The arrest of “doomer” Igor Girkin is much more important than his friends and foes alike might have thought since it signals that the state is finally wising up to the latent national security threats posed by his school of conspiracy theories. This doesn’t mean that they’ll soon also realize how counterproductive their cultivation of “5D chess” conspiracies has been, but it nevertheless increases the odds that this could happen and a “narrative intervention” might follow before fall.
From Donbass Hero To De Facto Cult Leader
Igor Girkin, who’s popularly known by his nom de guerre as Strelkov, was arrested on Friday on charges of extremism and will remain detained until his court date in mid-September. He’s a legendary figure in Donbass’ post-Maidan history and is widely considered to be the man who helped set its anti-fascist rebellion into motion. After his retirement and especially since the start of the special operation, however, he began to generate a cult following for his “doom and gloom” (“doomer”/“D&G”) views.
“Doom & Gloom”
This term refers to the sharing of very sharp criticisms about something, which always carry with them either the innuendo or outright claim that “the worst possible failure is imminent” unless radical action is taken to improve the situation. Policy prescriptions vary depending on whatever it is that’s being discussed, but a trademark of “doomer” talk is that it always agitates for the purge of supposedly treasonous elements, which are usually suspected of residing at the top of the state.
In the Russian context, Girkin regularly alleged that the special operation was about to fail due to the treason that he’s convinced was committed by leading members of Russia’s permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies (“deep state”), which he holds President Putin responsible for. He’s been proven wrong time and again, but his country’s setbacks late last year in Kharkov and Kherson Regions coupled with the grinding Battle of Artyomovsk made some think that there’s truth to his claims.
“D&G” conspiracy theories are the polar opposite of “5D chess” ones, the latter of which regularly allege that “everything is going according to plan” and that undeniable setbacks are part of a so-called “master plan” devised by “geniuses” to “dupe their opponents” for whatever reason adherents imagine. Returning to the Russian context, the two setbacks late last year mentioned above are regularly attributed to the Russian “deep state” wanting to “grind NATO to dust” in a series of “cauldrons”.
The Transition From “5D Chess” To “Doom & Gloom”
Both conspiracy theories are harmful because they manipulate the perceptions of Russia’s supporters, albeit in different ways and for different ends. “5D chess” imbues believers with the feeling that their side is “invincible” and that “victory is imminent”, which therefore inevitably leads to cognitive dissonance whenever undeniable setbacks occur and can thus result in deep disappointment with time. Those who experience the latter then become much more susceptible to “D&G” conspiracy theories.
The danger that these views pose is that they brainwash believers into doing their opponents’ bidding by demoralizing their own side and discrediting its leadership, which can result in radicalizing people to attempt kinetic action out of a false sense of desperation. In the minds of those who participate in these plots, they’re “saving their country from an otherwise inevitably humiliating failure”, but they’re really functioning as their opponents’ “useful idiots” to destabilize the situation behind the frontlines.
The State’s Seemingly Inevitable Zero-Sum Narrative Choice
During times of conflict, it’s crucial for everyone to behave responsibly by recognizing the role that they play in defending their side from their opponents’ information warfare operations. The sharing of well-intended constructive critiques aimed at improving the objectively existing shortcomings of one’s own side or calmly explaining undeniable setbacks to fellow supporters is helpful, but delusionally denying them with “5D chess” conspiracy theories or exaggerating them with “D&G” ones is harmful.
It’s difficult to indefinitely maintain the balance required to prevent either of those extreme views from virally infecting any given side’s supporters, especially since the contemporary information space is unprecedentedly complex owing to social media. Faced with the seemingly inevitable zero-sum choice between them, most governments and their supporters obviously prefer to push “5D chess” conspiracy theories since they’re comparatively less harmful and more easily manageable than “D&G” ones.
