Igor Girkin, a prominent Russian ultranationalist in custody awaiting trial on charges of inciting extremism, said on Thursday he would make a better president than Vladimir Putin, describing him as gullible and “too kind”.
Girkin issued a Telegram post entitled “On running as a candidate for president of the Russian Federation”, suggesting he planned to stand in the March 2024 election, when Putin is expected to seek six more years in power.
The post was laced with irony and Girkin appears an unlikely contender. But his comments were notable for their direct public criticism of the president, whom he accused of misjudgment over the war in Ukraine, which Russia calls a “special military operation”.
Girkin said Putin was “an extremely gullible person”.
“The current president is too kind,” he added. At the start of the war, Putin had been “led by the nose” by Ukraine and the West, but also by Russia’s security agencies and defence industry.
“It turned out that neither the country, nor the army, nor Russian industry were ready for war, and so-called Ukraine was far from being a straw man in military terms.”
Nevertheless, the officials responsible were still in place and “continue to amaze us with their incompetence”, Girkin said. “I am not nearly so kind, which I will be able to prove in practice.”
Girkin said Putin had billionaire friends “to whom he cannot (due to the above-mentioned kindness and generosity of soul) refuse anything”, and that their wealth was growing faster than military production.
Since the death of mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin in a plane crash last week, Girkin is the most prominent remaining critic of the way Moscow has waged its war in Ukraine.
In what was widely seen as a response to his public outbursts, he was arrested in July and charged with incitement to extremism, punishable by up to five years in prison.
Russian law bans convicted criminals from running for office, and it is unclear how someone could run from pre-trial detention.
Girkin, who also goes by the name Igor Strelkov, is a former security officer who helped to start the initial war in Ukraine in 2014, when a militia under his command seized the east Ukrainian city of Sloviansk.
He does not recognise Ukraine as a sovereign state and says much of it is part of Russia.
In May, he said a nationalist group he was leading would enter politics as an opposition party because a “systemic crisis” was brewing.
He is best known in the West for his role in shooting down a Malaysian passenger plane over eastern Ukraine in 2014 with the loss of 298 lives, for which he was convicted in absentia by a Dutch court. He denied involvement.
The New York Times recently quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying Putin would be re-elected next year with 90% of the vote.
Peskov later told the Russian news agency TASS that his words had been misinterpreted, but that Putin had unprecedented support and would win an overwhelming majority if he ran, something he has yet to confirm.