Should Putin fear the man who ‘pulled the trigger of war’ in Ukraine?

November 25, 2014

Figurines of former pro-Russian separatist commander Igor Strelkov from the collection entitled "Toy Soldiers of Novorossiya" are on display at a workshop in Moscow

The official Kremlin narrative on the war in eastern Ukraine is clear and simple: after seizing power in February, a Western-backed “junta” in Kiev sent neo-Nazi gangs – then tanks and warplanes – to stamp out peaceful protests by the Russian-speaking community. The locals who took up arms are freedom fighters, and the only help they get from Russia is humanitarian aid. For the past six months, Russian state television has carpet-bombed its viewers with this message, day in and day out.

Now one of the leaders of the rebellion in eastern Ukraine has turned the Kremlin storyline on its head. Igor Girkin, a retired Russian special ops officer also known as Igor Strelkov or simply “Strelok” (Shooter), was the military commander of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic before getting abruptly recalled to Russia. In an interview published last week in the Russian ultranationalist weekly Zavtra (Tomorrow), Girkin details how he helped instigate the insurrection and active-duty Russian soldiers later intervened to save the rebels from the jaws of defeat.

Girkin is a loose cannon. He views himself as a warrior in a bigger war against a godless West that has lost its Christian roots and thirsts for Russia’s resources to feed its decadent ways. Girkin prides himself on his service to the greater Russian cause and has no reason to toe the Kremlin line. Hardcore Russian nationalists already consider him a worthy alternative to President Vladimir Putin.

For Girkin, there is no question of who started the conflict; he claims to have started it himself. “I’m the one who pulled the trigger of war. If our squad hadn’t crossed the border, it all would have ended like in Kharkiv or Odesa. There would have been a few dozen killed, burned, and arrested. And that would have ended everything,” Girkin says. “Our squad set the flywheel of war in motion. We reshuffled all the cards on the table.”

Pro-Russian military commander Igor Strelkov attends a news conference in the eastern Ukrainian city of DonetskWhen Girkin and his men took over the town of Slovyansk on April 12, cities in eastern and southern Ukraine had been experiencing weeks of protests by demonstrators waving Russian flags and demanding a referendum on autonomy. The protesters called their rallies “anti-Maidan” – an answer to the pro-European demonstration in Kiev that swept then-President Viktor Yanukovich from power. Having just lost Crimea to Russia without a fight, the provisional government in Kiev was confused and unresponsive. Meeting almost no resistance, pro-Russian protesters stormed the regional administration in Donetsk and proclaimed a “people’s republic.” Less than a week later, Girkin led the takeover of a string of towns north of Donetsk.

“I take personal responsibility for what’s going on. I take responsibility for the continued shelling of Donetsk,” Girkin says. More than 4,300 people have been killed in fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions since April and almost 1 million displaced from their homes, the United Nations said last week.

What the Kremlin tries to hide with fabrications and lies, Girkin says openly. The mustachioed, gray-haired 43-year-old, who used to appear in photographs in fatigues but now presents himself in a suit and tie, sees no shame in what he’s done. On the contrary, for Russian nationalists like Girkin, Kiev’s post-revolutionary paralysis presented a unique opportunity to restore Novorossiya – a czarist-era designation for much of present-day Ukraine. Girkin doesn’t use the vocabulary of Putin’s propaganda machine to describe Ukrainians (“fascists,” “punishers”) but speaks in the dispassionate voice of a military man when recalling key moments.

Little is known about Girkin, who says in the interview that he tried to remain in the shadows as long as possible. What he does reveal is that Ukraine was his fifth conflict, after the two Russian campaigns in Chechnya, the fighting for the pro-Moscow enclave of Transnistria in Moldova, and the Bosnian war, where he fought on the Bosnian Serb side. In his own words, Girkin is a former colonel in the Russian special forces.

The interview in Zavtra isn’t a Q & A in the classic journalistic sense, since the interviewer, editor Alexander Prokhanov, can barely contain his admiration for Girkin. “I believe you did everything right,” Prokhanov says. “Everything you did was a messianic feat.” Follow-up questions such as “Who gave you orders?” or “Where do the borders of Novorossiya end?” are missing. Zavtra is the ideological home for ultranationalists who miss Russia as a great power, whether it was called the Russian Empire or Soviet Union. Alexander Borodai, a Russian citizen who served as the Donetsk rebels’ prime minister, has also contributed to the publication.

