorial staff on the Russian Spring website. The “About Us” section states that the outlet was launched by “enthusiasts in the wake of historic events for the Russian world.”
Are all Russian Spring authors anonymous?
On July 1, the “Russian Spring War Correspondents” Telegram channel reported that scammers posing as affiliates of the channel have been sending its readers private messages and “swindling money allegedly to help the Donbas.” The post then explained that all donations collected by Russian Spring over the past eight years to purchase clothing and medical supplies for Russian proxy troops in the DNR and LNR, as well as food for Donbas, go into the account of Anastasia Mikhailovskaya, a military correspondent for the publication.
In 2015, Anastasia Mikhailovskaya worked as a spokeswoman for Igor Strelkov (Girkin). And in the mid-2000s, she was a member of Eurasian Union of Youth, whose founder and leader, Alexander Dugin, is often referred to as Putin’s ideologue in the Western press. Mikhailovskaya declined to speak with Meduza’s correspondent.
Since February 24, Russian Spring has been publishing exclusive photos and videos obtained directly from the front lines. Its editorial staff refer to Ukrainian soldiers as “neo-Nazis” and “militants.”
A ‘Fraternal’ War
On May 7, 2022, Russian Spring published a video on its YouTube channel under the title “Swedish-British NLAW ATGMs explode in the hands of Ukrainian soldiers.” The video shows a young man wearing a black shirt, torn at a shoulder, sitting in front of a blank wall. He introduces himself to the camera as Stanislav Synelnyk.
Synelnyk says that before being captured by Russian forces, he served as a BTR-80 gunner-operator in the 90th Battalion of the 81st Airmobile Brigade, part of Ukraine’s air-assault troops. He was stationed in Kostiantynivka, a city in the Donetsk region.
“When the war started, we were ordered to go in the direction of Kharkiv. There was a very negative mood in the company, nobody wanted to fight. We were forced, we were simply driven as if to a slaughter, like dogs,” the captured soldier says. “What the West is giving us — these NLAWs, [they] explode in your hands, they don’t work. These Javelins don’t work at all, they also self-explode. We don’t want them. Thanks a lot, West …”
At the end of the video, Synelnyk addresses Ukrainian soldiers and urges them to surrender:
“You don’t need to fight, simply give yourself up. It’s normal here, you [can] see I’m whole, alive, healthy. They feed me here, give me water. There’s everything here. Surrender, you don’t have to fight. [We are] fraternal peoples, we don’t need to fight.”
Stanislav Synelnyk is a resident of Bilovodsk, a town in the Luhansk region. He turned 21 in January. In the first days of the Russian invasion, Bilovodsk fell under the control of the Russian forces. Before that, it was under Ukrainian control. In mid-March, the LNR “prosecutor general’s office” wrote on Telegram that the Bilovodsk “district prosecutor’s office” had established the identities of soldiers who “voluntarily signed contracts with the AFU [Armed Forces of Ukraine] in 2021” — namely, Synelnyk and his school friend Artem Buchinsky. About a month later, Synelnyk stopped contacting his family.
Synelnyk’s older sister Elena lives in southern Russia, in the Krasnodar Krai, with her husband and two children. She works as a nail technician. They moved to Russia in 2015 as refugees from the Luhansk region.
According to Elena, her brother Stas is “an ordinary kid.” “He finished school when he was 19, [and] received a military subpoena — to serve as a conscript,” Elena told Meduza. “Well, he decided he didn’t want to sit [in the unit] for eighteen months for free, so he became a contract soldier at the outset. He thought he’d simply sit it out ‘in the field.’ Everyone tried to talk him out of it, but Stas didn’t want to be in parental custody any longer. And when he’d already served for eighteen months, all this [the full-scale war] began. My brother got caught in all this chaos.”
After the start of the war, Synelnyk called and messaged his sister nearly every day. But on April 28, he stopped calling. Elena said that from that day on, the entire family began scrutinizing photos and videos of Ukrainian soldiers published on social networks by combatants. Including the “bad” ones — those that showed the bodies of dead soldiers.
“When I saw that video with my brother [published by Russian Spring on May 7], of course I cried,” Elena recalled. “From happiness that he’s alive, and because I felt sorry for him, and out of resentment toward the whole situation.”
The commander of the brigade where Synelnyk served could have decided not to surrender, so Elena feels her brother was “lucky.” In another Russian Spring video, Elena says she “spotted her brother’s brigade commander and a couple of his fellow soldiers” (they mentioned the same brigade number in their testimonies).
