Igor Strelkov (aslo known as Igor Girkin) is the leader of the pro-Russian rebels in East Ukraine, who he has been suspected of being responsible for the downing of MH17 and of ordering mass executions in Slavyansk. His work for the Russian military intelligence (GRU) has been well documented, and the media has been keen to draw attention to his obsession with historical reenactment. But whilst his presence on war history forums has been brushed over as an eccentricity, looking into his posts allows to see more than an apparatchik of Putin’s government. Strelkov appears to be a sincere believer in the “Novorossiya” reactionary nationalist movement and seems more like an unmanageable militant who wants to see the end of Putin’s presidency than Putin’s ideal choice of a leader of the “Russian Spring”.
Following the trail of Strelkov’s online presence, his interactions have a number of recurring themes. Among them, he sees the Russian Revolution, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the present-day situation as interconnected and all the fault of Britain and the United States. His arguments are sometimes anti-Semitic; he claims the Russians who protested after the last election are “puppets” of the Oligarchs, and that their democratic interests are “directly linked to Jewish-Anglo-Saxon international capital.” He is also convinced that immigration from Russia’s neighboring countries will turn ethnic Russians into a minority. “In just 10-15 years time, the Tajik, Uzbek, Kirghiz and Kazakh students will form half to 2/3 of students in all Moscow schools.”
At the same time, his posts paint a picture someone who is genuinely scared of the West. He is outraged by its acceptance of homosexuality and has interpreted the wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria as part of an effort to strengthen the “hegemony” of the United States, who he sees as the “political center and policeman of the World Government.” He claims “wars over resources await us, with the aim of finally dividing the world into the World Government and its subservient people and ‘world of slaves.’” His solution is to “reunite” Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians into a single nation with its own “Slavic national core.”
Even though the origins of Strelkov’s role in the Ukrainian conflict remain uncertain, and it is without question that he worked for Russia’s GRU, it is also clear that he is a sincere believer in the reactionary ideology of the pro-Russian uprising. And despite the media portrayals of Strelkov as Putin’s envoy, his loyalty to the current Russian administration is doubtful. He is critical of Russia’s Minister of Defence, Sergey Shoigu, whom he claims is both a “thief” and never “served a day in the armed forces.” Strelkov describes Putin’s policies as the “typical politics of a Latin American dictator, who isn’t willing to step aside once he gets to power,” and suggests that he would only be willing to support Putin “if he made a major change of course,” that is to say if he distanced Russia from any Western ideas of a liberal democracy.
There is evidence of the benefits and inside knowledge that Strelkov has had as a result of his line of work. In one post he describes how he accompanied a drunk-driving friend so he could use his GRU credentials if there were any trouble with the police, and in another he shrugs off a legal threat from a fellow reenactor by saying “its pointless to send the police after me.” Strelkov was also clearly unafraid about sharing his inside knowledge of Russia’s security apparatus on an obscure message board on the internet. Even though it has long been suspected that there were instances of fraud in recent Russian elections, and that the result was affected by the control Putin has over the media and opposition parties, one of Strelkov’s posts detailed how the elections are entirely fabricated by the GRU’s sister agency FAPSI, Russia’s federal agency in charge of communications.
“All the “elections” are made in the FAPSI building in the Bolshoy Kiselniy lane (Moscow). How many votes and who voted – makes no difference. A predetermined result is loaded into the ‘GAS-Vybory’ [electoral] system on the computer, which means that the ‘favourites’ are simply unable to get a lower percentage than has been inputted. United Russia must get no less than 60% – and it will get them, even if only Vova’s [Vladimir Putin] and Dima’s [Dimitry Medvedev] vote. It isn’t important who and how many people will come to vote. Your participation – this is just to show, that you are ready to ‘play by their rules.’ This and this alone is why there is a ‘struggle for voter attendance’ – the voter is convinced (conned) that his vote is important. So that later he can be convinced that he ‘chose the government himself’ and that he is ruled over lawfully.”
In the end, United Russia attained 63.6% of the vote when the elections took place in March 2012, 4 months after the post was made. Similarly, Strelkov brought up the measures that Putin had put in place to break up any unrest in the wake of the election results. He talked about the constant presence of dozens or hundreds of forces loyal to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov in Moscow. Armed with assault rifles and machine guns, he speculated that they were there to carry out “special orders” from Putin that could not be issued through official channels. The use of pro-Russian Chechen forces for unofficial operations is important in light of the presence of Kadyrov’s MVD, troops of Chechnya’s Ministry of the Interior, on the side of the pro-Russians in eastern Ukraine. It is also worth mentioning that the Russian Central Electoral Commission insisted on using the same GAS-Vybory system for the Crimean referendum.
Strelkov’s arrival in the Ukraine came in the wake of Euromaidan, the anti-Yanukovych and pro-European integration protests in Kiev last winter. Emails leaked by Russian hacker collective Anonymous International reveal that Strelkov worked with interior forces and police loyal to former president Yanukovych. In one email he advised unknown forces to arm themselves with Molotov cocktails against a group of AutoMaidan protesters which included women and children, in another a colleague provides him with a list of license plates and makes of cars of suspected protesters. One of Strelkov’s most sinister sounding exchanges was found by bloggers back in April, on another war reenactors’ forum, in a thread celebrating the results of the referendum in Crimea.
March 18th 22:37 Igor Strelkov: “Actually you could congratulate me personally. I worked long and hard over this question”
March 19th 17:50 Martyn: “Igor – the uncatchable snipers, was that you too or just you
March 19th 17:56 Igor Strelkov: “You want to know lots – you won’t live to old age”
March 19th 18:43 Vovka [speaking to Martyn]: “Dim- delete. (((”
[Martyn deletes his post at 22:15 that evening].
The mention of “uncatchable snipers” is a reference to the murder of the “Heavenly Hundred,” the unarmed protesters who were gunned down in the streets of Kiev and whose deaths led to the ousting of Yanukovych. Much like in its response to the MH17 tragedy, the consensus in the Russian media is that the shootings were a “false flag” attack to make Russia look bad and to allow greater Western involvement in the Ukrainian crisis. Although its unlikely that there is tangible evidence to link Strelkov to the shootings, the fact remains that Strelkov used his GRU training and anti-insurgency expertise to assist with the attempts to put an end to the Euromaidan movement.
At the same time it is uncertain whether Strelkov’s initial involvement in Ukraine was officially sanctioned by the Russian government. His leaked emails reveal that he was passed over for promotion after failing a psychological evaluation in early 2013 and that he was considering a change of career. After his military career took a downturn he is known to have worked as head of security Marshall Capital, the company of “Russia’s Orthodox Billionaire,” Konstantin Malofeev. Malofeev is now known to be a major source of funding for the pro-Russian movement in East Ukraine and has been individually sanctioned by the EU at the end of July.
Considering Strelkov’s anti-government sentiments, the fact that his emails suggest he was pushed out of Russia’s military intelligence and that members of the Ukrainian Interior forces considered him a “dangerous lunatic” counters the argument that Strelkov has been “sent” to the Ukraine by Russia. The exact relationship between the military operations that have taken place in the Ukraine, Konstantin Malofeev and Putin, are unclear at present time. Nevertheless, it is certain that a portion of the Russian population, spurred on by Russian media, are keen to see Strelkov and the rebels succeed, and for Russia to continue on its course of strong, militaristic action that defies the sanctions of the United States and the EU.
In an argument with a fellow member of the Markovtsy forum who was sympathetic to the anti-Communist cause of General Vlasov, (a man who switched sides to fight for the Nazis in World War Two), Strelkov posted this:
Right now we have the same – from one side a robbing band of oligarchs, which turned the country into who knows what – a public house, or a strip joint, and on the other the propagandized (and secretly funded by the same oligarchs) “democratic society.” There is no Russian force. Now imagine – the country has fallen apart and you are trying to call the Russian people to unite. What, do you hang up the “Kriegstandard” and a portrait of Vlasov over the arena? Maybe someone will listen to you, but if there is another arena nearby with the communists, then they will reach towards them – they will hand out St. George’s ribbons, will remind people about the victory (under the banner of Stalin – the supreme commander).
The idea of handing out St. George’s ribbons was actually adopted by the pro-Russian movement earlier this year. The ribbon became a politically-charged symbol and allowed the rebels to associate themselves with the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Russia, and to elicit the notion that they are fighting against “fascist” Ukrainian forces. The quote also sums up the inherent contradictions in the identity of Strelkov’s movement. On the one hand there is a dislike of the communists borne out of their destruction of Tsarist Russia, but on the other there is a sense of nostalgia about the Soviet Union and an ambivalence towards Stalin, whose ruthless totalitarianism and expansion of the Soviet empire seems to be admired by Russian nationalists.
Above all else it is clear that Strelkov is convinced that Russia is in mortal danger and has to choose between two scenarios, either a takeover of the government by foreign forces or a national uprising; “Now just as then they are planning to lead Russia to slaughter in a ‘civilized’ way and then to democratically carve it up in the interests of ‘progressive humanity.’” He is convinced that the current Russian government cannot hold out by itself, and sees himself as part of a counter-reactionary movement that has finally come to rectify the dissolution of the Soviet Union; “In 1991 there was a revolution. A counter revolution has still not taken place to this day.” Strelkov will no doubt see the new sanctions against Russia as part of a plan to destroy the country, rather than warranted retribution for Putin’s policies.
As the West turns against the pro-Russians in the wake of the MH17 tragedy, Strelkov’s vision of a Russia at war with the rest of the world is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.