Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and a prominent former commander of Russia-backed separatists sparred over patriotism and the war in Ukraine in a debate that stoked widespread discussion and criticism among political players and watchers after it was announced last week.
Navalny drew censure from some in the liberal political camp for agreeing to the July 20 debate against Igor Girkin, a key figure in the early stages of the war between Kyiv’s forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Known widely by the nom de guerre “Strelkov,” Girkin has previously said that self-declared separatist authorities in eastern Ukraine executed individuals accused of looting. Documents uncovered by U.S. journalists in eastern Ukraine indicate Girkin signed off on at least three executions.
The debate, which was broadcast on Navalny’s YouTube channel and an Internet TV channel affiliated with Strelkov, came amid Navalny’s bid to run in next year’s presidential election, which is expected to hand President Vladimir Putin another six-year term.
It revealed little new about Navalny's positions on Putin’s government, the battle against corruption, and Western sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine, which the opposition leader says should target Putin’s inner circle but not the broader Russian economy.
But the debate did give a wider platform for Girkin, an ultranationalist and reactionary with a penchant for war reenactments who has become increasingly critical of Putin since leaving eastern Ukraine in August 2014.
Girkin accused Putin in the debate of insufficient support for Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, whose war with Kyiv’s forces has killed more than 10,000 people since April 2014. He said Navalny, like Putin, would “betray” Russia’s interests in the region as well if he came to power.
Girkin once famously said that he, not Putin, was “the one who pulled the trigger of war," and Navalny accused him in the debate of starting a conflict that has drained Russia of resources.
“The war that you started is an expensive thing that destroyed the Russian economy,” Navalny said, adding that a 2015 cease-fire and peace deal known as the Minsk agreements is the only mechanism for resolving the conflict.
Kyiv, the United States, the EU, and NATO accuse Russia of backing the separatists in eastern Ukraine with weapons, cash, and soldiers. Russia denies involvement in the fighting despite substantial evidence of such support.
Girkin and Navalny, who repeatedly argued over who is more patriotic, did find common ground on Putin's government: Both called it a corrupt and “oligarchic” system.
Anyone hoping that Girkin might use the debate to shed light on Russia’s role in the conflict was likely left disappointed. He repeated his earlier account that he was forced out of eastern Ukraine under certain conditions that he declined to reveal.
Citing an “officer’s honor,” he also declined to elaborate on how the separatists were financed, saying only that weapons were taken from Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula after it was seized by Russia in early 2014.
Navalny made good on his pledge ahead of the debate to ask Girkin who was responsible for shooting down a passenger jet over separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine in July 2014, an incident in which all 298 people aboard were killed.
“I can’t make any other comments. I didn’t take part in the investigation, and I’m not interested in it,” Girkin said, while also repeating his claim that the separatists did not have weapons capable of shooting down the Malaysia Airlines plane.
A Dutch-led international investigation concluded in September 2016 that a Russian-made Buk missile system used to shoot the airliner had been brought into Ukraine from Russia shortly before the plane’s downing and then quickly spirited back to Russia afterward. The investigation said the missile was fired from a field in separatist-held territory.
Russia has repeatedly sought to cast doubt on evidence of its involvement in the downing of the plane.
Girkin publicly challenged Navalny to a debate earlier this month. After accepting the offer, Navalny drew criticism from some Russian liberals and opposition activists who said he should not engage with a “war criminal.”
"Only a state prosecutor in court should hold a dialogue and discussion with him," Boris Vishnevsky, a veteran liberal politician and local St. Petersburg lawmaker, said in an interview with RFE/RL last week.
Russian photographer Yevgeny Feldman, who has traveled around Russia with Navalny to document the opposition leader’s presidential bid, also criticized Navalny’s decision.
"I can understand holding a discussion with politicians who have even the craziest of views. I can’t understand debating someone who executes the unarmed," Feldman wrote on Twitter.
Asked by the debate's moderator, prominent journalist Mikhail Zygar, whether Girkin is a "war criminal," Navalny said that is for a court to decide.
Vishenevsky and others suggested Navalny’s motive for participating was to attract support from Russian nationalists, a base that he has previously flirted with, including by participating in an annual rally of ultranationalists in Moscow several years ago.
Navalny said prior to the debate that he agreed to square off against Girkin because he wanted to demonstrate that his political positions are "truly patriotic."
Zygar at times seemed disappointed with the event.
The author of a well-respected book on Putin’s Kremlin, Zygar said he was not impressed with the first round of the discussion, about corruption.
Before the closing comments, he said: “It wasn’t much of a show.”