In early December, when explosions sounded near airfields in Simferopol, Sevastopol and Dzhankoy, in Ukraine, the first platforms to quickly report this news were not major television networks. They were local Telegram channels.
During the war in Ukraine, the encrypted messaging app has been a cornerstone of communications. Launched in 2013 by Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, who left Russia in 2014 after a feud with the Kremlin, the platform is widely used in Europe, Russia and Ukraine, where millions of people have downloaded it. Telegram hosts a number of channels dedicated to reporting on the war and has remained a vital means of communication and source of information for many living through the conflict.
For exactly this reason, Moscow has focused on infiltrating Telegram channels to spread disinformation to Ukrainians and flood Russian users with pro-Kremlin content, including calls for Russian citizens to enlist in the war. While this effort to infiltrate and weaponize Telegram is not necessarily new, it represents a shift from Russia’s initial approach to the app. And it indicates that when the Kremlin can’t block a technology, it will work to infiltrate, subvert and overwhelm it.