Russian nationalist who wanted to run against Putin to stay in detention

FILE PHOTO: Pro-war Kremlin critic Girkin appeals against his detention, in Moscow
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By Mark Trevelyan

LONDON (Reuters) - Russian nationalist Igor Girkin, who had said he wanted to challenge Vladimir Putin in a presidential election in March, had his detention extended for six months on Thursday as he awaits trial on charges of inciting extremism.

The ruling, announced by a Moscow court, extinguishes the already faint prospect that Girkin might be allowed to run.

The 52-year-old is known in the West for his role in the shooting-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 with the loss of 298 passengers and crew. A Dutch court last year convicted him in absentia of murder. Girkin has denied involvement.

The former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer had organised pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine since early 2014. Also known as Igor Strelkov, he has repeatedly said Russia faces upheaval unless the military leadership fights more effectively in Ukraine.

He could be jailed for five years if convicted of "public calls to commit extremist activity".

Girkin complained in a Telegram post last May that authorities in the Russian-controlled part of Ukraine's Donetsk region were failing to provide support payments to families of men who had been called up to fight against Ukraine.

Girkin posted that "to have someone shot for such a thing would be too little". His lawyer said Girkin admitted writing the post but did not agree that it amounted to extremism or incitement.

Girkin announced his unlikely election bid from prison last month, telling supporters to set up a headquarters and collect signatures.

His detention will now run well beyond the March 17 election, in which Putin is expected to stand and win comfortably.

Girkin has said Putin was misled by Ukraine, the West and his own defence and security chiefs before launching his invasion in February 2022.

"It turned out that neither the country, nor the army, nor Russian industry were ready for war," Girkin said in August.

In directly criticising the president, he crossed a line that not even mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin had dared to breach.

Prigozhin, who mutinied against the defence establishment after savaging its conduct of the war, was killed in a plane crash in August that is still under investigation.

(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)