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The 'taboo' of criticizing Putin has been 'significantly weakened,' which is why an influential pro-war blogger trashed him, UK intel says

Sinéad Baker   

The 'taboo' of criticizing Putin has been 'significantly weakened,' which is why an influential pro-war blogger trashed him, UK intel says
  • A pro-war Russian ultra-nationalist was arrested for criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin.
  • The UK MoD said he made the comments as the "taboo" around criticizing Putin is weakened.

The "taboo" of criticizing Russia's President Vladimir Putin has been weakened in a development that likely led to a prominent pro-war blogger deciding to call him out, according to UK intelligence.

Ivor Girkin, a Russian ultra-nationalist, was arrested on extremism charges on Friday after he called Putin a "cowardly mediocrity."

Girkin, a pro-war, former FSB security operative who goes by the nom de guerre Stelkov, which is Russian for shooter, was detained at his apartment. Girkin's wife posted news of her husband's arrest in a Telegram message to his nearly 900,000 followers before Russian state media confirmed his detainment.

The UK defense ministry said in an intelligence update on Saturday that he likely only felt able to do this as the landscape of Russia had changed since the head of the Russian Wagner mercenary group that joined Russia's invasion of Ukraine staged an uprising last month.

It said: "While Girkin is no ally of the Wagner Group, he was likely only prepared to push the limits of public criticism in the context of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin's June 2023 abortive mutiny."

"The taboo against unmasked criticism of the Putin regime has significantly weakened."

The Wagner Group took over a Russian military headquarters in a key city and started to march on Moscow last month before the situation was defused with a peace deal that involved its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin going into exile.

It came after months of feuding between Prigozhin and Russia's defense ministry, with Prigozhin criticizing its performance in Ukraine and accusing it of starving his men of ammunition to extinguish his group.

Girkin, like many other Russian war bloggers, has been critical of Russia's military performance in Ukraine.

Russia expected to occupy its neighbor quickly when it launched its invasion in February 2022 but was forced into a series of humiliating retreats and has not made any significant territory gains in months while it hemorrhages troops and equipment.

But Girkin's criticisms seemed to become harsher after the Wager Group's mini mutiny and included criticisms of Putin, saying that if he can't win in Ukraine, "he needs to legally transfer his powers," Insider's Erin Snodgrass reported.

His post on Telegram that "the country will not survive another 6 years of this cowardly mediocrity in power" was made three days before his arrest.

The UK MoD noted that Girkin had "long been a critic" of Russia's military performance but that, in recent days, his comments had turned to criticizing Putin himself.

War bloggers like Girkin are a source of news and opinion about Russia's invasion, and their content can be both influential on and revealing about the national mood about the war.

Girkin has military experience himself, including once leading a group of Russian militants in the eastern Ukrainian Donetsk region.

His arrest "is likely to infuriate fellow members of the mil-blogger community ... who largely see Girkin as an astute military analyst and patriot," the UK MOD said.

He said in a 2016 interview with The Guardian that he was 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."

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