What to Know:
Igor ‘Strelkov’ Girkin, former Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) military leader turned milblogger, has been sentenced to four years in Russian prison after being found guilty of charges under Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code regarding the “Foundation of Extremist Groups that instigate Hate or Violence.” His arrest and subsequent conviction came as Strelkov became increasingly critical of Russian military and political leadership over the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
By?y minister obrony DRL Igor #Strelkov zosta? skazany decyzj? S?du Miejskiego w Moskwie na 4 lata kolonii karnej o charakterze ogólnym z pozbawieniem prawa do korzystania z Internetu na okres 3 lat.
Strelkov zosta? uznany za winnego publicznego nawo?ywania do dzia?alno?ci… pic.twitter.com/uPQPwLJCpm
— Krystian Jachacy ?? (@KrystianJachacy) January 25, 2024
Who is Igor Girkin?
Girkin, who also went by Igor Strelkov, is a former Russian military and FSB officer who became a key figure amongst Donbas separatist forces. In 2014, he played a prominent role in the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the subsequent conflict in Donbas, serving as the self proclaimed commander of separatist forces in Donetsk and Minister of Defense for the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). In 2022, Girkin was convicted in absentia by The Hague of 298 counts of murder for his role in the July 2014 shoot down of the civilian airliner Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17). Girkin was replaced in August 2014, where he returned to Russia, gaining further prominence as a military and political blogger.
Why was Girkin Arrested?
Girkin, 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 during Ukraine’s Kharkiv counteroffensive to “utter idiotism.”
During the Wagner mutiny in June 2023, Girkin commented 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.” While some saw this as backing the actions of Wagner, Girkin 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.”
??The first footage of Igor Strelkov after his arrest. pic.twitter.com/MEuvCWxckc
— War Monitor (@WarMonitors) July 21, 2023
The next month, Girkin said that Russian President Vladimir Putin should transfer power “to someone truly capable and responsible”, adding that “For 23 years, the country was led by a lowlife who managed to ‘blow dust in the eyes’ of a significant part of the population. Now he is the last island of legitimacy and stability of the state. But the country will not survive another six years of this cowardly mediocrity in power.” Three days later he was arrested.
In October 2022 October, Girkin, 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.”
— OSINTtechnical (@Osinttechnical) October 1, 2022
Ultimately, nobody was arrested or charged following a massive support campaign amongst the Russian military blogging community. This was widely seen as a warning and crack down on critics of the conflict, although they were coming from accounts that by all means were extremely patriotic.
Following the investigation, Girkin volunteered to fight in Ukraine with a Russian volunteer group for two months, which some could speculate as being an attempt to save face and show his support for the invasion.
Why it Matters:
I have previously noted twice that the initial “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.
With that, Girkin was essentially given a warning along with the others, however, he continued. Girkin’s arrest and subsequent conviction highlights that the events from 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. Girkin marks the most prominent “martyr” amongst Russian political and military commentators during the invasion. It will be interesting to see if other influential people in Russia’s online information environment will be arrested or if Girkin’s fate becomes a cautionary tale.