“My husband and I came to Russia as refugees from Luhansk in 2015,” Elena explained. “We were leaving right when total mayhem was happening there, they were bombing cities. My brother stayed behind — he was only 13 back then. He didn’t really understand what was happening. At that time, my husband had his own grudges against Ukraine: they wanted to take him to the front. But his mom lives there, in Luhansk. [He said], ‘What, am I going to fight against my own mother? We have to leave.’ But of course, my husband loved and loves his homeland, Ukraine. And we also love Russia. In our family we don’t discuss this situation one-sidedly — we try to figure out how it all came to this. We can’t stop anything, we can’t prevent anything — we think about what to do with what already is.”
On June 5, the Russian Spring Telegram channel published a video with “an appeal by captured Ukrainian soldiers to Volodymyr Zelensky,” which now has more than 1.5 million views. The video is comprised of clips of Ukrainian prisoners of war speaking directly into the camera. Together, the clips build a coherent narrative about how the Ukrainian president “left them to die like cannon fodder” and “tricked them into carrying out criminal orders.” Stanislav Synelnyk is among the POWs shown — against the same bare wall, in black clothes torn at the shoulder.
“Who am I?” Volodymyr Zelensky asks in a clip taken from his 2020 New Year’s address.
“You’re a murderer and a tyrant!” Synelnyk replies.
Elena has no idea how sincere her brother’s words were. She has no way of getting in touch with him: his phone is turned off. And even if he’s allowed to use someone else’s phone, he probably doesn’t remember his relatives’ numbers.
“Now I’m looking for my brother, I even wrote to Russian Spring, but they didn’t respond,” Elena said. “When I called the Russian Defense Ministry, they said they only deal with Russian POWs. And calling Ukraine from Russia to ask about a Ukrainian soldier is a delicate matter. I had to write a request to DNR officials for the release of personal information, collect all the documents that show I really am Stas’s sister. I did all that and I’m waiting for a response from the DNR’s justice ministry.”
The Russian Spring Telegram channel regularly publishes videos featuring the testimonies of captured Ukrainian soldiers — by mid-July there were already 69 such videos. Sometimes these videos are used as “evidence” to “corroborate” official Russian propaganda about the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
On June 22, the channel released another video of a Ukrainian POW. The video’s notes specify he was a member of a “AFU company encircled in Hirske.” According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the video came out the same day that soldiers near Hirske surrendered. The video’s contents resemble many others: a thick-set, middle-aged man introduces himself as Andrey Boyarinov, gives his date of birth, and tells the camera how the Ukrainian army had problems with weapons and how his company commander “hid himself somewhere in a bunker, cowered under some kind of bush” while he and his comrades were at the front.
One day later ,the channel published another video of Boyarinov where he repeats what he said in the previous video, but speaks more haltingly and looks haggard. The channel claims that the second video was filmed later (this is confirmed by its metadata, Meduza found). The video’s notes say the changes in Boyarinov’s behavior are due to his withdrawal from “psychostimulants” that the Ukrainian army allegedly gives its soldiers:
“A captured militant from the Zolote-Hirske cauldron is no longer so sure of himself after the psychostimulants stop working. Many were surprised by how confidently and audaciously the Ukrainian fighter behaved after being captured. The whole secret is that the command of the Ukrainian army stuffs its soldiers with psychostimulants because there’s no other way to keep them on the front line. Most often, the strongest analgesic ‘Acupan’ is used, it dulls the feeling of fear, but in literally a week it causes the strongest addiction, turning them into junkies.”
In the video, Boyarinov himself makes no mention of psychostimulants or Acupan.
A few days before the video with Boyarinov was uploaded, the Russian Spring site published a short anonymous text under the title “Combat junkies of the AFU.” The article claimed that Ukrainian soldiers allegedly abuse the drug Acupan, which in large doses supposedly leads to a “decrease in feelings of fear, agitation, and hallucinations.”
“Acupan is a pain reliever. Scientific literature describes rare cases of addition to Acupan, but there’s no evidence that addiction occurs ‘within a week’,” Ilya Yasny, head of scientific research at the pharmaceutical fund LanceBio Ventures, told Meduza. “There is limited data on the drug, and it can’t be ruled out that patients may develop behavioral abnormalities, hallucinations, aggressiveness. But Acupan is not a narcotic or a psychostimulant.”
