Russian nationalist and ex-rebel commander Igor Girkin, whose pro-Moscow militants sparked a decade-long armed conflict in east Ukraine, was jailed for four years Thursday after repeatedly criticising the Kremlin.

Girkin, who also goes by the pseudonym "Strelkov", was instrumental in fomenting the conflict between Kremlin-backed separatists and Kyiv's armed forces in Ukraine's Donbas region in 2014.

The Moscow City Court said it had found the 53-year-old guilty of "public calls to carry out extremist activities", and that he would serve his sentence in a general regime colony.

"I serve the Fatherland!" Girkin yelled out after the verdict was read out. His followers had gathered outside the court earlier.

He was arrested last year on "extremism" charges after months of public attacks on Russia's military leaders and President Vladimir Putin, whom he chided for not pushing a more aggressive offensive against Ukraine.

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Girkin had called Putin an "old idiot" and said "the country will not survive another six years of this cowardly mediocrity in power" in some of his final social media posts before his arrest.

His sharp criticism, published daily in hours-long video blogs on his social media channels, was tolerated by the authorities for months, even as the Kremlin's liberal opponents were handed severe jail sentences for going against the campaign.

But the mood in Moscow changed after Wagner commander Yevgeny Prigozhin and hundreds of his troops launched an aborted mutiny last June to oust Russia's military leadership.

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One person was injured in the attack, which also damaged the church and about a dozen houses and shops.

Girkin's arrest was a high-profile demonstration that Russia was reining in the nationalist critics.

- 'Dubious' extremist -

Behind bars in pre-trial detention, he mounted a doomed campaign to run against Putin in March's presidential elections, doubling down on his anti-Kremlin position.

In an interview with Russian media from jail, he said the country had "entered a period of acute instability" and faced "imminent catastrophe".

Girkin had cultivated an image as the key figure behind Moscow's initial military foray into Ukraine in 2014.

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Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula that year following a pro-European revolution in Kyiv that toppled the country's Moscow-friendly president.

Girkin, a former FSB officer, formed and commanded Moscow-backed forces in Donbas, marshalling troops out of a base in the captured city of Sloviansk. There, he reportedly ordered executions for minor crimes such as petty theft.

- Convicted over Flight MH17 -

He was one of three men sentenced by a court in the Netherlands last year to life imprisonment in absentia for the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines plane MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014.

Some 298 people were killed when a missile fired from rebel-held territory hit the jet. The Kremlin has always denied its involvement and refused to extradite Girkin to the Netherlands.

"In the West, I have already been recognised as a terrorist... and in my homeland, I have the dubious notoriety as an extremist," he said after his arrest.

He left eastern Ukraine shortly after MH17 was downed, becoming a ultra-nationalist blogger and backer of the hardline "Novorossiya" ideology that called for Russia to subsume vast swathes of Ukraine.

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When Russia sent troops into Ukraine on February 24, 2022 he said the entire country needed to be captured in a "swift and decisive victory".

But within days he had become disillusioned at what he called Russia's "major mistakes", turning into an unflinching critic of how Moscow was prosecuting the offensive.

He wanted Russia's entire political system to be put on a hardened military footing and for significantly more men and resources to be thrown at the campaign.

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