Russia arrests Igor Girkin, ex-security officer who led operations in Ukraine

RIGA, Latvia — Russian authorities on Friday detained Igor Girkin, a former Russian commander in Ukraine and prominent war blogger, reportedly on charges of promoting extremism — marking the first time Moscow has taken action against a fervent supporter of the war in Ukraine but one who voiced loud criticism of Russian leaders and their often botched military strategy.

Criticizing the war and the military is illegal in Russia, and authorities have cracked down mercilessly on those expressing antiwar views, including schoolchildren. But Russian law enforcement has ignored fierce, often fiery, criticism from pro-war hawks who have lambasted battlefield decisions, decried repeated military setbacks and demanded harsher attacks on Ukraine.

Girkin, who is also known by his nom de guerre Igor Strelkov, is an ex-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 Donbas in eastern Ukraine, where he helped foment a separatist war and was accused of extrajudicial killings.

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

Now, however, Girkin is being accused of “public calls for extremist activities” online, Russian state news agencies reported. On Friday evening, he appeared in a Moscow court at a pretrial hearing where investigators asked that he be jailed for two months.

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

Girkin’s supporters, in a statement on his blog, linked the detention to his criticism of how Russia runs its war in Ukraine and to his demands for accountability after the short-lived mutiny staged by the Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeniy Prigozhin in late June.

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“Recently, after the events of June 24 of this year, Igor consistently sought condemnation at the state level of the actions of an illegal armed group — PMC ‘Wagner’ and the activities of its leader Prigozhin, and received open threats for this,” the statement said. “We believe that today’s detention undermines the confidence of the country’s population in law enforcement agencies and view it as a continuation of the dishonest fight against Igor that has extremely negative consequences for the stability of the country amid the special military operation,” the statement added, using the Kremlin’s euphemism for the war.

Prigozhin’s rebellion, in which several Russian military aircraft were shot down and a convoy of Wagner fighters with heavy weaponry made a brief “march on Moscow” until Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko helped broker a deal to call it off, has rattled Russia’s “patriotic” camp — a group of outspoken commentators, bloggers and former military officers that the Kremlin had permitted to criticize the military, apparently because of the group’s relentless support for the war overall.

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

In addition to permitting their criticism, Putin even granted some top pro-war commentators several personal meetings to hear their grievances. But the case against Girkin signals that the Kremlin’s tolerance may have worn out.

Girkin, on his blog, had called Prigozhin a traitor and ridiculed Putin’s decision to meet with him and other Wagner commanders just days after the mutiny, suggesting it was a sign of weakness on the president’s part.

“Those who remained under the command of the bastard and traitor Prigozhin now, after the rebellion and the murder of the Russian military … are traitors because they have shown their willingness to kill anyone, anywhere, on the orders of those who pay them money,” Girkin wrote in early July.

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

“Wretched whining, complaints about partners … for a very, very long time, the president’s rhetoric does not even remotely resemble the traditional ‘male standard’ … just a lot of chatter, little action and total lack of any will to take responsibly for failures,” Girkin wrote on July 18. “This is the style of ‘late Putin,’ since around 2014 along with baseless boastful lies.”

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Just a half an hour later, Girkin followed with another post suggesting that Putin step down, something that has landed Russian opposition figures in prison and could be viewed under Russian law as “calls for extremism.”

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

Girkin, a self-described Russian nationalist, is a former FSB colonel who helped lead Moscow’s incursion into eastern Ukraine nine years ago.

In 2014, Girkin sneaked into the Ukrainian city Sloviansk with a few dozen masked men, seizing government buildings and a police station. Shortly after, Girkin declared himself “supreme commander” of the Donetsk People’s Republic, raising the Russian flag to mark the puppet state’s allegiance to Moscow. He was soon ousted from Sloviansk by Ukrainian forces but accused the Kremlin of not being decisive enough to send reinforcements.

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

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