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Putin cracks down on pro-war opposition as all-out war falters

Igor Girkin (Strelkov), the former commander of Russia's proxies in occupied Donetsk Oblast and milblogger, during a pre-trial hearing in Moscow, Russia on July 21, 2023, after he was arrested for extremism. (Photo by ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
by Oleg Sukhov August 13, 2023 7:36 PM 12 min read
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After Russian dictator Vladimir Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he swiftly eliminated the liberal anti-war opposition.

But Putin now faces a threat from the other side – pro-war hawks who criticize Russia's political and military leadership for mishandling the war effort.

As Russia's war against Ukraine faces one setback after another, the pro-war camp is more and more dissatisfied with Putin. And after going seemingly too far, they now face a similar fate to the liberal opposition that they despise – repression.

In late June, Putin faced a rebellion by Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had harshly criticized Russia's military leadership. Prigozhin, having thousands of armed men behind him, reached a deal with the Kremlin, allowing Wagner mercenaries to relocate to Belarus.

Prigozhin was among the best-known hardliners, with his Wanger mercenaries actively taking part in Russia's war against Ukraine.

The brief and unsuccessful mutiny has seemingly caused a rift between the Kremlin and the vocal pro-war camp.

Prigozhin's exit left convicted war criminal Igor Girkin as the most prominent opponent of Putin in the pro-war opposition. Despite opposing Prigozhin's rebellion, Girkin was arrested in July. Other pro-war imperialists critical of Putin have also faced criminal cases and arrests.

The pro-war opposition may trigger new rebellions or instability if Russian troops perform poorly on the battlefield, Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told the Kyiv Independent.

"If there are no successes or if there are defeats (on the Ukrainian front), this opposition from the 'ultra-patriots' will increase," he said.

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Waves of repression

After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the repressions against the liberal opposition reached an all-time high.

Dozens of people have been jailed for criticizing the war against Ukraine.

In December 2022, liberal politician Ilya Yashin was sentenced to 8.5 years in jail on charges of spreading fake information about the Russian army.

In April 2023, another liberal politician, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was sentenced to 25 years in jail on charges of high treason and libel against the Russian army – one of the longest sentences handed down to a political prisoner.

On Aug. 4, a Russian court also sentenced opposition leader Alexei Navalny to 19 years in a maximum security prison on extremism charges for creating the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a peaceful civic watchdog.

Navalny had been serving a 2.5-year prison sentence since 2021 and a separate 9-year sentence on fraud charges since 2022. According to the Russian independent publication Verstka, the latest verdict means he will be in jail until the late 2040s.

All these cases have been recognized as politically motivated by international human rights organizations and governments.

Until recently, the situation with the pro-war opposition has been different.

Before 2014, the Kremlin cracked down and purged the left-wing and right-wing hardliners. Putin was afraid of ultra-radical nationalists and the far left more than of liberals, Russian political philosopher Sergei Sazonov told the Kyiv Independent.

"They purged the 'patriotic' opposition, and that's why (those who remained) supported the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbas in 2014," he said.

After years of purges, the radical left and right mostly supported Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and their goals were aligned with those of the Kremlin.

There had been no major crackdown on the pro-war opposition during the invasion before Girkin's arrest.

But as Russia failed to achieve a quick victory over Ukraine and demonstrated numerous blunders during the invasion, the pro-war camp became more critical.

Oreshkin told the Kyiv Independent, "it's clear to Putin now that the threat comes not from pro-European opposition but from the ultra-patriotic camp."

"As soon as Putin disappoints people with meager military results, they start criticizing him," Oreshkin said in a July 26 interview with Novaya Gazeta Europe, an independent Russian publication. "The worse Putin's affairs are, the more his team is concerned with (cracking down on opponents)."

He also said that the window for allowed criticism is getting smaller by the day.

"Earlier, one was banned from using obscene words against the president," Oreshkin said. "Now, it's not enough. One is supposed to praise him and say that he's a strategic genius."

Russian political analyst Georgy Satarov said that "the regime tends to persecute anything that stands out," regardless of whether Putin's opponents are pro-war or anti-war.

He argued that Prigozhin's June 23-24 rebellion had contributed to the crackdown.

"Prigozhin's march was an important factor," he told the Kyiv Independent. "It demonstrated the regime's instability and triggered seismic changes."

