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Who's behind Rybar? The Bell unmasks one of Telegram's most widely-cited pro-Kremlin military analysis channels
Rybar, a pro-Kremlin military analysis channel on Telegram, has been cited by the world's top news agencies, and it's easy to understand why: the channel seems to have access to a wide network of informants whose claims are difficult to ignore, if impossible to verify. But despite its influence, Rybar's administrators have remained anonymous throughout the war. In a new investigation, however, journalists from the independent Russian news outlet The Bell uncovered key information about the channel's creators, its funding, and its contributors. In English, Meduza summarizes their findings.
The independent Russian news outlet The Bell has released a new investigation into the people behind the pro-Kremlin Telegram channel Rybar, which covers the war in Ukraine. Since the start of the war, the channel has gained almost 1.1 million subscribers. As The Bell notes in the article, Rybar publishes detailed battlefield updates and maps, as well as the coordinates of Ukrainian positions and Ukrainian strategic objects. According to the channel’s administrators, they run the channel “to facilitate the work of the allied forces.”
Update. On November 25, Mikhail Zvinchuk, a former member of the Russian Defense Ministry’s press service, confirmed in an interview with RTVI that he and his “colleague” Denis Shchukin created Rybar. The Bell first reported that Zvinchuk was Rybar’s creator on November 19, shortly after the release of its investigation into the channel.
Rybar has been cited by CNN, Bloomberg, and even the Institute for the Study of War, among other organizations. At the same time, according to The Bell, Rybar is the only one of Russia’s most popular military Telegram channels whose owners have managed to remain anonymous.
After The Bell’s investigation was published, Rybar itself published the following message:
Everything secret eventually comes to light. We’ve been found out. We suggest acquainting yourself with this fascinating fantasy story. We’ve like to use the occasion to ask the non-profit organization “Russia – Land of Opportunity” to open a window of opportunity for us and pay us what our services are worth — and to ask [Russian Defense Ministry spokesman] Igor Yevgenyevich Konashenkov to finally pay for the mobilization ads.
Ties to Prigozhin
In March 2020, Rybar’s creators themselves announced that there were two of them: one “military interpreter [and] OSINT specialist” and one “political strategist, a member of the old aristocracy.” The figures claimed to have “specific experience and knowledge, thanks to which we can allow ourselves to mock the level of military-analytical expertise in Russia and the post-Soviet space.” They worked, they said, “in the field of information warfare and counterpropaganda in the name of the interests of the Russian state.”
According to The Bell, Rybar’s self-proclaimed “political strategist [and] member of the old aristocracy” is a man named Denis Shchukin. The Bell's correspondent came across his account in a chat group called Rybarnaya No. 1, which was created at the same time as the original Rybar channel to provide a platform for the channel’s most active subscribers to communicate with its administrators.
Denis Shchukin is registered on Telegram under the username @real_pike. In the chat group with Rybar subscribers, he referred to himself as one of Rybar’s administrators. He also told users that he’s German, and described his profession as “rather like a manager, but also a political scientist.” In fact, according to the Bell, Shchukin is a 44-year-old programmer from Moscow.
The Bell contacted Shchukin through Telegram. In response to questions about Rybar’s work and creators, he said the following:
At this stage, it makes no sense. I’m not going to deanonymize our employees and give away something that could be used against us; after all, that’s what you need (as your outlet is a liberal one). So sorry, but no. Thanks for talking.
In the Rybarnaya No. 1 group, The Bell’s correspondent discovered one other former chat administrator with the nickname RD and the username @rea1_pike, which is almost identical to Shchukin’s. In the chat, RD called himself the owner of Rybar and communicated with subscribers in Arabic. He also said he was from Vladivostok, graduated from the Russian Defense Ministry’s Military University, and served long tours in Syria and Iraq.
