A prominent pro-war Russian blogger who criticized President Vladimir Putin and his army’s misadventures in Ukraine was arrested on Friday, in a move that suggests the Kremlin’s patience with dissent has waned in the wake of Wagner’s mercenary rebellion last month.
Igor Girkin, a former KGB officer who helped Russia take over Crimea and was convicted of mass murder for his role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, was taken from his Moscow home by security agents on Friday and charged with “extremist activity”, according to state media and a post on his Telegram account attributed to his wife.
Girkin, who also goes by the nom de guerre Igor Strelkov, is one of Russia’s best-known “milbloggers,” a group of war correspondents who support the invasion but are increasingly critical of the military’s failing operations in Ukraine. Girkin had in recent months taken his criticism to another level, lambasting the Russian state and even Putin himself.
He co-founded an ultra-nationalist political group called the Angry Patriots Club this spring, and told Reuters that Russia was “on the cusp of very serious internal political changes of a catastrophic character”.
The day after Wagner’s brief uprising ended on June 25, he said that if Putin “isn’t ready to take the lead in creating the conditions for war” in Russia, “then he really needs to transfer power, but legally, to someone who is capable of such hard work.”
But the straw that broke the camel’s back for Putin may have come on Tuesday, when Girkin called the president a “thug” and a “cowardly tramp” in a raunchy post on his Telegram channel.
“For 23 years, the country was ruled by a thug who managed to ‘blow dust in the eyes’ of a significant part of the population. Now he is the last island of state legitimacy and stability,” the message read. “But the country will not be able to endure another six years of this cowardly tramp in power.”
Miroslava Reginskaya, Girkin’s wife, said in the Telegram statement attributed to her that Russian Investigative Committee agents arrived at their apartment at 11:30 a.m. local time on Friday (4:30 a.m. ET) and took him “in an unknown direction.”
State news agency Ria Novosti later reported that Girkin had been charged with incitement to extremist activities, citing Moscow’s Meshchansky court.
“Strelkov is charged with Part 2 of Article 280 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (public calls for extremist activity),” the court said, according to Ria. If found guilty, Girkin could be sentenced to up to 5 years in prison.
Another message on Girkin’s Telegram account, attributed to his “associates”, said his arrest on Friday coincided with an attempt to split the Angry Patriots Club over differing views on Wagner and his attempted uprising in Russia in June, which posed Putin’s most significant challenge since he took power more than two decades ago.
Girkin “openly and reasonably criticized the actions of government officials, including the president,” the statement from his associates said. They said trust in Russia’s “freedom of speech” was compromised and that “processes are taking place in our country that indicate that government officials are moving away from core values.”
Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior researcher at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said Girkin had “crossed every line imaginable a long time ago” and that his arrest was the result of the Defense Ministry reasserting control in the wake of Wagner’s rebellion.
“It’s the direct result of [Yevgeny] The Prigozhin mutiny,” she said on Twitter, referring to Wagner’s boss. “The army command now has greater political clout to crush its opponents in the public sphere. Massive crackdowns on “angry patriots” are unlikely, but the most outspoken dissenters could face prosecution, serving as a cautionary tale for others.
Girkin is a former colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and served as defense minister in the breakaway so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in eastern Ukraine, territory captured by pro-Russian forces in 2014.
It was during his time in the DPR that he helped bring down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014, a Dutch court has found. All 298 people on board were killed. The court last year found Girkin guilty of mass murder for his role in the incident and he was sentenced in absentia to life in prison.
According to the court, Girkin participated in the conflicts in Chechnya, Transnistria and Bosnia.
Girkin was remanded in custody until September 18 following his arrest on Friday, after the judge denied his request for house arrest due to an apparent heart condition.
The prosecution said Girkin was a flight risk, citing his ties to law enforcement, Russian media also reported. In his court statement, the prominent blogger argued he could not flee abroad, calling the claims “frankly ridiculous”.
His detention comes just three days after Russian state media TASS reported that retired Russian Colonel Vladimir Kvachkov, an associate of Girkin, was facing criminal charges for “discrediting the Russian armed forces”.
While TASS did not specify which of Kvachkov’s comments sparked the accusations, Kvachkov also openly criticized Putin, describing his government as “virtually non-existent” in on-camera remarks at an Angry Patriots event following the Wagner Rebellion last month.
Ukrainian defense intelligence later claimed that Girkin’s arrest signaled that there could be growing conflicts within the Kremlin.
“The problem is not with Girkin himself, who has never acted as an independent figure before. Nor are many other military correspondents or military bloggers, or members of Girkin’s group. They are not independent figures,” a representative of Ukraine’s defense intelligence service, Andriі Yusov, told Ukrainian broadcasters on Friday.
Yusov went on to say it was “paradoxical” that Girkin was arrested but Wagner founder Prigozhin was not.
“Prigozhin was marching on Moscow and shooting down planes and helicopters, but Girkin is the one who was arrested,” he said. “It is a specificity of the Putin regime. “
“All this suggests that members of the Kremlin towers are already entering an active phase of internal confrontation,” he added, without providing evidence.
CNN’s Yulia Kesaieva, Vasco Cotovio and Katharina Krebs contributed reporting.
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