Russia’s geopolitical role and size make it imperative to understand its internal political dynamics, especially due to the war in Ukraine.
Its internal politics will not only affect over 20 million Muslims in Russia, but also beyond its borders.
A word of caution is in order.
Evaluation of internal developments in Russia must not be based on the biased western narrative.
Only then can a realistic assessment of Russia’s internal situation be made.
It is now evident that the war in Ukraine is not going according to the assumptions on which Russia launched it.
The situation inside Russia is evolving in ways which can have serious global repercussions no matter how the war ends.
For over a decade, western corporate media has promoted anti-government groups and individuals in Russia.
Their outlook aligns with the west’s worldview and geopolitical interests.
There are, however, many other socio-political forces opposed to the government of Vladimir Putin.
They operate outside the western narrative and do not see Russia in a subordinate role in the west-centric global order.
Thus, we rarely hear about these groups in the English-speaking media.
One of these anti-government voices to have emerged in Russia over the past several months is Colonel Igor Girkin, known in the Russian press as Igor Strelkov.
Prior to assessing Girkin’s role as a potential leader of the non-western oriented political opposition, it is important to know his background.
Girkin is not a typical CNN or BBC promoted Russian opposition figure.
He was a colonel in the Federal Security Service (FSB) and a leading figure in Russia’s takeover of Ukrainian territories in 2014.
However, he acted in his “private” capacity having resigned from the FSB in 2013.
This provided Putin with plausible deniability and space for political maneuvering.
“Private capacity” label is currently also used by NATO regimes in Ukraine.
Technically, former British and US army members heading to Ukraine with no hindrance from their regimes are acting in private capacity.
Prior to leading the pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine, Girkin also participated in both Chechen wars on the Russian side.
Girkin also took part in supporting Serbian fascists during the war in Bosnia.
During the initial takeover of Ukrainian territories in 2014, Girkin was the primary unofficial face of Moscow’s involvement.
In the same year, he became the first Defense Minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR).
In August 2014, Girkin resigned after tensions emerged with Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov who was managing the Ukrainian file for Russia.
Since 2014, Girkin has acquired significant following in Russia among the nationalist trend of the political spectrum.
However, Girkin did not directly criticize Putin upon his return to Russia.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, Girkin has become a vocal critic of Putin and his government’s incompetent prosecution of the war.
He has become a critical outlet for Russia’s right-wing political spectrum.
He has not held back in his criticism of Putin personally and top military officials generally.
Girkin’s blunt anti-Putin statements also began to appeal to many pro-Putin constituents.
To back his words with action, Girkin headed back to East Ukraine and joined Russian separatists once Putin announced partial mobilization.
As every war creates its own heroes, it is now evident that Girkin is one of the Russian heroes of the current war in Ukraine.
This has led to discussion in the Russian press concerning Girkin’s political ambitions and his becoming a potential figurehead leading an anti-Putin movement among Russian nationalists.
While Girkin has significant following among Russia’s right-wing political spectrum, his support ends there.
Part of the reason for Putin’s political success is that while it comes mainly from the right spectrum of politics, it is not limited to that.
The Russian Communist Party, for instance, is one of his staunchest backers.
His political support extends even into the liberal spectrum, including a prominent Centrist-Liberal Russian intellectual Vladimir Pozner.
Thus, broadly speaking Girkin is not a national figure and cannot be seen as a serious contender to challenge Putin at present.
However, the constituency he appeals to is the type which would not hold back confronting Putin if the opportunity presented itself.
Many of Girkin’s staunch backers are former security services officials and people who initiated the armed uprising in Eastern Ukraine in 2014.
As the war in Ukraine is unlikely to end anytime soon, it is probable that more Girkin-type figures will emerge in Russia.
How these types of people and groups choose to conduct themselves vis-à-vis Putin will determine the latter’s hold on and longevity in power.
If Girkin and the groups around him manage to become power brokers in Russia or Putin is forced to share power with them, western political elite determined to bring down Putin’s government, might end up with a far more anti-NATO clique coming to power in Russia.