Political blogger and journalist Michael Nacke also linked the crackdown on the pro-war opposition to the Wagner rebellion.

"It has become obvious to Vladimir Putin that criticism leads to mutinies," he said on his blog on July 10.

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Girkin case

The main target of the July crackdown is Girkin, also known by his alias Strelkov. He played a key role in launching Russia's aggression against Ukraine in 2014 and espoused a radical militarist ideology that some characterize as fascist.

Girkin took part in the annexation of Crimea in February-March 2014 as one of Russia's proxies and later admitted that pro-Russian militants had forced members of Crimea's legislature to vote for a referendum on seceding from Ukraine.

In April 2014, a group of militants headed by Girkin seized the town of Sloviansk in Donetsk Oblast, effectively launching Russia's war in the Donbas. He said in a 2014 interview that he had pulled the trigger of the war, and it would not have begun without him.

After seizing the city, Girkin proclaimed himself the "defense minister" of Russia's proxies in Donetsk Oblast.

Girkin carried out extrajudicial executions in Sloviansk and later admitted to killing two Ukrainian civilians arrested by Russian militants.

In July 2014, Girkin's militants withdrew from Sloviansk and relocated to Donetsk, and he proclaimed himself the "commandant" of the latter city.

On July 17, 2014, Russian proxies in Donetsk Oblast used a Russian-supplied Buk surface-to-air missile to shoot down a civilian aircraft flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board. In November 2022, The Hague District Court convicted Girkin and his subordinates in absentia for downing the plane and sentenced them to life imprisonment.

Girkin later said that he had to leave Ukraine in August 2014 because the Kremlin believed he was too independent.

In 2014-2022, Girkin lambasted Putin for negotiating with Ukraine and refusing to launch a full-scale invasion.

He temporarily suspended his criticism of Putin after the full-scale invasion began in February 2022. However, he renewed his criticism as Russia's setbacks on the front piled up.

Girkin has attacked Putin for not going far enough in his efforts to defeat and destroy Ukraine. He has called for carrying out a full-scale mobilization of conscripts and the economy, introducing martial law, and setting the destruction of the Ukrainian state as Russia's official war aim.

He also lashed out at Putin for showing weakness by letting Prigozhin go unpunished after his rebellion.

In the weeks preceding his arrest, Girkin intensified his verbal attacks on Putin.

"For 23 years, a weakling who pulled the wool over the eyes of much of the population has been at the helm of the country," he wrote on Telegram on July 18.

"The country won't survive six more years with this cowardly and incompetent person. And the only useful thing he can do before the end is to transfer power to someone truly capable and responsible. It's a pity that this won't even cross his mind."

Girkin was arrested on extremism charges on July 21, and a Moscow court authorized keeping him in custody until Sept. 18.

The formal excuse for Girkin's arrest was a post he wrote on the Telegram and Vkontakte social networks on May 25, 2022. In the post, he complained about Russian proxy fighters in Donetsk Oblast allegedly getting no pay and called for "shooting" those responsible for that.

Sazonov and Satarov believe that Girkin's arrest could have been triggered by his latest criticism of Putin.

"The situation changed in 2022 – the limits of free speech were greatly restricted," Sazonov said. "(Girkin's latest verbal attack) was a straw that broke the camel's back."

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'Angry Patriots'

The Kremlin has also begun to crack down on Girkin's associates from the Club of Angry Patriots – an alliance of pro-war imperialists opposed to Putin.

Pavel Gubarev, the chairman of the club, was detained on July 21 for protesting Girkin's arrest during a court hearing and was later released. The Russian newspaper Kommersant reported, citing its sources, that Gubarev was being investigated by law enforcement for possible extremism.

Like Girkin, Gubarev has played a major role in Russia's war against Ukraine.

In March 2014, he proclaimed himself "the people's governor" – the leader of Russia's proxies in Donetsk Oblast. He also joined the Russian army as a volunteer fighter during Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

In July, the Russian authorities also opened an administrative case against another member of the Club of Angry Patriots, retired colonel Vladimir Kvachkov.

Kvachkov is a prominent nationalist and anti-Semite.

In 2005, Kvachkov was arrested on charges of organizing an assassination attempt on Putin's ally Anatoly Chubais, but he was acquitted in 2008.

