Igor Girkin (Strelkov), the former top military commander of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" and nationalist blogger charged with extremism, sits inside a glass defendants' cage ahead of his verdict hearing at the Moscow City Court in Moscow on January 25, 2024. (Photo by Natalia KOLESNIKOVA / AFP) (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images)
CNN  — 

Igor Girkin, a prominent Russian pro-war blogger who criticized President Vladimir Putin’s handling of the war on Ukraine, has been found guilty on extremism charges and sentenced to four years in prison by a Moscow court.

Moscow City Court convicted Girkin, also known under his pseudonym, Strelkov, of inciting extremism – a charge he denied.

A former officer of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and an ex-military commander, Girkin played a crucial role in Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the early stages of invading Donbas, before becoming a prominent Russian military blogger with over half a million followers on Telegram.

Girkin was also closely linked to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in July 2014 and was convicted in absentia of mass murder for his role in the tragedy.

As part of his Thursday sentence he was also barred from accessing the internet, a move that essentially shuts off his ability to publicly lambast Putin’s leadership.

Call for harsher approach

Girkin was arrested in July and charged with calling for extremist activities after he became increasingly critical of Putin and his military’s mishaps in Ukraine.

His detention came weeks after the failed rebellion by Wagner mercenaries in Russia, a period in which Putin’s grasp on power appeared to be more fragile than ever.

A group of around 100 of his supporters gathered outside the Moscow court on Thursday to show opposition to his sentencing.

Girkin’s wife told CNN on Thursday she had been unable to see her husband for six months. “Today I am very worried now. To be honest, I have a storm of negative emotions,” she said.

“It seems to me that now this is a demonstrative flogging for everyone and thus all the heroes of Russian,” she said. “They are simply not wanted now and are being removed. We hope that we still have justice and that my husband will be released sooner or later, and I hope that this will happen after the elections, because now a purge is underway.”

Igor Girkin (Strelkov), the former top military commander of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" and nationalist blogger charged with extremism, sits inside a glass defendants' cage ahead of his verdict hearing at the Moscow City Court in Moscow on January 25, 2024. (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP) (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images)

Girkin is among the best-known of Russia’s “milbloggers,” a group of war correspondents who support the invasion but have grown increasingly critical of the military’s faltering operations in Ukraine, and pushed for a harsher approach.

He co-founded an ultra-nationalist political group called the Angry Patriots Club last spring, and told Reuters that Russia was “on the cusp of very grave internal political changes of a catastrophic character.”

But just days before his arrest Girkin intensified his criticisms of Putin, calling the president a “lowlife” and a “cowardly bum” in a blistering post on his Telegram channel.

“For 23 years, the country was led by a lowlife who managed to ‘blow dust in the eyes’ of a significant part of the population. Now he is the last island of legitimacy and stability of the state,” the post read. “But the country will not be able to withstand another six years of this cowardly bum in power.”

Heavy price to pay

Thursday’s verdict highlights the increasing paranoia emanating from the Kremlin about how the war on Ukraine is being conducted.

Both Girkin and another famous war critic, Yevgeny Prigozhin, have now paid a heavy price for overstepping the mark in their criticism of Putin.

Girkin faces a prison sentence in a Russian penal colony with his access to the internet cut – effectively severing his sharp tongue from his 500,000 Telegram followers.

Prigozhin, who ultimately died in a plane crash, was marginalized, had business operations clipped and was publicly rebuked by Putin for stoking a rebellion just weeks before Girkin’s arrest.

Both Girkin and Prigozhin had constantly called for more military support and ammunition for units in Ukraine and personally attacked the top brass of the Russian Defense Ministry, Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov.

Girkin is a former colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and served as defense minister in the separatist so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in eastern Ukraine, territory captured by pro-Russian forces in 2014.

It was during his time in the DPR that he contributed to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014, a court in the Netherlands found. All 298 people onboard were killed. The court in 2022 found Girkin guilty of mass murder for his role in the incident and he was sentenced in absentia to life in prison.

According to the court, Girkin participated in the conflicts in Chechnya, Transnistria and Bosnia.

This is story was updated with further developments.

CNN’s Mick Krever, Nathan Hodge, Olga Voitovych, Uliana Pavlova and Josh Pennington contributed reporting.