A billboard with images of pro Russian armed "Colonel Igor Strelkov" is seen in Ukrainian town of KonstantinovkaGirkin’s involvement in Ukraine started in Crimea, which Russia annexed in the power vacuum following Yanukovich’s downfall. Girkin calls the Crimean peninsula, home to the Russia’s Black Sea Fleet for more than 200 years, “the jewel in the crown of the Russian Empire.” In his capacity as an adviser to Sergei Aksyonov, head of Moscow’s puppet government there, Girkin met with delegates from the Ukrainian mainland who wanted to follow Crimea into the Russian Federation. He assembled 52 volunteer fighters and in April headed for Slovyansk, which was chosen because local support for the uprising was deemed to be highest there.

In Slovyansk, Girkin says he was joined by no more than 200 local men who helped storm the police station. From there, he sent 30 Cossacks to take the neighboring town of Kramatorsk. By the end of May, the Donetsk rebels had 28,000 local volunteers, and even if half of them were criminals or random characters, the rest were ready to fight, according to Girkin. The main problem was that there weren’t enough weapons.

Girkin debunks two Kremlin myths, namely that demonstrators in Donetsk had any intention of seeking the “federalization” of Ukraine in a May 11 referendum and that Kiev sent in the army to persecute Russian speakers.

“Nobody was ready to come out for the Luhansk or Donetsk republics. Everybody was for Russia from the start. The referendum was held for Russia and they came to fight for Russia,” says Girkin. “Later, when I understood that Russia wouldn’t take us, that decision came as a shock.”

As for the Ukrainian forces that began timidly moving on Slovyansk, Girkin says they were “extremely cautious” as they didn’t know how Russia would respond. The shooting didn’t begin until activists from Pravy Sektor, a nationalist Ukrainian group that participated on the Maidan, tried to infiltrate his lines, according to Girkin. The Ukrainians then stepped up their attacks on Slovyansk as they became more confident Russia wouldn’t intervene directly.

Girkin maintains that of his 1,000 fighters holed up in Slovyansk, 90 percent were locals. By early July, their situation became increasingly precarious as Ukrainian government forces encircled the town. With only two working tanks and six armored vehicles, Girkin decided to cut his losses by abandoning Slovyansk and relocating to Donetsk on July 5.

Donetsk, an industrial city of 1 million, was still a city at peace, with weak defenses and half of the government still taking orders from Kiev, Girkin recalls. “People were sunbathing and went swimming; athletes worked out; people were drinking coffee in the cafes. Donetsk was just like Moscow in the summer,” he says. The separatist leadership was splintered and disorganized, but Girkin says he concentrated on organizing the city’s defenses rather than risk “civil war” among the rebels. Girkin describes his “psychological crisis” when the Ukrainians cut off his supply route to Russia. “To be honest, at one point I stopped believing that any help would come from Russia,” he says.

But then help did arrive in the form of soldiers from the regular Russian army. Girkin and Prokhanov euphemistically call them otpuskniki (soldiers on leave), in reference to rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko’s admission on Russian state TV in late August that up to 4,000 Russian soldiers preferred to spend their leave fighting in Ukraine than “on the beach.” The Russian intervention halted the Ukrainian offensive and forced President Petro Poroshenko to agree to a ceasefire on Sept. 5.

A Ukrainian soldier stands near a destroyed military vehicle of pro-Russian separatists just outside the eastern Ukrainian town of SlavianskGirkin’s conversation with Prokhanov raises some intriguing questions. It’s completely unclear who Girkin’s superiors were, though they were clearly not the rebels. “I had the explicit order: don’t give up Slavyansk,” he remembers. Girkin was told to defend the town “to the end,” he says, but when he asked what kind of help he’d be getting, there was silence.

Also, Girkin claims that the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol was empty when the Russian otpuskniki reached it and could have been taken without a fight. “There was the order not to occupy it – not just an order to stop, but not to take it under any circumstances,” Girkin says. Again the source of the order goes unmentioned. And if Girkin is right that the pro-Moscow forces were ordered not to take one of the most strategic cities in the Donetsk region, it raises the question why.

At this point in the fighting, Girkin himself was no longer military commander of the Donetsk rebels, as he was recalled to Russia on Aug. 14 under murky circumstances. Why? And by whom? Based on Girkin’s comments, it appears the Kremlin is not only opposed to annexing the Donetsk and Luhansk regions but wants to prevent them from becoming too powerful. As dysfunctional gangster states inside Ukraine’s borders, they provide Moscow with the greatest possible leverage over Kiev.

