Navalny Clashes With Ex-Commander Of Russia-Backed Separatists
RFE/RL July 20, 2017
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, who is seeking to run for the Russian presidency next year, drew censure 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.
During the debate, which was broadcast on Navalny's YouTube channel and an Internet TV channel affiliated with Strelkov, the two men clashed over the war in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 10,000 people since April 2014.
Navalny insisted that a 2015 cease-fire and peace deal known as the Minsk agreements is the only mechanism for resolving the conflict, a position Girkin rejected as a "betrayal" of Russia's interests and what he portrays as a grassroots and patriotic separatist movement against the government in Kyiv.
Russia denies involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine despite voluminous evidence that it has sent troops, weapons, and other support to the separatists.
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.
An international investigative team concluded in September 2016 that the Russian-made Buk missile system that was used to down the airliner had been brought into Ukraine from Russia shortly before it was shot out of the sky and then quickly smuggled back to Russia afterward. It said the missile was fired from a field in separatist-held territory.
But Girkin repeated his earlier denials that the separatists shot down the plane, claiming that they did not have weapons capable of doing so.
The Russian government 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, and the opposition politician accepted the offer.
In the run-up to the event, Navalny's decision to debate Girkin drew criticism from some Russian liberals and opposition activists who said the politician should not publicly 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 bid to run for president, 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.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Christopher Miller in Kyiv
Copyright (c) 2017. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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