June 14, 2023 - 1:00pm

It is a significant transition, going from writing about the war online to discussing it in person with Russia’s President. Yesterday, Vladimir Putin held a televised roundtable with several prominent Russian military bloggers and journalists, their wide-ranging conversation encompassing assistance to civilians in the embattled border region of Belgorod, Ukrainian military strategy and even the destruction of statues in Ukraine.

While this is not the first time Putin has met with war bloggers and correspondents, the timing of the roundtable was no coincidence. Drawing attention away from the first reports of Ukraine successfully liberating Russian-held territory in its much-delayed counteroffensive, Putin demonstrated no loss of mettle.

While acknowledging the existence of the counterassault, he stated that Russia has suffered ten times fewer losses than Ukraine and that the overall goals of the special military operation have not changed. Seeking to show that his ambition has been left undiminished by Ukraine’s recent battlefield progress, Putin further suggested that Russia may one day create a “sanitary zone”, or buffer zone, on Ukrainian territory so that its forces cannot engage in any further incursions into Russian border regions.

Despite having failed to seize Kyiv at the outset of the February 2022 invasion, Putin hinted at another future attempt, asking: “Do we need to go back or not? Why am I asking such a rhetorical question? It is clear that you have no answer to this — I can only answer it myself”.

Given that he is, by his own admission, weighing up Russia’s aims in this war, one may wonder why the President is spending the opening stages of an enemy counteroffensive chatting with bloggers. While all present are pro-war and promote Putin’s conflict through their media channels, some have been known to use their platforms to point out battlefield errors and criticise the management of the war by Russia’s generals. As Ukraine makes progress in its counterassault, Putin may have decided that now is an important moment to bring them into the fold, control the narrative and suppress any criticism of Russia’s battlefield performance.

This is not the only sign that Russia’s defence establishment is asserting its authority over aligned but independent pro-war forces. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has demanded that “volunteer formations” sign contracts with the Russian Defence Ministry by 1st July in a bid to formalise the military hierarchy. While the Chechen Akhmat forces have done so, Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin is continuing to refuse on the basis that “Shoigu cannot manage military formations”.

A clue as to why Shoigu is acting now may lie in the fact that, while Prigozhin has long engaged in an intense war of words with the Russian Ministry of Defence, the rivalry between Wagner and the military establishment has recently degenerated into actual combat. On 17th May, Prigozhin accused Russian soldiers of laying anti-tank mines along Wagner’s retreat routes from the city of Bakhmut, and his mercenaries subsequently captured Russian Army Commander Lt Col Roman Venevitin, interrogating him over whether he had been planting such explosives.

On 8th June, upon his release, Venevitin released a statement claiming that Wagner forces have been frequently threatening, torturing and humiliating soldiers from the conventional military. He additionally stated that Wagner mercenaries have been kidnapping soldiers as leverage to demand weapons, further forcing them to sign contacts with Wagner and generally causing “anarchy” on the frontline.

It may appear a waste of Putin’s time, sipping tea with bloggers as war rages and Russia’s own borders are under threat.  However, as Ukraine makes progress on the battlefield and Shoigu tries to bring aligned forces under the control of the Defence Ministry, this roundtable is merely the latest sign that the military establishment is striving to streamline pro-war forces and control critical voices.