The Importance Of Timely “Narrative Interventions”
After all, those imbued with the first-mentioned set of false beliefs don’t contemplate any sort of kinetic action that could destabilize the situation behind the frontlines since they’re content with “trusting the plan” and “watching the show” as their supposedly “imminent victory” unfolds. If too many undeniable setbacks occur and believers’ cognitive dissonance thus risks transforming into the deep disappointment that makes them susceptible to “D&G” views, then a “narrative intervention” might finally take place.
Well-intended constructive critiques aimed at improving the objectively existing shortcomings of one’s own side and calmly explaining disadvantageous developments that can no longer be denied could gradually be introduced if that given side has masterful “perception managers” within its ranks. This is much easier said than done since professionals of this caliber are rare and it requires a coordinated effort between governments and their most influential supporters to effectively remedy the problem.
Regrettably, the following usually ends up happening: governments aren’t aware of the fact that “5D chess” directly leads to “D&G”; they don’t wise up to this until after the “narrative inflection point” has passed and the large-scale “defection” of the former to the latter risks being a fait accompli; and/or the “narrative intervention” isn’t effectively coordinated, which results in influential “5D chess” supporters discrediting these responsibly implemented remedial measures as “D&G” and thus confusing others.
Russia’s Struggle To Effectively Manage Perceptions
These challenges are on full display in the Russian case, the acknowledgement of which is an example of a well-intended constructive critique like was discussed, since the Kremlin still seems to be unaware of how counterproductive its cultivation of “5D chess” has been. Without realizing it, the decision to keep pushing these views via its domestic and international media resulted in Girkin’s “D&G” ones becoming even more viral after Russia’s supporters became too disappointed with time and started to “defect”.
Foreign “D&G” conspiracy theorists pose no threat to Russia, but domestic ones are indisputably latent ones due to them being predisposed to attempting kinetic action out of desperation after thinking that this is required in order to “save their country from an otherwise inevitably humiliating failure.” In fact, it was precisely this narrative that Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin exploited to justify his failed coup last month and manipulate some of his patriotic fighters into participating in it.
Regarding Girkin, his “D&G” views are somewhat different from Prigozhin’s, but both share the same sense of urgency that a purge of treasonous elements at the top of the state must be carried out as soon as possible in order to “save their country”. Not only have these two demoralized and misled many of their fellow Russians, but the authorities’ saintly patience in hitherto tolerating their countless violations of last year’s law prohibiting the defamation of the armed forces inadvertently set a bad example.
Girkin Repeatedly Crossed Russia’s Narrative Red Lines
Girkin was given numerous chances to moderate his views and bring them in line with the law due to his legendary role in Donbass’ post-Maidan history while Prigozhin was extended the same lenience since he led some of Russia’s most effective fighters. Each refused to do so for whatever their respective reasons might have been, which is all the more inexplicable in the first-mentioned’s case after the second’s failed coup attempt since he should have then known that the Kremlin’s mercy would no longer be limitless.
Despite condemning Prigozhin, with whom he’s developed a fierce rivalry since the start of the special operation, Girkin doubled down on his “D&G” views in the aftermath of that incident by strongly implying in a Telegram post here that President Putin’s removal is the only way to save Russia. He didn’t call for this to happen through illegal means, but his “legalese” still didn’t save him from being charged with extremism after the state interpreted messages like that one as intended to radicalize society.
The Prigozhin precedent showed that those under the influence of “D&G” conspiracy theories could indeed take up arms against the state, which prompted their target to finally crack down against those who spew these views in order to preemptively avert other national security crises inspired by them. The authorities’ hitherto saintly patience towards this problem wasn’t appreciated but instead interpreted as weakness and even as supposed proof that that some “deep state” elements approved of these claims.
The Possibility Of Impending Peace Talks Pushed Russia To Act
The latest military-strategic dynamics of the NATO-Russian proxy war in Ukraine regarding Moscow’s edge in the “race of logistics”/“war of attrition” directly leading to the failure of Kiev’s counteroffensive and the likely resumption of peace talks by year’s end pushed the state to finally charge Girkin. His “D&G” views posed the credible threat of brainwashing some Russians into attempting kinetic action ahead of, during, and/or after seemingly inevitable negotiations on freezing or even ending the conflict.