Russian state propaganda has previously claimed that there is widespread drug use among Ukrainian soldiers. For example, on May 4, Vesti.ru published a story about drugs allegedly found by LNR fighters in “abandoned Ukrainian positions,” which “turn Ukrainians into ‘one-man armies’.” However, prior to the Russian Spring publication, pro-Kremlin news outlets didn’t specify the “narcotics” in question. Nor did they publish concrete evidence of drug use among members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
The exclusive content on Russian Spring is not limited to videos of POWs. Videos showing the deaths of Ukrainian soldiers and the destruction of Ukrainian military equipment by the Russian army are especially popular. Most of these videos first appeared on the Russian Spring Telegram channel.
One video that shows Russian artillery striking Ukrainian positions is facetiously called “Disco for Ukrainian militants.” Aerial footage of explosions is overlayed with cheerful dance music. According to a music recognition app, the song is “Solnyshko” by Demo, a Russian pop group that was popular in the 2000s.
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A regular feature on the Russian Spring channel is videos of Russian soldiers engaging in “night hunts” — i.e., videos of combat recorded at night, in which attacks on enemy positions are shown from a first-person perspective.
For example, on May 13, the channel published a recording from a sniper’s camera: the viewer watches as the shooter takes accurately aimed shots at Ukrainian soldiers with the help of a scope-mounted camera.
The channel says much of this content was received from the army group “O,” which is part of the Russian military. In “patriotic” circles, this operational unit is often called “Brave” (Otvazhnye in Russian), as suggested by Evgeny Poddubny, a military correspondent for the Russian state-owned broadcaster VGTRK. By mid-July, of the channel’s 275 posts tagged as “exclusive,” 221 had to do with “Brave.”
“The army group ‘O’ are the forces of the Central Military District under the command of General Alexander Lapin,” Ruslan Leviev, a military analyst and founder of Conflict Intelligence Team, tells Meduza. “‘V’ is the forces of the Eastern Military District, while ‘Z’ is the forces of the Western Military District.”
In a conversation with Meduza, Russian Spring editors claimed that their military correspondents “work in the major hot spots of recent years.” Namely, the Donbas and Syria.
“Most of our reports were filmed by [our war correspondents],” Russian Spring told when Meduza asked if the publication has an agreement with the Russian Defense Ministry or if this is the soldiers’ own initiative. “Obviously, any war correspondent on the front line interacts with the soldiers, since some of the footage was transmitted directly to us by the fighters.”
Orthodox and Anti-Maidan
Russia’s federal media watchdog and censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, registered Russian Spring as a media outlet in August 2015 (a year after the site was launched). On July 9, 2015, the Russian Spring domain was re-registered for a single day to an email that, according to information from a leaked database of Yandex.Food customers, belonged to the 48-year-old Russian citizen Pavel Shalunov.
A graduate of Moscow State University, in the early 2000s Shalunov worked as a project manager in the Belgorod Region’s administration, led regional and municipal election campaigns, and, by his own account, “was engaged in party building” as part of United Russia’s Central Election Commission. According to leaked records pertaining to Moscow residents, Shalunov also worked for the Moscow branch of United Russia in 2013.
On his Habr Career profile, Shalunov underscores that he’s a practicing Orthodox Christian and that he studied at the Belgorod Orthodox Theological Seminary from 2006–2010. In 2019–2020, he worked as a systems administrator at the World Russian People’s Council (VRNS) — an organization under the leadership of Patriarch Kirill. “Orthodox businessman” and Tsargrad TV founder Konstantin Malofeev has served as the organization’s deputy head since 2019.
Before Malofeev, the deputy head of the VRNS was Oleg Kostin, who had held the position since at least 2015. Today, Kostin manages a foundation that supports the VRNS.
On January 28, 2015, Kostin received an email with the subject line: “Request for publication on Russian Spring and on other resources.” The email was from Kirill Frolov, the head of the Department for Relations with the Russian Orthodox Church at the Institute of CIS Countries. Frolov asked Kostin to publish a report entitled “Save Russia,” authored by the Association of Orthodox Experts (an organization he founded). However, Russian Spring never published the report.
How do we know about this email?
In 2016, InformNapalm leaked a database of Kirill Frolov’s emails dating from 1997–2016, which was obtained by hackers from the Ukrainian Cyber Alliance.
