Russian investigators on Friday detained a leading nationalist critic of the country’s conduct of the war in Ukraine, in a sign that last month’s brief mutiny by Wagner mercenaries has further reduced tolerance of any dissent, even among those who support Moscow’s invasion.
Igor Girkin, also known as Strelkov, was detained in his apartment by investigators, who accused him of engaging in extremist activities, his wife, Miroslava, said in a post on the Telegram messaging app. RIA Novosti, a Russian state news agency, confirmed Mr. Girkin’s detention, citing his lawyer.
Who is Girkin?
A popular nationalist blogger, Mr. Girkin has been increasingly critical of the Russian Army’s leadership and the way it has managed the war in Ukraine. He has argued for a more robust mobilization of Russian society and its economy to support the war effort, as well as a purge of those who oppose the invasion.
He escalated his criticism in recent days, launching personal attacks against President Vladimir V. Putin, whom he referred to as a “nothingness, who managed to ‘throw dust in the eyes’ of a large portion of the population.”
“The country cannot survive another six years of this cowardly mediocrity at the helm,” Mr. Girkin wrote in a Telegram post on Tuesday, referring to the next presidential election in Russia.
A Russian Army veteran and former intelligence officer, Mr. Girkin helped Russia illegally annex Crimea in 2014 and then led pro-Russian separatist militias in eastern Ukraine. With his ruthless discipline, he earned a reputation as a decisive commander.
In May 2014, he was appointed defense minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a separatist entity that claimed the territory of the Donetsk region of Ukraine. He was dismissed a few months later after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard.
Last November, a court in the Netherlands found Mr. Girkin and two others guilty of murder for their roles in the downing of the plane; Mr. Girkin has denied responsibility.
Since 2014, Mr. Girkin had been gradually sidelined, his messianic views widely seen as too extreme. He regained prominence with the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, becoming one of the most popular commentators on the war.
Echoing Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner group of mercenaries, Mr. Girkin has been increasingly critical of the Russian military leadership. He ridiculed Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu as a “plywood marshal,” but he was also critical of Mr. Prigozhin’s attempt to challenge the foundations of Mr. Putin’s power by launching a mutiny at the end of June.
Why it Matters
This month, the Russian authorities searched a patriotic cultural center in St. Petersburg where Mr. Girkin said he had been scheduled to give a speech. It was a rare move against hard-line supporters of the war in Ukraine that signaled a growing Russian effort to clamp down on influential ultranationalists after the Wagner mutiny.
The aborted uprising has increased the powers of the Russian Defense Ministry, which has been “itching to arrest” Mr. Girkin for a long time, said Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“This is one of the consequences of Prigozhin’s mutiny,” Ms. Stanovaya said in a post on Telegram after Mr. Girkin’s arrest was announced.
“The army has gained more political opportunities to suppress its opponents in public space,” she said. “I wouldn’t expect it to turn into something massive; the most radical ones may be persecuted so the rest will be more careful.”
While Mr. Girkin has been the highest profile critic of the Russian military’s conduct of the war, he was not the only nationalist figure charged this week. A retired colonel from Russia’s military intelligence, Vladimir Kvachov, was charged with discrediting the armed forces, according to Russian news media reports.
Until now, the charge of discrediting the armed forces has been used mostly against leftist critics of the war. Mr. Kvachov, 74, was quoted as saying by the Kommersant newspaper that the charges were likely based on a critique that he published, as part of a group of hard-line, mostly retired military officers, of the Kremlin’s military campaign, while calling for all-out war against Ukraine.
On Friday, a group of Mr. Girkin’s supporters said in a post on his Telegram channel that his detention “undermines the confidence of the country’s population in law enforcement agencies” and will have “extremely negative consequences for the country’s stability.”
But Mr. Putin has signaled that he is firmly on the side of his military leadership. The Russian president said on Friday during a meeting with members of his Security Council that the military has acted “professionally” in managing the fighting in Ukraine.
Neil MacFarquhar contributed reporting.