According to The Bell, the similarity between Denis Shchukin and RD’s usernames suggests that both accounts belong to the same person; on the other hand, the accounts sometimes communicate with one another in the chat. In addition, their purported biographies don’t align, and their posts in the group differ in style. The Bell’s correspondent tried to contact RD, but did not receive a response.
The Bell also concluded that Rybar’s list of contributors may include Abbas Juma, a “war correspondent” for the Federal News Agency (RIA FAN), a pro-Kremlin news outlet with links to oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin and his troll farm the Internet Research Agency. Juma speaks both Arabic and English as well as Russian.
Journalists from The Bell also found two Rybar moderators in the Rybarnaya No. 1 chat group. One of them uses the ID @Poumpoum and is addressed in the chat as both “Louie” and “Louis.” According to the Bell’s correspondent, the user likely lives in France and runs the Telegram channel ZZ.OZ.ZOZZ (4,500 followers), which publishes French translations of Rybar’s posts and assists Rybar by monitoring French-language resources. Louie did not respond to The Bell’s questions.
The other moderator, named Olga, has the username @owlgasova and appears to live in St. Petersburg. According to The Bell’s investigation, in addition to her administrative work for Rybar, Olga tracks military developments related to Turkey. In response to questions from The Bell’s correspondent, she said, “You have me confused with somebody else. I have no connection to Rybar, and I am extremely wary of your outlet’s activities. I ask you not to bother me again.”
Piquing the feds' interest
In 2019, about a year after Rybar was launched, it caught the attention of oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin, an employee of Prigohzin’s Patriot Media Group told The Bell. Prigozhin started providing funding to the channel, and from June 2020 until August 2021, Rybar wrote a column on the Federal News Agency website, as well as providing commentary for the Federal News Agency’s podcast International FAN. According to the source, editors at the Federal News Agency knew the contributor from Rybar as Denis, and were told he had worked as a military interpreter in Arab countries.
The source told The Bell that in addition to collaborating to develop the Rybar channel, Shchukin and Prigozhin worked together to “perform certain tasks” that were in the interests of the oligarch’s own businesses, though the source was unable to specify what these tasks consisted of. Ultimately, however, Shchukin was unable to hold up his end of the bargain, the source said, and Prigozhin revoked Rybar’s funding.
According to The Bell’s investigation, Rybar also earns money from advertising by publishing posts from “approved clients.” A source who runs a different anonymous Telegram channel and who is in touch with Rybar’s creators journalists that Shchukin has accrued a large enough pool of advertisers to fund the channel’s work.
The source told The Bell that the cost of a single advertisement in Rybar starts at 200,000 rubles ($3,300), and that the channel has long-term contracts with Russia Today, the Federal News Agency, and multiple other Z-channels (i.e. pro-Kremlin channels) with links to the Putin-created nonprofit “Russia – Land of Opportunity” and the Russian president’s First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko.
The sources who run their own Telegram channels estimated the cost of Rybar’s operations at between 1.8 million and 3 million rubles ($30,000–$50,000). They also speculated that roughly a quarter of the channel’s monthly expenses may go towards paying informants in Russia and Ukraine. According to one of the sources, Rybar employees may receive salaries significantly lower than the market rate — for example, 30,000 rubles ($495) per month.
One source told The Bell that after the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine, “FSB representatives” became interested in Rybar's work, and the channel has since begun periodically publishing information from the agency. According to the source, Prigozhin may have assisted the channel’s creators in negotiations with the federal agents. The Bell was unable to confirm these claims.
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In October, after its contributors criticized the Russian Defense Ministry, Rybar appeared on a list of Telegram channels and journalists who authorities allegedly planned to investigate for possible illegal “disinformation” or “discreditation” of the Russian army. According to the Telegram outlet Mash, Russian Army General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov personally requested that Russia’s federal censor investigate Rybar.
At the same time, The Bell noted, Rybar published its first three promotional posts about training for mobilized soldiers at Defense Ministry training grounds just three days before the reports that it would be investigated.
Translated summary by Sam Breazeale
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