Judging by Frolov’s correspondence, he actively cooperated with pro-Russian activists in Ukraine, as well as with the Putin administration. Among other things, these emails detail projects to counter Ukraine’s European integration. Meduza found the email Frolov apparently sent to Oleg Kostin in this archive.
Frolov declined to comment on the authenticity of the email addressed to Kostin, citing the fact that the Russian Justice Ministry has designated Meduza as a “foreign agent.”
Oleg Kostin and Pavel Shalunov both held senior positions at Smart Civilization, an organization created to “support dialogue between Russian and foreign ‘think tanks,’ nongovernmental organizations, the media, academies, and universities,” its website says.
Pavel Shalunov is also affiliated with another online news site, Rusnext. According to its website, Rusnext is “continuing the Russian Spring project.” And its YouTube channel has also published videos with the Russian Spring watermark.
Rusnext also publishes columns by Alexander Rudakov. According to leaked records from the Federal Tax Service, Rudakov — like Pavel Shalunov — worked for United Russia in 2002–2003. Until 2019, Rudakov also directed the VRNS’s Expert Center. And in the early 2000s, Shalunov and Radukov co-founded the Russian Hand-to-Hand Combat Federation.
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In 2017, Ukraine’s Information Policy Ministry included Rusnext and Russian Spring on a list of websites that it recommended banning in Ukraine. In a 2018 report, researchers from the RAND Corporation listed Rusnext among other “pseudonews websites devoted to [Russian] propaganda.”
Alexander Rudakov declined to speak with Meduza, citing his busy schedule. Oleg Kostin did not respond to Meduza’s calls and messages conveyed via his VRNS colleagues. Pavel Shalunov told Meduza that he’s not affiliated with the sites Russian Spring and Rusnext, but would not answer further questions.
The editors of Russian Spring told Meduza that Pavel Shalunov “helped out with the technical registration when creating the site,” and that Oleg Kostin “has nothing to do with them at all.”
Russian Spring was founded by company called Modern Information Technologies. This company’s owner and founder is Nikolai Baklanov, a resident of the Moscow suburb Ramenskoye. Like Pavel Shalunov, he’s a specialist in hand-to-hand combat and a churchgoer.
Russian Spring’s revenue sources are a mystery: there are practically no ads on the site. Up until 2021, Modern Information Technologies’s own revenue did not exceed 1.6 million rubles (about $26,000). But in 2021, it pulled in 17.9 million rubles (nearly $290,000), with a net loss of just 2 million rubles ($32,000), according to a the SPARK-Interfax database.
The editors of Russian Spring told Meduza that “the expenditure side of the publication is extremely small since two-thirds of the work is done by online enthusiasts.” According to them, the publication doesn’t have “large or small” backers or experience obtaining grants, but there’s advertising on its site.
The Russian Spring website says it collects donations from readers, but it doesn’t give details on how to transfer funds. Nikolai Baklanov has never owned a business large enough to finance a daily-news site’s editorial office, though he co-owned a furniture manufacturer in the mid-2000s. It’s likely that Baklanov is only the nominal owner of Modern Information Technologies.
Elena Averkova became the CEO of Modern Information Technologies in April 2021. For years, she had worked for the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society (IPPO) and much of her career is connected to Dmitry Sablin — a State Duma lawmaker from the United Russia party and the leader of the movement Anti-Maidan, which ostensibly aims “to prevent color revolutions” in Russia.
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Nikolai Baklanov, the owner of Modern Information Technologies, is also an acquaintance of Dmitry Sablin — they both took part in the “Candle of Memory” rally, an event in the Moscow suburb of Vidnoye supported by Combat Brotherhood.
Russian Spring doesn’t try to hide its affiliation with Sablin: his projects Combat Brotherhood and Anti-Maidan appear in first and second place on Russian Spring’s list of partners. And the Telegram channel “Russian Spring War Correspondents” reposts content from Sablin’s channel.
Sablin’s Combat Brotherhood is actively involved in the Donbas. For example, in 2015, the organization donated 3 million rubles ($49,000 at today’s exchange rate) to orphans and pensioners in the Donbas, and brought in a Christmas tree from Moscow. After the start of the full-scale war, regional branches of Combat Brotherhood organized not only the collection of aid for Russian troops, but also the deployment of volunteers to the front. They also began to hold auto rallies to support the Russian army.
Sablin himself went into property development back in the 1990s and became, with the help of Combat Brotherhood, one of the largest landowners in the Moscow region. In 2017, Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation published an investigation into Sablin’s personal estate in Zhukovka, part of the prestigious Rublyovka residential area outside Moscow. The investigative outlet Proekt estimated the value of the plot of land alone — without taking into account the value of the house — at 361 million rubles ($5.9 million at today’s exchange rate).