In 2013, he was jailed on charges of preparing a mutiny in a way similar to Prigozhin. He was released from prison in 2019.

According to Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), Kvachkov was planning to seize weapons at several military units, organize a march on Moscow and stage a coup d'etat.

One of the many bizarre details of the purported rebellion plan was that he was allegedly planning to use crossbows for the coup.

Another target of the crackdown is Boris Kagarlitsky, a left-wing columnist and chief editor of the Rabkor online publication. In July, Kagarlitsky was charged with "calling for terrorism on the Internet" and arrested until Sept. 24.

Kagarlitsky's stance is different both from the Club of Angry Patriots and the liberal opposition. He supported the Russian invasion of the Donbas in 2014-2022 but opposed the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022-2023.

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Prigozhin stays afloat

The only major critic of the Kremlin in the pro-war camp who has remained unpunished is Prigozhin. Despite the rebellion, he has been going back and forth between Russia and Belarus with impunity. His Wagner mercenaries even met with Putin in July.

"Apparently, Russia's leaders just scratched their heads (after the rebellion) and continued living as usual," Sazonov said.

Part of the Wagner mercenaries have relocated to a military camp in Belarus.

Meanwhile, the Russian independent outlet Agentstvo reported on Aug. 3 that Prigozhin's companies had signed state contracts worth at least 2 billion rubles ($21 million) after the Wagner rebellion.

"(Putin) can't have Prigozhin jailed immediately because he's popular among influential military leaders," Oreshkin said. "In several months, when Prigozhin becomes irrelevant, Putin will do whatever he wants to him – poison him or send him to Africa or Siberia."

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Purge of generals

Despite failing to punish Prigozhin and Wagner mercenaries, the Kremlin has cracked down on the generals suspected of having links to Wagner.

One of them, Sergei Surovikin, disappeared from the public eye after the rebellion, and Russian media reported in June that he had been arrested due to his alleged links to Prigozhin. However, this has not been officially confirmed, and Russian lawmaker Andrei Kartapolov claimed in July that he was having a rest.

Surovikin was the commander of Russia's invasion force in Ukraine from October 2022 through January 2023 and was later demoted to deputy commander of the force.

According to Russian media reports, Surovikin enjoyed a close relationship with Prigozhin and Wagner mercenaries. However, he called on the mercenaries to stop the rebellion shortly after it began.

The Wall Street Journal also reported on July 13, citing its sources, that the Russian authorities had detained at least 13 senior officers suspected of disloyalty. Others were suspended or fired.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the detainees included generals Andrei Yudin, Vladimir Alekseyev, and Mikhail Mizintsev.

Another general, Ivan Popov, published a video address in July, saying that he had been fired from the post of commander of Russia's 58th army.

"Ukrainian troops haven't been able to defeat us on the front, but our senior commander has struck us in the rear, leaving the army without leadership at the most difficult moment in a traitorous and evil way," he said.

Popov said he had been dismissed after he complained of urgent problems, including procurement, a lack of counter-battery fire, and numerous casualties caused by Ukrainian artillery.

"If Prigozhin hadn't thought that some of the generals might join him, he wouldn't have started the rebellion," Oreshkin said. "However, the generals chickened out in the critical situation. Putin has prevailed and kept control, but now he has to purge the generals."

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What's next?

Although Girkin's associates have launched a public campaign in his support, it has been low-profile and has not led to any large-scale protests.

Sazonov believes that the growing dissatisfaction among the pro-war camp and the crackdown on hawks will not have much of an impact on the stability of Putin's regime.

He described Girkin's allies as a marginal group who do not have any influence and are constantly involved in scuffles and disputes with each other.

Oreshkin also said that unlike Prigozhin, Girkin and his associates do not have any military resources at their disposal and have not been involved in anything other than verbal attacks on the Kremlin.

Disloyal generals are more dangerous because they have military resources, according to Oreshkin.

"Putin has successfully sorted out this situation so far," he told the Kyiv Independent. "Generals see that Surovikin and others have disappeared and don't want to disappear too."

Oreshkin said, however, that the discontent of the pro-war camp, including both Girkin's allies and generals, may lead to some turbulence or rebellions only if Ukraine achieves victories on the front.

Sazonov agrees that the situation on the battlefield is crucial.

"Ukraine should stop hoping for some coup in Russia," he said. "Everything will be decided on the battlefield."

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