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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Bizarre propaganda stunt sees teenager stream ‘Russia vs NATO’ grand strategy game from notorious mercenary group’s HQ

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The Wagner mercenary group, a kind of Russian Blackwater, is notorious. Founded by catering magnate, oligarch, and Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, the merc outfit has plugged a hole in Russia’s war machine by making up for a deficit in recruits for the country’s regular military. It operates in Syria, Africa, and Ukraine (where many of its fighters are drawn from Russian prisons, a practice whose end the group only announced today), and has been accused of war crimes by multiple international organisations. In short, it’s not the kind of institution you’d expect to host a videogame stream, yet here we are.

In a stream on VKontakte from last weekend, a Russian streamer going by GrishaPutin appeared to play a four-hour, multiplayer match of Hearts of Iron 4 from the Wagner Group’s building in St. Petersburg. Dressed in full military gear in a curiously empty Wagner office, the streamer—who says he’s 16 years old—joined over 20 other online players in acting out what was, essentially, World War 3. The game had been modded to take place in the modern era, with leaders like, yes, Vladimir Putin standing in for HoI4’s traditional roster of Axis and Allied heads of state.

It was a baffling sight, and after first seeing the tale on Reddit, I was convinced that GrishaPutin must have rigged up some kind of greenscreen to emulate the appearance of Wagner’s HQ behind him. But no, it seems to be real: On multiple occasions, the streamer picks up his webcam and shows off other parts of the office, moves to the background to hang up his army uniform at the end, and is reflected in the glass behind him throughout.

In the parts of the stream I’ve seen, GrishaPutin didn’t talk much about how on Earth he came to be streaming a grand strategy game from the headquarters of one of the most infamous paramilitary organisations in the world, but it’s not too hard to piece together. He specifically shouts out Wagner’s “curator for work with the media and bloggers,” Anna Zamaraeva, at one point, and a Russian news organisation called Ostorozhno, Novosti reported that GrishaPutin’s mother said he had decided to go himself, and was told “Cool! Let’s do it!”

That wouldn’t be too surprising. GrishaPutin, who has played alongside some fairly popular western streamers before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (they’ve since disavowed him), claims to be a member of United Russia’s (the country’s governing party) youth wing. And his previous streams and videos have form for spectacular displays of patriotism.

His past videos include several of him in period-appropriate Soviet military uniform, commemorating the anniversaries of significant events in Russian history, as well as older HoI4 videos where he cosplays as whatever side he’s playing in-game. I’ve got no real interest in dismantling the patchwork ideology of a teenager, but I am a bit confused by the video celebrating the 152nd birthday of Vladimir Lenin, whom Vladimir Putin accused of “separating, severing what is historically Russian land” and creating an independent Ukraine. If nothing else his online persona reflects the incredibly confused ideological medley that comes from the population of a very right-wing, reactionary state being simultaneously nostalgic for an international communist project.

Upon learning about the stream, some Paradox staff attempted to figure out where the stream was being hosted, most likely in an attempt to get it shut down. But GrishaPutin had already been banned from Twitch and was streaming on Russian social network VKontakte, making them powerless to do anything about it.

I’ve reached out to Paradox to ask for comment on this event, and will update this piece if I hear back.

As for the stream, the whole thing quickly came to nuclear blows and eventually ended with peace talks between the Russian side and “Donald Trump,” played by a member of the other team. Somehow, though, I don’t think the point of the exercise was to show the destructive futility of war, which always has to end in negotiation. Instead, the whole thing was conducted in a borderline-nihilistic spirit of defiance, a kind of ‘we don’t care what you think of us’ sardonicism that’s meant to reinforce unity at home rather than win over observers abroad.

The stream didn’t really do incredible numbers (a mere 12K views at time of writing), so I’d be surprised if Wagner Group seized on GrishaPutin as a new tool in its propaganda arsenal for the war in Ukraine. Still, it’s a perverse showcase of modern warfare in the 21st century, the kind of thing that’ll end up clipped and showcased in a future Adam Curtis documentary. When you consider that the military-industrial complex in the west already has its tendrils in games like Call of Duty and is making plans for streaming, videos such as this feel like a harbinger of things to come.

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