Today, Sablin’s former assistant Elena Averkova may be working in the Putin administration. A person who shares her full name, email address, and phone number was listed in a leaked database of “lockdown passes” issued to Moscow residents at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. This person’s workplace was listed as “Presidential Administration of Russia.” The GetContact app also showed that someone had saved Averkova’s phone number as, “Alena Averkova, Presidential Administration.”
Elena Averkova told Meduza that she “never worked and does not work in the presidential administration.” “I really am the director of the company Modern Information Technologies,” she said. “However, I’ve been doing this for a little over a year, and the scope of our activity has nothing to do with managing information portals, the press, [or] mass media outlets.” She declined to elaborate on what the company does, citing the types of activities listed when the company was registered. According to the SPARK-Interfax database, these include “publishing activities” and the “activities of news agencies.”
According to Averkova, the Russian Spring website was registered by “the founders of the company” (Nikolai Baklanov is the only known founder of Modern Information Technologies) long before she began working there, and it was transferred to them “as an asset along with the change of director.” Averkova and her staff, she said, are not affiliated with the site “in any way.”
The database WhoIs indicates that the Russian Spring website was registered to a company called Technostroi, which Modern Information Technologies has owned since 2015. The company’s registration data was changed in mid-July 2022, around the same time Meduza’s correspondent was in contact with people from Combat Brotherhood and Elena Averkova’s entourage.
More than 3,000 companies called “Technostroi” are registered in Russia, according to the SPARK-Interfax database. The Yandex.Food data leak contains information showing that Elena Averkova repeatedly ordered food to the registered address of Techno Stroi LLC, a company that trades in building materials. Meduza cannot confirm that this company is the new owner of Russian Spring. Its CEO Roman Kaverin told Meduza that he owns the legal entity Techno Stroi, but “the company itself doesn’t exist.” The legal entity has no connection with Russian Spring, he added.
Kaverin also clarified that for the past year, Elena Averkova rented a space from him in this building for the Modern Information Technologies office. Averkova’s Yandex.Food orders were dated 2021 and January 2022.
The Russian Spring website’s current registration data also includes a phone number belonging to a certain Maxim Kornizov. Speaking to Meduza, Kornizov said he works as an administrator of the site. He also said he “has a relationship” with Technostroi, but he doesn’t know the company’s registered address. He claimed the change of the site’s registration data had been “planned for a long time.”
Averkova claimed that Technostroi LLC (which is listed in the registration data of the Russian Spring website) and Techno Stroi (located at the address where she rented a space for Modern Information Technologies) are companies with different tax identification numbers and management. “I don’t know anything more about the company or the owner of the website,” she told Meduza. “It’s the founders’ asset, I’ve never been interested in its fate in any way.”
The editors of Russian Spring told Meduza that the company Techno Stroi has “nothing to do with them.”
Russian Spring’s editorial office told Meduza that some of the site’s creators and employees are “combat veterans and, long before the events in Ukraine, were already members of Combat Brotherhood.” This, they claimed, “never and in no way” had any influence on the publication’s policies, and they do not have “financial relations with the leadership of Combat Brotherhood or with Dmitry Sablin specifically.” “Together with Combat Brotherhood,” they stated, “we participated in humanitarian operations in Syria and the Donbas many times, delivering aid to frontline cities, taking children from there for rest and treatment.”
The Russian Spring editorial office refused to identify the founder and owner of the publication:
“The lack of public information about the editorial staff is due to the banal fact that our war correspondents work very actively in hot spots, including in Ukraine (some are even citizens of this country). For their security, we minimize the amount of public information about the editorial staff.”
Russian Spring’s response to Meduza’s inquiries said that since becoming CEO of Modern Information Technologies, Elena Averkova has had no “actual relationship” with the site’s activities. According to the editors, “due to Covid circumstances and agreements,” the transfer of the company was delayed, and the website “was only recently taken down and transferred to another organization.”
Meduza was unable to reach Nikolai Baklanov by phone and he did not respond to questions sent via email prior to publication. The Russian Defense Ministry and the Central Military District did not respond to Meduza’s questions prior to publication either. Dmitry Sablin left a message from Meduza’s correspondent unanswered.
Cover photo: Zamir Usmanov / TASS
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