Putin’s Number One Gunman in Ukraine Warns Him of Possible Defeat

Igor Strelkov, the rebel commander many hold responsible for firing on MH17, is sending a thinly veiled warning to the Kremlin that he won’t go down alone.
Anna Nemtsova
The Daily Beast | 07.25.14

DONETSK, Ukraine — Just over a week ago, Igor Strelkov, the key commander for separatist militia forces in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), was keeping an eye on several battles, both military and political. Strelkov was an experienced military officer, a former commander of the Russian special forces during the Chechen war in 2001; but here in Ukraine his rebel units were mostly made up of unprofessional fighters losing checkpoint after checkpoint to quickly advancing and constantly shelling troops from the Donetsk Ukrainia Anti-Terror Operation Forces sent by Kiev.

There was still no sign of the Russian army arriving to help Strelkov, who had already lost his previous stronghold, Sloviansk, earlier in the month.

And then—bodies began to fall from the sky. An anti-aircraft missile almost certainly fired by some of Strelkov’s men had reached six miles up to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, and suddenly Strelkov found himself not only the leader of a rebellion but denounced as a possible war criminal.

The time had come for the insurgent colonel to roll out his main argument for more support: Losing this war on the territory that President Vladimir Putin personally named Novorossiya (New Russia) would threaten the Kremlin’s power and, personally, the power of the president.

An article published by Strelkov’s adviser, Igor Druzd, on Wednesday laid out the case that Putin, today, is facing the same choice that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych faced a few months ago: either send in the army and win control over the territories of Novorossiya in eastern Ukraine—or lose his presidency. “I hope that the Ukrainian tragedy will neither become the tragedy of Russia nor the personal tragedy of Putin,” wrote Strelkov’s adviser.

Ukrainian authorities insist that, in fact, Russian heavy weapons already are deployed and Russian personnel already are fighting in Donbass, as eastern Ukraine is known. The Ukrainian authorities say it was the Kremlin, specifically Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu, that has coordinated all of Strelkov’s actions.

“We have proved beyond a doubt that Strelkov and other terrorist leaders are equipped with the most destructive weapons and instructed directly by Shoygu,” Anton Gerashchenko, adviser to the Ministry of Interior Affairs, told The Daily Beast. “Shoygu would not dare to send the Grad system, tanks, APCs, and other weapons to Donbass unless Putin approved of it.”

The Ukrainian Ministry of Interior Affairs reported that as soon as the rebels managed to punch holes in the Ukrainian border in May, Strelkov’s forces received all the weapons they needed, including mortars, RPGs, APCs, tanks, and rocket launching systems.

All that hardware wasn’t free, according to Strelkov. His army, he claimed, had to purchase its arsenal for “a fabulous sum of money.” Apparently, to win the war, Strelkov also needed more professional fighters to use that newfound arsenal. His irregular forces were made up of local men in their late 30s or 40s, and volunteers from Russia and the Caucasus with little to no combat experience. He still required men who knew how to operate heavy weapons such as, say, surface-to-air missile batteries.
In Strelkov’s recent video posted online, he said he “could never have imagined” that of the more than 4.6 million people living in the Donetsk region, only about 1,000 volunteers were willing to join his rebel army to defend Novorossiya: “We can see anything but crowds of volunteers outside our gate,” admitted Strelkov, whose nom de guerre means “gunman” and whose real surname is Girkin.

To Kiev, Strelkov-Girkin is its most wanted terrorist; to the Donbass rebels—a hero and an idol. “He is not too tall but handsome, stout with a military poise, sometimes too serious—he is a true ideologue, one of very few in the DPR; he has a chess player’s brain, brilliant for battle plans,” is how a deputy of the self-proclaimed DPR parliament, Claudia Kulbatsky, described Strelkov to The Daily Beast on Thursday.

Col. Strelkov has admitted that he only quit working with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in May 2013. Since earlier this year, “DPR Defense Minister Strelkov” has become the dominant authority among the rebels, especially those who lived and fought with him under Ukrainian mortar fire in Sloviansk earlier this summer.

“Victory means a chance to return home to Sloviansk, which is now occupied by the Ukrainians; we are going to be with Strelkov through the worst,” said Denis, 31, a rebel working for Strelkov’s personal security forces, as he guarded me at their main headquarters in the old Ukraine SBU (security service) prison.

