May 29, 2024

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Russia is detaining Igor Girkin, the former security officer who led operations in Ukraine

RIGA, Latvia — Russian authorities on Friday arrested Igor Girkin, a former Russian commander in Ukraine and a prominent war blogger, on charges of promoting extremism, marking the first time Moscow has taken action against an ardent supporter of the war in Ukraine, but has leveled harsh criticism of Russian leaders and their often failed military strategy.

Criticizing the war and the military is illegal in Russia, and the authorities have ruthlessly cracked down on those who express anti-war views, including schoolchildren. But Russian law enforcement authorities have ignored the sharp, often fiery, criticism from pro-war hawks who have blasted battlefield decisions, decried repeated military setbacks and called for tougher attacks on Ukraine.

Girkin, also known by his nom de guerre Igor Strelkov, is a former officer of the Federal Security Service, or FSB. He played a role in Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, and then served as a commander in Russian-controlled areas of Donbass in eastern Ukraine, where he helped foment a separatist war and was accused of extrajudicial killings.

In November, Gerken and two co-defendants were found guilty by a court in the Netherlands of murder in the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, an attack that killed all 298 passengers and crew on the plane. Russia had shielded Girkin from extradition in this case.

Russian state news agencies reported that Girkin is now accused of “public advocacy of extremist activities” online. On Friday evening, he appeared in a Moscow court for a pre-trial hearing as investigators requested that he be imprisoned for two months.

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Girkin’s wife, Miroslava Ryginskaya, first reported the news of her husband’s arrest on his Telegram blog, which has nearly a million subscribers, saying officers entered their apartment on Friday morning and “took him to an unknown location.”

Girkin’s supporters, in a statement on his blog, linked the detention to his criticism of the way Russia is conducting its war in Ukraine and his demands for accountability after the short-lived insurrection organized by Wagner’s mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin in late June.

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The statement said: “Recently, after the events of June 24 of this year, Igor persistently sought condemnation at the state level for the actions of an illegal armed group – PMC ‘Wagner’ and the activities of its leader Prigozhin, and received public threats for this.” “We believe that today’s arrest undermines the confidence of the country’s population in law enforcement agencies and we view it as a continuation of the dishonest battle against Igor, which has very negative consequences for the country’s stability amid the special military operation,” the statement added.

Prigozhin’s mutiny, in which several Russian military planes were shot down and a convoy of heavy-armed Wagner fighters made a “short march to Moscow” until Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko helped broker a deal to overturn it, has rocked Russia’s “patriotic” camp — a group of outspoken commentators, bloggers and former military officers whom the Kremlin military has apparently allowed to criticize.

Many in that group called on Putin to punish Prigozhin for destabilizing society, and were outraged when the Russian leader allowed Prigozhin and Wagner to go free. Others pointed out that Prigozhin was justified in his criticism of the country’s top military officers and their attempts to absorb the mercenary group, which has been praised as one of Russia’s most efficient units, while the regular army is often seen as dysfunctional.

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In addition to allowing their criticism, Putin has given some of the leading pro-war commentators several in-person meetings to hear their grievances. But the case against Girkin suggests that the Kremlin’s tolerance may be running out.

On his blog, Girkin called Prigozhin a traitor and mocked Putin’s decision to meet him and other Wagner leaders a few days after the mutiny, suggesting it was a sign of weakness on the part of the president.

Girkin wrote in early July: “Those who remain under the bastard and traitor Prigozhin now, after rebelling and killing the Russian army … are traitors because they have shown their willingness to kill anyone, anywhere, on the orders of those who pay them.”

Girkin also directly accused Putin of indecisiveness, criticizing the president’s increasing absence from the public eye and the country’s poor performance on the battlefield.

“The miserable whining, the complaints from the partners…for a very, very long time, the chief’s rhetoric bears little resemblance to the conventional ‘male standard’…just a lot of chatter, little action, and a complete lack of any will to take responsibility for failures,” Girkin wrote on July 18.

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Just half an hour later, Girkin followed it up with another post implying Putin’s step down, which has landed Russian opposition figures in jail and could be considered under Russian law as “invitations to extremism”.

“The country will not last another six years with this cowardly mediocrity in power,” Girkin wrote. “And the only useful thing he can do ‘before the end’ is to ensure that power is transferred to someone who is truly capable and responsible.”

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Girkin, who describes himself as a Russian nationalist, is a former FSB colonel who helped lead Moscow’s incursion into eastern Ukraine nine years ago.

In 2014, Girkin infiltrated the Ukrainian city of Slovansk with a few dozen masked men, taking over government buildings and a police station. Soon after, Girkin declared himself the “supreme commander” of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and raised the Russian flag to mark the puppet state’s allegiance to Moscow. He was soon driven out of Slovenia by Ukrainian forces, but he accused the Kremlin of not being firm enough to send reinforcements.

During his time in Donetsk, Girkin was allegedly involved in the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. After a Dutch-led investigation, a court in Holland convicted Girkin and two other men of allegedly playing a role in bringing and putting into place the Buk surface-to-air missile system from a Russian base from a Russian base. They were sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment.