Key takeaways from the Navalny-Girkin debates

Author : News Agency

Source : 112 Ukraine

Navalny confronted Girkin on Russia's role in the July 2014 downing of MH17
14:10, 21 July 2017

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Seated across from one another in a live telecast carried by independent Russian TV station Dozhd, Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny squared off against Igor Girkin, an ultra-nationalist former intelligence officer who played a key role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, in a fierce debate on Thursday that was also carried by two Youtube channels affiliated with the main participants.

Amid mutual loathing, accusations and a general disdain for their respective positions on the Russian political spectrum, Navalny and Girkin appeared to find common ground - for wildly different reasons - in their distaste for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Continuing with the core message of his opposition movement, Navalny accused Putin of cultivating a corrupt governing system that dominates every aspect of Russian society. Both he and Girkin - who is also known by his nom de guerre Strelkov ("Shooter" in Russian) - railed against the Kremlin's unwillingness to rise the standard of living for Russian citizens, with the former pointing to the Putin regime's inability to develop the economy and ween it off the energy sector and the military industrial complex.

Navalny was quick to point to Moscow's recent military interventions and the subsequent international sanctions that have been imposed on the country as having severely hamstrung Russia's business development.

Less concerned with the nuts and bolts of the country's economic woes, Girkin accused Putin of betraying the Russia's interests by signing the two EU-brokered Minsk agreements in 2014 and 2015, saying the Kremlin lacked the will to continue the war in Ukraine and to formally annex the Donbas region, as it had with Crimea in early 2014.

Girkin claimed that the successful pro-Russian operations that were carried out in Crimea and parts of Ukraine's eastern Donbas region could have been replicated in other parts of the country if the Kremlin had the will to carry out its original plan, including in the Odessa and Zaporizhia regions.

"They were waiting for us, everywhere," said Girkin.

Throughout the debate, Navalny and Girkin sparred over each other's patriotic bonafides, with each claiming that the other had betrayed Russia's interests. The latter also said that Putin and the current separatist leadership in the Donbas were "traitors to the Russian nation" for having agreed to the terms of the Minsk Protocol. 

Bristling at Girkin's assertion that the signing of the Minsk Agreements amounted to a form of capitulation on Russia's part, Navalny insisted that the accords - meant to halt the fighting in eastern Ukraine - were meant only as a mechanism for resolving a conflict that has claimed more than 10,000 lives since the fighting began in April 2014.

Known as a fiery Russian imperialist with a deep disdain for the West, Girkin previously fought in Moldova's pro-Russian separatist region Transnistria in 1992, both of Russia’s brutal genocidal wars in Chechnya and served as a volunteer fighting on the side of Serb nationalists during the bloody Bosnian War of the early 1990s.

He accused Navalny of harboring anti-Russian sentiments due to his liberal political leanings and lack of formal military service. 

“While you were still studying, I was already fighting in Chechnya.” At the end of the debate, the former officer said: “You are not a nationalist, and you are probably not even a patriot.”

Though Navalny attempted to cast Girkin as an unsavory form of Russian nationalism, he was was unable to move beyond previously expressed slogans from his opposition campaign platform.

“Patriotism in today’s Russia is often romantic...take some weapons and go somewhere to fight for the Motherland. I look at the country and I see cities without roads, hospitals without medicine, schools crumbling to the ground. For me, patriotism is that the Russian people should live better. Helping people now means not waging war, but fighting corruption,” Navalny said when quizzed about his definition of modern patriotism. 

Related: Relatives of MH17 crash victims filed a lawsuit against rebel leader Girkin

Navalny often spoke indirectly about Russian troops in the Donbas and failed to pointedly accuse Girkin of precipitating the invasion of a sovereign country. He noted, however, that Moscow's Ukraine war has crippled Russia's economy and driven nearly 20 million people below the poverty line due to the spiraling costs and stiff sanctions imposed by the West.

Reiterating previous statements made since Russia's FSB intelligence service withdrew him from the Donbas in September 2014, Girkin cited "historical precedence" as the main justification for a war that he claims to have started. Using arguments often employed by other prominent Russian irredentists, Girkin claimed the Russian people were "artificially divided by mythical borders drawn up by the Soviet Union prior to its collapse (in 1991)."

Navalny has, at times, voiced similar sentiments, saying earlier this year that "Russians are the most divided people in Europe," but fully recognizes the current borders in which modern Russia is located.

The belief that the Russian population has been forcibly divided and separated from areas once under Moscow's control has gained increasing popularity since Putin came to power in 1999.

Often referred to as "Eurasianism" or the "Russky Mir" (Russian World) - terms developed by firebrand Russian ultra-nationalist Alexander Dugin - they refer to a belief that the country's linguistic, ethnic and cultural traditions should be united across the vast regions that were once a part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union.  

Related: Syrian truce of Trump and Putin

Navalny attempted to press Girkin on who his financial patrons were in the Donbas and Crimea, but the latter refused to disclose any details regarding his operations other than to repeat previous claims that "The weapons came from Crimea and that he took very little money."

Citing his "officer's honor" not to answer specific questions regarding certain details of the War in the Donbas, Girkin appeared to be uneasy when pressed by Navalny about his participation in or knowledge of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014.

Girkin claimed that the forces under his command did not have the BUK anti-aircraft missile system that brought down the Boeing 777 as it flew over the war torn Donetsk region, killing all 298 aboard.

“I can’t make any other comments. I didn’t take part in the investigation, and I’m not interested in it,” said Girkin when questioned by his debate opponent, 

Navalny failed to follow-up on his questions about MH17 and allowed Girkin to continue claiming that the troops under his command were incapable of shooting down the passenger jet.

Amid widespread criticism for having agreed to debate Girkin, Navalny refused to address matters related to accusations that his opponent is a "war criminal", saying only that "the matter should be decided in a court of law". 

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