Several reporters detained last week had a chance to talk with our interrogators, and we asked for permission to place a call to the republic’s prime minister, Alexander Borodai. The rebels just laughed at us: “Borodai, is he still alive?” one of them joked. Strelkov, he said, is the only one who makes crucial decisions in Donbass.

Strelkov’s mission in Ukraine, whoever gave it to him, has been bigger than just the defense of the DPR. He claims to be defending Putin’s reputation and power in Russia, too. In an interview with The Daily Beast on Thursday, Druzd, the Strelkov adviser, spoke of the importance of the Russians coming to Donbass to prevent a revolution like Kiev’s Maidan from spreading to Moscow.

“Putin’s popularity is fading away, since nobody has stopped the slaughter of the Russians in Donbass," Druzd said. “The president’s approval rating is much lower in Moscow and St. Petersburg than in the provinces. As we know, [past] revolutions—both the French and October—took place in the capitals; unfortunately, we cannot exclude the possibility of attempts to mount Maidan-type protests in Moscow,” Druzd said. “For now Russia mostly sends us information and humanitarian help,” he added, when what the rebels need to defend Russian interests is “significant military support.”

Dangerous talk, certainly. As anyone who knows Putin is aware, Russia’s president does not take kindly to threats. If Strelkov pushes too far, he could find himself a lone gunman in a very lonely war.




No Turbin
Andrew Stuttaford
National Review Online | July 23, 2014

I read somewhere that, nearly a century after the Russian civil war, the ascendancy of Vladimir Putin ought to be seen as representing the final victory of the Whites over the Reds. It’s an interesting notion — there’s something to it — and reading this passage from a fascinating New Republic piece by Oleg Kashin on Igor Strelkov/Igor Girkin (the mysterious Russian who supposedly commands the separatists in eastern Ukraine) brought it back to mind:

Before he became a military star in Ukraine, Strelkov was already a star among war reenactors. These men arm themselves with old weapons, dress in military uniforms, and gather in deserted places to act out long-ago battles. Strelkov “the cat” particularly loves the 1918-1920 battles of the Russian civil war, where he usually plays the role of a White Guard officer. Essentially, he is now playing the same role in Ukraine: his haircut, his mustache, his manners, and even his military tactics are almost all copied from images of White Guard officers in Soviet films.

One of Strelkov’s idols is the White Guard general Mikhail Drozdovsky, killed in a battle with the Bolshevik army in the south of Russia in 1919. While Strelkov’s soldiers held on to Slavyansk, the entrance to the city was decorated with an enormous banner blending allusions to the “Drozdovites” with images from the film “300.” Another fun fact: When Strelkov rewarded his fighters with St. George’s Crosses (the main award given to soldiers in czarist Russia), he thanked on the antique forum a friend who runs a Moscow antique shop for providing him with authentic crosses for free. It is unclear if Strelkov has any real military experience: He is said to have fought in Chechnya, though that is unconfirmed.

They say that real actors dream of playing the greatest roles in real life beyond the confines of the stage. This may also the dream of war reenactors who play at battle while fantasizing about the real thing. What had once been a game for Strelkov has now become a real war, with real deaths, real shootouts, and real assaults. If Putin does not want to become a sponsor of international terrorism in front of the whole world, he will have to do all he can to stop Strelkov. The Ukrainians think this is very simple: Putin orders Strelkov to return to Moscow, and the Donbass is at peace. To me, this does not seem very realistic: I doubt Strelkov would take orders from Putin….

Who knows? The layers of disinformation are very deep indeed. Read the whole thing.

And it’s not just re-enactors of the past who are active in this corner of Ukraine. As Cathy Young reveals in this piece in Slate, re-enactors of (so to speak) the future are on the scene there too:

A pro-Western, NATO-backed Ukrainian government faces a stubborn insurgency in the pro-Russian East. Fighting rages around Donetsk, with civilians dying in artillery fire and airstrikes, while Russian troops mass on the Ukrainian border. The latest headlines? No, a two-novel series by Russian-Ukrainian science-fiction writer Fedor Berezin: War 2010: The Ukrainian Front and War 2011: Against NATO.

