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Vladimir Putin is no stranger to arresting Russians who have spoken out against its war in Ukraine.

But now the Russian leader has arrested a prominent commentator in favour of the war. Their crime? To suggest the wars isn’t going well.

Russia on Friday opened a case for extremism against former separatist commander and nationalist military blogger Igor Girkin, a hawkish commentator who criticised Russia’s leadership.

Girkin — better known by his alias Igor Strelkov — is a supporter of the offensive but also vocally criticised its conduct on the messaging app Telegram, where he was followed by around 875,000 people.

A former military commander of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, 52-year-old Girkin was one of the key figures in the pro-Kremlin insurgency when fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

In 2022, he was one of three men sentenced by a Dutch court to life imprisonment over the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014.

MH17 was carrying 27 Australians on board.

By opening this case against Girkin, authorities signal that any criticism — even from supporters of the military operation in Ukraine — are off-limits in the aftermath of the Wagner mercenary group’s short-lived rebellion.

Girkin appeared in a glass cage at a Moscow court around which dozens of supporters peacefully gathered, AFP saw.

A message on social media from Girkin’s wife Miroslava Reginskaya first said he had been detained for extremism, which court documents later confirmed.

He is facing the charge of “public calls for extremism”, which could see him imprisoned for five years.

In recent years Girkin has become one of the most vocal critics of Putin, and most recently of the way in which Russia’s offensive in Ukraine has been conducted.

‘Crossed all red lines’

In one of his most recent posts Girkin urged power to be handed to a successor.

“The country will not survive another six years of this cowardly mediocrity in power,” he wrote on Telegram.

Independent political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said Girkin had “long crossed all possible red lines”.

But his detention comes around a month after the attempted mutiny by the mercenary group Wagner, from which the Kremlin emerged visibly weakened.

Prigozhin was the most strident voice for those inside Russia criticising failures in the invasion and the strategies used by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and army chief Valery Gerasimov.

Girkin denounced Prigozhin’s mutiny but kept on criticising the incompetence of Russia’s conventional military commanders.

The case against Girkin “is one of the consequences of Prigozhin’s rebellion: the army received more political opportunities to suppress its opponents in the public space,” Stanovaya said.

She did not expect mass arrests but said, “The most radical ones may be prosecuted, so that the rest will be more careful.” Criticism of Russia’s assault on Ukraine has been outlawed and all key liberal opposition figures are either behind bars or in exile.bur/bp

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By Rahul

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