Status: 09.12.2023, 08:14 a.m.
By: Tadhg Nagel
A Russian ultranationalist is in prison. Despite previous accolades, his criticism of the government has cost him his freedom. Now he fears for his life.
MOSCOW – In Vladimir Putin's Russia, rise and fall are close together, as in the case of Igor Girkin. The Russian war supporter is in prison for challenging the Russian president – and fears for his life there. But everything could have gone differently.
Igor Girkin, 52 years old, is a former colonel in the Russian spy service FSB. He served in the First and Second Chechen Wars, as well as during the Transnistria Conflict and in the Balkans, where he fought as a volunteer on the Serbian side in the Bosnian War. Girkin is accused of numerous war crimes. According to Bosnian media, he is said to have been involved in the Višegrad massacre, in which about 3000,<> Bosnian civilians were murdered. However, this is not guaranteed. According to the U.S. newspaper International Business Times, Girkin distances himself from the Serbian atrocities in his diary from the time. It says that he simply wanted to fight for Serbia.
Igor Girkin fears for his life. © IMAGO/Kirill Zykov
Igor Girkin's government never went far enough for Putin's government – he always dreamed of a return to the monarchy
According to the newspaper, his early combat missions were inspired by an ideological zeal that dates back to his time at the Moscow State Institute of History and Archives. A former fellow student described him as a "person living at the beginning of the 20th century" and dreaming of the return of the monarchy.
In Russia, Girkin, who goes by the pseudonym Strelkov ("Marksman"), is notorious for leading Russian paramilitary troops into Ukraine's Donbas region in 2014. For a short time, he was Minister of Defense in the Donetsk People's Republic, a Russian puppet state. In 2022, he was convicted in absentia of murder by the ICC for shooting down a Malaysian Airlines passenger plane (MH17) over Ukraine. The plane crashed in 2014 and killed 298 people. Girkin had given the order to shoot. Nevertheless, he was celebrated in Russia for his services in the Donbas – and in 2014 he was honoured by Vladimir Putin with the "Medal for the Return of Crimea".
Resurrecting "a unified Greater Russia" – Unlike the "cowardly incompetent" Putin
In the aftermath of the Donbas war, Girkin reinvented himself as an ultra-nationalist military commentator who repeatedly criticized Russia's tactics and strategy in the Ukraine war. Among other things, he founded the "Novorossiya" movement, which had set itself the goal of supporting the pro-Russian separatists in southeastern Ukraine and the population there, as well as "preserving the Russian world and resurrecting a unified Greater Russia". He repeatedly spoke out in favor of the general mobilization and criticized what he saw as the hesitant attitude of the Russian military leadership. Even the use of nuclear weapons was considered appropriate by the ultranationalist.
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His scathing critiques finally landed him in a Russian prison in July this year – shortly after Prigozhin's failed mutiny against the Kremlin – where he is still awaiting trial for incitement to extremism. This is what the US magazine Politico writes. Shortly before, he had insulted Vladimir Putin on the Telegram messaging service. For "23 years" there has been a "nothing at the top of the state," it said. The country will not be able to withstand another "six years of this cowardly incompetent in power".
Girkin has challenged Putin – and now fears the same fate as Prigozhin
Despite his imprisonment, he has announced that he will challenge Putin in Russia's 2024 presidential election, according to Politico. On Thursday (7 December), however, a Moscow court extended his pre-trial detention by six months, effectively preventing him from running for office.
In a written interview with the Russian portal Baza, Girkin expressed concern that he could suffer the same fate as the head of the Wagner mercenaries, Yevgeny Prigozhin. He had died in a plane crash at the beginning of the year after mutinied against Vladimir Putin. "My biggest fear is that instead of the usual criminal proceedings, I will be 'amnestied' in the same way as the chef," Girkin said, alluding to Prigozhin, who was nicknamed "Putin's chef" due to lucrative catering contracts with the Russian government. He said he did not believe in Vladimir Putin's story of an accident, and no one had been held accountable for the death. (tpn)