In a startling plot twist, Berezin, a 54-year-old former Soviet Army officer and Donetsk native, is now living inside a real-life version of his own story: He is deputy defense minister of the embattled “Donetsk People’s Republic.” And this is just one of many bizarre overlaps between fantasy and reality in the current conflict in Eastern Ukraine—a convergence that prompted one Russian commentator, novelist Dmitry Bykov, to dub this conflict “the writers’ war.”

As Cathy Young explains, Berezin was not alone in writing novels “in which Ukraine becomes a battleground in a larger East-West confrontation”.

There’s this, for example:

The Age of the Stillborn by Gleb Bobrov, who like Berezin is an ethnic Russian from Eastern Ukraine (Luhansk) and an Afghanistan war veteran. The apocalyptic novel, set in a near future in which a brutal Kiev regime seeks to quash rebellion in the East with NATO help, was first published online in 2006 and became a hit on the Russian Internet before going to print in 2007.


The stream of Russo-Ukrainian war literature published in Russia at the end of the 2000s—both speculative fiction and conspiracy-theory nonfiction—alarmed Ukrainian politician Arsen Avakov, then governor of the Kharkiv region and now Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs. In an emotional March 2009 post on the Ukrainska Pravda website titled, “Do the Russians want war?” Avakov suggested that the books were part of a deliberate Kremlin strategy to build up popular support for war against Ukraine by playing to Soviet nostalgia among older readers and ignorance among younger ones.

If I’d read that theory a year or two back I would thought that I’d wandered into tinfoil shapka territory. And probably I would have been right. But the Kremlin’s manipulation of Russian media — so evident in recent months — has been such that Avakov’s thesis now seems a little less incredible than once might have been the case. That said, it’s probably better to see books of the type that Young describes as a spontaneous response to the psychological, political and emotional gap that the collapse of the USSR left behind in Russia and at least part of Ukraine, the gap that men like Strelkov are now just the latest to try to fill.




Igor Strelkov: Key MH17 Crash Suspect Linked to Massacre of 3,000 Bosnian Muslims in 1992
Gianluca Mezzofiore
International Business Times | July 25, 2014

Igor ‘Strelkov ‘ Girkin (C) pictured in Visegrad in 1992 along with a Russian mercenary and a Bosnian Serb commander

A retired Russian military officer turned separatist leader in eastern Ukraine who is suspected in the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17 was allegedly involved in the 1992 Serbian ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad.

A photo showing young Igor Girkin, known by his pseudonym Igor Strelkov, in Visegrad with another Russian mercenary and Boban Indic, a member of the Serb brigade that laid siege to the town, appears to implicate the veteran of both the Soviet and Russian armies in the pogrom of Bosniak (Bosnian Muslims) civilians.

At least 3,000 Muslims were massacred in the eastern Bosnian town, where they were rounded up and murdered. Hundreds of women were detained and mass-raped at the spa, the infamous Vilina Vlas. Women, children and elderly people were locked in houses and burned to death.

Igor Strelkov has been called one of the most powerful separatist figures in eastern Ukraine. He’s a veteran of both the Soviet and Russian armies and has been described as a covert agent of Russia’s GRU military intelligence. He declared himself the Minister of Defence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR).

At the time that MH17 went down, Strelkov posted a statement on VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook, taking responsibility for the attack.

"We warned them not to fly in ‘our sky," he wrote.

The post was later deleted.

Later, Strelkov claimed that corpses near the debris were of people who had died days before the plane took off. According to rebel website Russkaya Vesna, the leader was told by people at the scene in eastern Ukraine that ‘a significant number of the bodies were drained of blood and reeked of decomposition.’

Bosnian media published the picture of Strelkov in Visegrad along with an account from a retired army officer, Aziz Tafro, who confirmed that the Russian nationalist took part in the Serbian aggression in Bosnia.

The report says that Strelkov fought in Visegrad as member of the First Cossacks division and then was re-assigned in the area of Sarajevo. Tafro is a freelance researcher who published a book on Russian and Greek volunteers in the Bosnian Serb Army.

Strelkov, with his clipped mustache and pomaded hair, was present during the Russian annexation of Crimea, and was involved in conflicts in Chechnya and Transnistria (Russian breakaway Republic in Moldova). He was charged by Ukrainian authorities with terrorism and is currently sanctioned by the European Union.



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