Two Dungeons & Dragons fans have been unmasked as the owners of an influential pro-war social media channel linked to Russian spies and mercenaries.
The Bell, a Russian opposition news group, described the Rybar Telegram channel as a “direct player” in the Kremlin’s information war, influencing Western media and providing real-time battlefield analysis to its 1.1 million subscribers.
"Since the start of Russia’s invasion, it has published information on the positions of Ukrainian military forces and has boasted that the Russian army uses its data for missile strikes," The Bell said.
Rybar, the Slovak word for the fisherman, is named after a character from another fantasy video game. It was set up in 2018 as a hobby blog reporting on security issues in the Middle East, where both the Russian army and the Wagner mercenary group were active.
Wagner became an early sponsor, paying Rybar to publish promotional blogs. But its fortunes languished, with only around 30,000 subscribers reading its niche reports, until February, when it switched to reporting on Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and caught the attention of the Kremlin’s spies.
“Since then, the channel has been expected to publish anything that the FSB wishes to make public,” The Bell reported.
Rybar now has 10 full-time employees and an annual budget of more than £250,000. It publishes professionally edited pro-Kremlin blogs, slick maps showing the Russian army’s latest manoeuvres in Ukraine and high-quality videos promoting Russia's mobilisation drive.
There are dozens of pro-Kremlin channels on the Telegram messaging app, and their influence has grown since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The US-based Institute for the Study of War said that the Kremlin uses these so-called warbloggers, or milbloggers, to project its position in an informal manner.
“Milbloggers’ close relationships with armed forces… have given this community an authoritative voice arguably louder in the Russian information space than the Russian ministry of defence,” it said.
The Bell identified Rybar’s founders as Mikhail Zvinchuk, a former Arabic translator at Russia’s defence ministry, and Denis Shchukin, who has worked as a cleaner and a computer programmer.
“Both Zvinchuk and Shchukin are big fantasy fans,” The Bell reported. “In his student days, Zvinchuk set up a group of volunteer translators to produce Russian versions of Dungeons and Dragons books.”
Mr Zvinchuk and Mr Shchukin have not commented directly on The Bell’s investigation, although Rybar posted a link to the report.
“We invite you to read this fascinating fantasy story,” it said.