Why did Putin order the arrest of Donbass separatist leader?

Keeping Girkin locked up is a clear signal that the Kremlin is gearing up to freeze the Ukrainian conflict and eliminate any hawkish opposition.

Igor Girkin, a former FSB colonel who led the pro-Russian rebellion in Donbass in 2014 and served as “defense minister” in the unrecognized Donetsk republic in eastern Ukraine, has been arrested by the Russian police in Moscow. 

Girkin is facing charges of "calls to extremist activity," a loosely worded article (#280, part II) in the Russian criminal code that allows security agencies to target opponents of Vladimir Putin's regime.

Despite claiming innocence, Girkin refuses to cooperate with investigators. A court decided to keep him in Lefortovo Penitentiary until September 18, 2023, denying him bail or house arrest, despite his lawyers arguing that Interpol was after him and he had nowhere to flee. 

Igor Girkin in the occupied Donetsk, in 2014.

The police acted on a formal complaint from a Wagner fighter named Dmitry Petrovsky, who informed them about Girkin's critical social media posts about the Kremlin leader.

An unyielding yet disrespectful supporter

Igor Girkin, a Russian nationalist whom Ukraine wants to prosecute for terrorism, is a staunch advocate of the war in Ukraine and dreams of restoring imperial Greater Russia. After leading the pro-Moscow uprising and serving as the top military chief in one of the separatist provinces in 2014, Girkin left active military service and became a war blogger. He ran several Telegram channels on war topics, called for a nationwide mobilization to war, and published commentaries on the situation at the front line.

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As the Ukrainian army gained the upper hand, his tone grew increasingly bitter. He held Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and General Staff chief Valery Gerasimov responsible for the Russian troops' failures in the Ukrainian campaign, following the footsteps of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. Ultimately, he accused President Putin of incompetence. 

Three days before his arrest, Girkin boldly referred to Putin as a "nonentity" and called for a coup to remove the "cowardly" leader. 

Igor Girkin's post that probably annoyed President Putin.

What’s at stake if Girkin is found guilty?

If the former FSB colonel is convicted, he could face a maximum of five years in jail. However, this would likely be just the beginning of his imprisonment. The Russian repression machine has honed a perpetual practice over the past decade: fabricating new cases or trying for real crimes, adding more years to his detention.

Putin’s vengeful nature

Given Putin's notorious intolerance for disrespect, it's no wonder this description has infuriated the dictator to the core. 

Examining the deaths of Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer who was poisoned with polonium and died in the UK in November 2006, and Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition politician assassinated near the Kremlin walls in February 2015, it becomes clear that Putin despises personal attacks against him.

Litvinenko accused Putin of being a pedophile, among other things, while Nemtsov labeled him a thief, bandit, and mafioso. 

Even Prigozhin, who used strong language against Putin and rebelled against his close allies, managed to secure his boss' forgiveness, or at least his freedom. As a billionaire operating in Africa and Russia, Prigozhin has likely paid a hefty sum and gave up significant assets to survive, according to anonymous insiders.

Could Girkin do the same? Unlikely.

Considering a truce to freeze the conflict

Despite being seen as a friendly critic of the Putin regime, Girkin belongs to a group of ultra-patriots and nationalists who demand that Moscow openly acknowledge the military operation in Ukraine as a genuine war. They want the Russian economy to be put on a wartime footing and insist on continuing the fight until the last soldier remains standing.

Igor Girkin, the blogger, reflecting on Mother Russia.

This stance doesn't align with Vladimir Putin's goals.

As his attempts to quickly subdue Ukraine falter, Putin might consider freezing the conflict mainly to cling to power. As the war drags on, the chances of victory diminish while existential risks to the regime multiply.

Selling a frozen conflict as a victory against the mighty NATO could help ensure the regime's survival, but not everyone will buy into it. Some stubborn hawks may resist negotiations with Kyiv or the West, becoming a threat to Putin's future.

Igor Girkin, who founded the Angry Patriots Club political party in April 2023, has gained considerable influence as a war blogger, earning respect in a society where war has taken on a quasi-religious fervor, and winning it is considered the ultimate goal of existence. 

The Kremlin was alarmed by the Wagner rebellion, and Putin possibly fears that Girkin could rally supporters for a coup, even though he lacks an army, heavy weaponry, or funding. Many of Girkin's accounts about Russia's handling of the war resonate with certain generals and veterans, who take his warnings of the country collapsing in a defeat scenario seriously.

In the Russia that Putin has shaped over his 24-year rule, only one voice matters - the paranoid dictator's own voice. While he certainly needs courageous soldiers to defend his cause, he does not want them freely expressing their opinions.

Putin needs faceless heroes to die for him, not speak up their minds.

In November 2022, Igor Girkin was convicted in absentia by the Hague Criminal Court to life in prison for his role in shooting down a Malaysian Airlines Boeing flight in Ukraine's airspace, resulting in the loss of almost 300 lives.

Vladimir Putin is wanted by the same court for the kidnapping of Ukrainian children (was Litvinenko right?).

Igor Girkin (right) during war games in a Russian Empire uniform.