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Moscow court rejects pretrial release for Putin critic Igor Girkin

Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg. (The Kremlin/Released)
September 12, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A Moscow court rejected a bid for the pretrial release of Igor Girkin, the former leader of Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine and the latest one-time Kremlin favorite finding himself in peril after criticizing President Vladimir Putin’s sputtering war effort in Ukraine.

The case is being closely watched for indications of how far the Kremlin is willing to accept criticism of the war effort, which has lasted longer and been more costly and deadly than expected, with Ukraine now in the midst of a counteroffensive that is retaking ground lost early in the full-scale invasion.

Girkin (aka Strelkov) had been a key commander of Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region in 2014 and helped Russia annex Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula that year.

He was also one of three men sentenced by a Dutch court to life imprisonment over the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014.

However, Girkin, 52, in recent months has become a vocal critic of Russia’s war effort in his military blog and is charged with inciting extremism.

He lashed out at Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for “mistakes” in the ongoing invasion, accused him and Putin of “incompetence,” and argued that a total mobilization is needed for Russia to achieve victory.

In one of his harshest rants, Girkin said in a July 18 post on his official Telegram channel that Putin should transfer power “to someone truly capable and responsible.” The post garnered almost 800,000 views.

Girkin was arrested in Moscow last month and on July 21 was sent to a two-month pretrial detention. He pleaded not guilty.

At his August 29 hearing, Girkin said he has no plans to flee the country, pointing to the threat of a life sentence by a Dutch court and insisting he is in poor health.

“I have no reason to hide from the court and the investigation,” he told the court.

However, Judge Yulia Komleva said the earlier court ruling to hold Girkin in pretrial custody until at least September 18 would remain in place.

Girkin faces up to five years in prison should he be convicted of the charges.

While Russia has seen some anti-war sentiment, much of the harshest criticism has come from hard-liners such as Girkin, who have pushed for a more forceful military effort in Ukraine.

The court ruling comes days after the death in a suspicious plane crash of Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Prigozhin, a longtime Putin association and ally, played an instrumental role in the fight against Ukrainian forces, leading his mercenary force in key battles, including the eventual drive to capture the destroyed Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

However, Prigozhin led a short-lived mutiny on June 24 that saw Wagner fighters seize the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and march to within 200 kilometers of Moscow. A Russian military aircraft was shot down during the mutiny, and altogether 13 Russian Air Force personnel were killed. It was the most serious challenge to Putin in his more than two decades in power.

Prigozhin called off the mutiny after an apparent deal with Putin that was said to guaranteed his safety, but Putin nevertheless denounced the insurrection as a “stab in the back” and vowed to punish all “traitors” involved.

The suspicious nature of the plane crash — which also killed top Wagner commander Dmitry Utkin — has led many people to speculate that Putin was behind the incident. The Kremlin denied any connection and an investigation into the accident is said to be ongoing.