Former Russian FSB agent and Donetsk People’s Republic Defense Minister Igor Strelkov has been arrested by Russian authorities and charged under Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code regarding the “Foundation of Extremist Groups that instigate Hate or Violence.”
Strelkov, a prominent figure in the Russian military blogging community on Telegram, has been highly critical of Russian military leadership since the start of the invasion, in which he frequently criticizes Russian tactics. At one point he accused Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of “criminal negligence” and has been sharply opposed to Putin’s threats of nuclear force. Strelkov has also chalked up Russia’s losses in Kharkiv to “utter idiotism.”
Some have tried to tie this into the recent Wagner mutiny, however, Strelkov would often feud with Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin and even said that Russia should “hang the “Cook” for the rebellion and the murder of our officers is simply necessary for the preservation of Russia as a state.” Despite this, Strelkov equally criticized the Russian government, saying that “the entire army hates Shoigu, the entire army hates Gerasimov” and “I do not believe that under the leadership of the current Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, we can win this war.”
??The first footage of Igor Strelkov after his arrest. pic.twitter.com/MEuvCWxckc
— War Monitor (@WarMonitors) July 21, 2023
Last October, Strelkov, along with other nine prominent Russian military bloggers, “risked falling under criminal charges for discrediting the Russian Armed Forces” as they found themselves in the crosshairs of a investigation by Russian authorities. Those targeted by the investigation included Semyon Pegov (War Gonzo), the Wagner Group affiliated Grey Zone, and Rybar.
At the time, Pegov, the most critical of the investigation, stated “Again hunting for military correspondents and bloggers. As they say, not even six months have passed. From reliable sources in various types / types of power structures of the Russian Federation, information has once again reached us about lists of channels and journalists lowered from above by individual generals and military leaders that allegedly discredit the SVO [special military operation] and the activities of the Ministry of Defense. To which it is planned (or someone really wants to) apply criminal/ administrative measures.”
Ultimately, nobody was arrested or charged following a massive support campaign amongst the Russian military blogging community.
— OSINTtechnical (@Osinttechnical) July 21, 2023
I had previously noted that the investigation was quite interesting as someone who studies information environments. For any side in a conflict, information operations and pushing one’s own narratives in media is crucial in shaping public perception on how things are going. It is also important to have a united front in this effort, as swaying from an established narrative will raise questions and cause division. Russia appears to have attempted to hone in on this by threatening jail time for any of what it considers as “fake news” about the Russian military or its operations.
Strelkov’s arrest highlights that the events from last October never truly ended and crosshairs are still on influential figures in Russia’s information space. These military bloggers, while still strongly pro-Russian, are not under the same constraints as traditional Russian state-owned media and thus have more freedom to express their own criticisms to a degree. While the exact reason for Strelkovs arrest remains unknown, whether it be for his consistent criticisms or something else, it will be interesting to see if other influential people in Russia’s online information environment will be arrested or if this will serve as a warning.