Russia has arrested Igor Girkin, a former battlefield commander of its proxy forces in east Ukraine who was convicted by a Dutch court over the shooting down of MH17, on extremism charges probably fueled by his criticism of the Russian war effort in Ukraine.
FSB agents came to his home and escorted him away “in an unknown direction”, said his wife, Miroslava, according to Girkin’s Telegram account.
“My friends told me that my husband has been charged under article 282 of the criminal code of the Russian Federation (extremism),” she said.
Girkin, who also goes by the nom de guerre Strelkov, was a leading military commander of the pro-Russian forces who occupied east Ukrainian cities beginning in 2014. His armed intervention backed by Russia marked the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine.
Girkin appeared in a Moscow courtroom on Friday where he was formally charged with extremism. Earlier this week he had called for Putin’s downfall, saying Russia “could not survive another six years” of his rule.
He has also been found guilty in absentia by a Dutch court of the murder of 298 people onboard flight MH17, the plane shot down by a Russian surface-to-air missile while flying over east Ukraine in July 2014.
Girkin was given a life sentence by the Dutch court for his role in sending a Buk surface-to-air missile system controlled by Russia to a field near the village of Pervomaisky from where it fired on the passenger jet. Russia has been accused of harbouring Girkin.
In Russia, Girkin has become a popular Telegram blogger and commentator on the war. Like other pro-war nationalists, he has been critical of the Russian military’s bungling of the invasion, calling top generals ineffective and criticizing Vladimir Putin and other top officials.
The RBC newspaper has reported that Girkin’s arrest may be related to a petition from a member of the Wagner group, the paramilitary organisation headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin that staged a brief mutiny last month.
If so, it is possible that Girkin’s arrest could point to a broader purge of Russian nationalist voices who have so far been allowed to criticise the war effort largely with impunity, while liberal and anti-war activists have been jailed in the thousands.
In Ukraine, Girkin participated in the annexation of Crimea and then led the forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, holding the occupied city of Sloviansk in east Ukraine until it was retaken by the Ukrainian military.
While there, Girkin, a history enthusiast who participated in reenactments, tried and executed those he alleged had been looting according to a Soviet law on wartime justice.
In a 2016 interview with the Guardian, he called himself an “inconvenient figure” for the Kremlin.
“They don’t know what to do with me: am I a hero or a terrorist?” he said. “They can’t arrest and jail me because it would be seen as bowing to the West to call me a terrorist. But to give me honours is also inconvenient for them, so I’m in this strange gap.”