Those who fall under the influence of his conspiracy theories might sincerely think that they have a “patriotic obligation” to “save their country” from a “humiliating capitulation”, which can lead to them either acting on their own or being manipulated by provocateurs at home and abroad into doing this. In any case, the outcome is the same with respect to them committing treason, domestic terrorism, and/or other related crimes, thus destabilizing the situation behind the frontlines at a very sensitive moment.
Girkin could have walked back his accusations of treason at the top of the state and calmly explained to his audience why freezing or ending the NATO-Russian proxy war in some sort of compromise wouldn’t “doom” their country without praising the officials that he earlier criticized or endorsing this outcome. Had he helped manage and ultimately mitigate some of the latent national security threats that his reckless rhetoric was unwittingly responsible for, then he might have remained out of jail.
Girkin’s Arrest Might Be The Start Of Something Bigger
Instead, he doubled down on his “D&G” views, perhaps as part of a fantasy to become a so-called “martyr” in the eyes of his movement. Whatever the reason was, there should have been no doubt after the Prigozhin precedent that the state would crack down on Girkin if he continued defaming the armed forces, discrediting the Russian leadership, demanding the purge of supposed traitors at the highest levels, and agitating for regime change. He knew what he was doing and thus doesn’t deserve sympathy.
While Girkin’s extreme end of the conspiracy theory spectrum is finally being dealt with through the legal means that those within Russia’s jurisdiction are subject to, the state still hasn’t yet staged a “narrative intervention” by introducing well-intended and constructive critiques into the discourse. It keeps platforming “5D chess” views on its domestic and international media, which risks more cognitively dissonant supporters becoming so deeply disappointed that they “defect” to “D&G” views.
Without seriously addressing one of the root causes behind the latter’s viral growth over the past year across the Russian-friendly information ecosystem, especially the Alt-Media Community, the Kremlin will forever remain on the defensive and never fully succeed in securing the home front. The state should therefore unambiguously signal to top “5D chess” influencers that they’ll no longer be platformed on its domestic and international media unless they start gradually recalibrating their views.
Time Is Running Out To Avert A “Narrative Inflection Point”
Russia’s supporters at home and abroad must soon realize that “5D chess” and “D&G” conspiracy theories are equally inaccurate reflections of reality since the first delusionally denies the possibility of a compromise with that country’s enemies while the latter falsely claims that it would be a major defeat. As the military-strategic dynamics of the Russian-NATO proxy war in Ukraine accelerate the scenario of resuming peace talks, it’s imperative that Russia’s supporters are preconditioned to accept this.
The failure to do so could lead to the previously mentioned “narrative inflection point” that makes the large-scale “defection” of “5D chess” conspiracy theorists to “D&G” views a fait accompli, which could pose a dizzying array of national security threats if these radical views infect a critical mass of Russians. Even in the theoretical event that all “D&G” conspiracy theorists at home are arrested like Girkin was, domestic “5D chess” believers might still continue “defecting” if their views aren’t responsibly managed.
Continuing to push the last-mentioned narrative onto them in spite of progress being made towards peace talks could catalyze such cognitive dissonance in these people that they enthusiastically embrace whatever “D&G” views they come across on social media after becoming so deeply disappointed. The “flood” of “5D chess” “defections” to “D&G” conspiracy theories must therefore be preemptively averted, which only has the credible chance of occurring through a “narrative intervention” as explained.
The arrest of “doomer” Girkin is therefore much more important than his friends and foes alike might have thought since it signals that the state is finally wising up to the latent national security threats posed by his school of conspiracy theories. This doesn’t mean that they’ll soon also realize how counterproductive their cultivation of “5D chess” views has been, but it nevertheless increases the odds that this could happen and a “narrative intervention” might follow before fall.