RUSSIA — The arrest of Igor Girkin, a high-ranking Russian military officer and outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin’s failing campaign in Ukraine, is a worrying hint of a change in strategy on the part of the Kremlin. Putin seems set on silencing critics through force and prosecution rather than addressing rising unhappiness over his bumbling invasion. Using the alias “Strelkov,” Girkin led a group of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Recently, he was arrested on grounds of “discrediting” the Russian army after he had criticized Putin as a “mediocrity” and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as “incompetent.”
Such direct criticism of Girkin would have been inconceivable a few months ago, when his status among nationalist hardliners made him virtually untouchable. Still, Girkin is a divisive personality for his own reasons. In 2014, he and two men shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine; they were later convicted guilty in absentia of the deaths of 298 persons on board. He claimed himself as a Russian nationalist and a former agent.
Girkin fled the scene of the crime immediately thereafter, returning to Moscow where he is now safe from extradition. Before his arrest this month, Girkin was well respected by Russian nationalists despite his criminal history.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, creator of the Wagner Group military contractor, recently tried a rebellion, revealing deeper fissures in Russia’s power structure. Prigozhin has criticized the top brass of the Russian Defense Ministry for their “carelessness” during the operation in Ukraine. Some days after Wagner’s mercenaries staged their uprising within Russia, General Sergei Surovikin, the deputy commander of the Russian group of forces fighting in Ukraine, is thought to have been detained.Putin, it would appear, is more interested in stifling opposition through intimidation and legal pretexts than in addressing the actual content of such complaints.
Putin’s strong, warmongering rhetoric has directly influenced both Girkin and Prigozhin. Putin polarized Russian society with military propaganda on Ukrainians, such as that they are overwhelmingly Nazis and part of a bogus national culture, in order to stir up popular support for the invasion of Ukraine.Putin will likely want to halt the battle to resupply now that he confronts only military defeats. But the combative groups that have bought into his rhetoric are confused by this U-turn, and they are getting disorderly.
Russia has recently made a strategic shift toward negotiations with Ukraine, and this tightening of the screws is happening at the same time. Putin would likely utilize peace talks to reorganize and strengthen his military. By portraying people like Girkin as reckless warmongers, Putin may give Russia’s purported desire for discussion some veneer of respectability.