MOSCOW — Russia’s arrest of Igor Girkin, the former security agent who was convicted this year in absentia by a Dutch court in the 2014 downing of a passenger jet over Ukraine, made clear that Moscow’s protection had come to an end.
But it was also a warning shot to the country’s ultranationalist hawks, who believe President Vladimir Putin hasn’t gone hard enough on Ukraine and have grown increasingly vocal about it.
As a former agent of the FSB, Girkin helped foment Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine. But it wasn’t his role in those actions, or in the murder of the 298 passengers and crew aboard Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, that got him into trouble with the Kremlin.
It was a social media post in which he accused Putin of weakness.
Now the 52-year-old, who goes by the alias Strelkov, sits in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo jail awaiting trial on a charge of inciting extremism, the latest entry in the list of pro-war patriots and erstwhile loyalists liquidated by a regime that will bear no dissent.
“Russia is a country at war,” said Georgy Fyodorov, the Strelkov-supporting editor of Aurora, a far-left patriotic outlet. “And this is a signal that our government has zero tolerance, she is trying to protect herself and get rid of any threats against her.”
It wasn’t Strelkov’s first public criticism of the government’s conduct of the war. As a campaign that Moscow envisioned as a quick victory ground into the currently stalemated slog, he became one of the loudest critics of Russia’s Defense Ministry. He called Putin a “nonentity,” accused him of “cowardly mediocrity,” and said he had misjudged the Ukraine war.
But a Telegram post in July apparently was the last straw. He told his 600,000 subscribers that Russia “could not survive another six years of [Putin’s] rule.” Within days, agents of the FSB, where he had worked for more than a decade, arrived at his Moscow apartment and led him away.
“The charge against me is absurd and my detention is insulting,” he told the court last month in his most recent appearance.
Many have pointed out the irony that an internationally convicted war criminal was ensnared by Russia’s wartime censorship laws, not his crimes.
Strelkov played a key role in the formation of the self-declared, pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and served briefly as its defense minister. He was found guilty by the Dutch court of deploying the Buk missile system that investigators said downed the Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
Strelkov’s wife, Miroslava Reginskaya, 30, a Crimean who worked as his secretary during his brief tenure as defense minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, now uses his Telegram channel to publish his messages from prison, where he continues, apparently unhindered, to criticize the Kremlin’s war strategy and foreign policy.
“There is turmoil in the Russian Federation. … Sooner or later the turmoil will enter its terminal stage,” he wrote from Lefortovo in September. “At the moment there is no positive patriotic force in Russia’s political field. … I consider it my duty to make every effort to create at least a basis for uniting the ‘not sick’ patriotic forces.”
He understands his precarious position, he said, but “someone needs to be the first to rise” and he hopes he can lead by example.
“It is too late to be afraid and wait,” he wrote. “We are on the eve of the collapse of the statehood of Russia.”
Strelkov’s supporters say his arrest was intended to curb his influence and prevent him from challenging Putin in next year’s presidential election.
“I always saw him as a viable presidential candidate,” said Oleg Nelzin, a friend who now runs Strelkov’s campaign. “Igor is a model of a Russian soldier, an officer. He is a hero unconditionally. This is a man who has always taken care of his soldiers. He never let them go to slaughter, to any senseless assaults.”
“I am not going to question Vladimir Vladimirovich’s high rating in the polls — this is obvious,” he continued. “But if it is really that high, then what is there to be afraid of?”
Fyodorov, the Aurora editor, said he didn’t believe Strelkov would be released before next year’s vote.
“Our law enforcement system is a machine that does not move backward,” he said. It wasn’t his comments on Putin that got Strelkov arrested, he said; he has frequently and “harshly” criticized the president. Rather, it was “the sum of his influence.”
In August, Strelkov announced from prison that he would challenge Putin in the election next March.
“I consider myself more competent in military affairs than the incumbent president, and certainly more competent than the defense minister,” he said in a statement through his lawyer.
“The current president is too kind,” he continued, and “had been led by the nose not only by his respected Western and Kyiv partners but also by the heads of our security agencies, intelligence and the military-industrial complex.”
Alexei Venediktov, the editor in chief of Russia’s Ekho Moskvy radio station, said the election result might be a foregone conclusion, but the vote is still of paramount importance to the Kremlin. The illusion of a plebiscite remains politically important to Putin, he said.
Of particular concern, he said, is how to convince ultra-patriots — supporters of Strelkov and the late Wagner Group mercenary chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin — to vote for Putin.
“They saw that Putin was weak and they moved further to the right,” Venediktov said. “They always think it’s not enough: not enough blood, not enough territory, not enough conquest.
“Both Prigozhin and Strelkov were kind of speaking on their behalf. And the task is now to bring these people back to Putin and make them Putin loyalists, so that Putin can say ‘I am yours. I am your Prigozhin. I am your Strelkov.’”
Strelkov’s biography reveals a militaristic ultranationalism that has shaped Russia’s war against Ukraine since 2014, and the tendency in Putin’s Russia for marginal, extremist figures often from Russia’s siloviki — strong men, typically from the country’s security forces — to play crucial roles in its policies.
Born in the Soviet Union in 1970 during the premiership of Leonid Brezhnev, Girkin trained as a historical archivist and became passionate about military history and reenactments of the Russian Civil War. He also developed orthodox monarchist views; he wanted to see Russia returned to its former imperial glory, with borders stretching West to Moldova and slicing Ukraine in half.
After graduating from the Russian State University for the Humanities in 1992, Girkin volunteered for the war in Transnistria and then in Serbia. He later served as a soldier during both Chechen wars. In 1998, he served in Dagestan and Chechnya with a special forces unit of Russia’s internal security services — FSB, the main successor to the KGB. He rose to the rank of colonel before retiring in 2013.
The next year, he led a local pro-Russian Crimean militia in the assault of a Ukrainian military center in Simferopol. Then he turned up in eastern Ukraine, where he led an armed group in occupying administrative buildings in Sloviansk and announced that the city had been captured by the newly declared Donetsk People’s Republic.
“I finally pulled the trigger of war,” Strelkov later told the Zavtra newspaper. “If our detachment had not crossed the border, in the end everything would have ended. … There would have been several dozen killed, burned, and arrested. And that would be the end of it.”
Strelkov was later identified by Dutch prosecutors as playing a central role in the downing of MH17. He was sanctioned by the European Union, and later the United States, for his role in the hostilities in eastern Ukraine.
But after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Strelkov emerged as a prominent critic, accusing Russia’s Defense Ministry of serious errors in strategy.
Supporters say his imprisonment is a warning.
“This is a signal to all non-systemic patriotic forces that the authorities, regardless of your past achievements, will treat this quite harshly if they try to somehow create a movement or activity that is outside of the system,” Fyodorov said. “Even if it’s ultra patriotic.”
Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia contributed to this report.