Girkin has been careful not to criticize Putin, even though in an earlier interview he blamed traitors in the government – including Kremlin insider Vladislav Surkov – for the precarious state of the Novorossiya project. Girkin complains to Prokhanov that Russia continues to sell natural gas to Ukraine while the Ukrainian army shells Donetsk.

For the moment, Girkin has been put in his place, because even though he expresses the desire to return to Donetsk, he now has to satisfy himself with organizing aid for his comrades at the front. Since his identity is now known, Girkin says he can’t live in his Moscow apartment and misses his personal library. About a month ago he started his own website,, to reach out to his growing fan base.

Girkin is representative of an ultranationalist fringe whose anti-Western, Russian Orthodox ideology is gaining in currency. While Putin has tapped into Russian nationalism out of opportunism, his ultimate goal is not the resurrection of the Soviet Union but his own political survival. When tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to protest against Putin three years ago, ultranationalists marched in their midst. The Ukraine conflict has only empowered them.

In the Zavtra interview, Prokhanov repeatedly tries to get Girkin to show some interest in politics, but he doesn’t go for the bait.

“There isn’t anything for an honest person to do in politics. I hope that changes. After all, war changes a lot of things,” Girkin says ominously. “Politics right now is the manipulation of elections, lying on TV, lying everywhere. The main quality of a politician is to twirl like a weathervane.”

Girkin says that he sees himself as a “secret services man” above all. Prokhanov replies that “as a secret services man, you have the chance to become a great politician.”

Putin, after all, also rose out of the secret services.


PHOTO (Top) Figurines of former pro-Russian separatist commander Igor Strelkov from the collection entitled “Toy Soldiers of Novorossiya” are on display at a workshop in Moscow August 29, 2014. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

PHOTO (Inset 1) Pro-Russian separatist military commander Igor Strelkov attends a news conference in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk July 28, 2014. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

PHOTO (Inset 2) A billboard with images of pro Russian armed “Colonel Igor Strelkov” (center) is seen in Ukrainian town of Konstantinovka June 9, 2014. An inscription on the billboard reads: “Steel Russians” and “300 Strelkov’s”. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

PHOTO (Inset 3) A Ukrainian soldier stands near a destroyed military vehicle of pro-Russian separatists just outside the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk July 7, 2014. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich


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Time for more honesty….John McCain and Mme.Nuland were “on hand” in Kiev to start this whole mess….Another miscalculation by native activists ???

Posted by afi | Report as abusive

A military man speaking against himself!What a irony!
As a rule a military man prefers death instead of becoming infidal.
Surprising,”Ambition”drives a man how low?!

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Gee, where are all the the paid Russian trolls today to deny the truth spoken here?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

“I had the explicit order: don’t give up Slavyansk,” he remembers. Girkin was told to defend the town “to the end,”

What is NOT mentioned here by anybody is that the area around Slavyansk evidently has very promising natural gas fields. Yes, yes, Holy Russia and all that but I always prefer to follow the money.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

Girkin is a war criminal. He must face an international war crimes tribunal.

Posted by havryliv | Report as abusive

Glory to Russia and Vladimir The Righteous.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Such is the Western narrative. Simplistic, manichean, decietful.

How many wars have the “Western World” promoted with these same tactics since its economic and military hegemony (say since the last 3 or 4 centuries)?

Posted by mcanterel | Report as abusive

Nice report, thanks. A couple months ago Echo Moscow conducted an on-line poll of the question: If an election for Russian president were held tomorrow, would you vote for Putin or Strelkov (Girkin)? I forget the exact percentages, but Strelkov came out on top. His political reticence today might just be cautious prudence. Those who dare to REALLY oppose Putin have a shorter life expectancy.

Posted by rayfin3 | Report as abusive

Good grief, you can’t even get the outline of the ‘Kremlin narrative of the war’ correct! Where are the critical events that precipitated the uprising and resistance in the east?
Let me add them for you: ‘The democratically elected president, Yanuchovych was overthrown by a western backed coup in Kiev early in 2014. Yanuchovych had largely been elected by Russian speaking Ukrainians who make up about 40% of the population. The new parliament in Kiev then withdrew Russian as an official language which further alienated Russian-speaking Ukrainians who believed they had been disenfranchised by the coup. Racially and culturally discriminated against in their own country, the Russian populations in the east sought independence and resisted attempts by Kiev to intervene militarily.

Posted by JohnMKeynes | Report as abusive

“He views himself as a warrior in a bigger war against a godless West that has lost its Christian roots and thirsts for Russia’s resources to feed its decadent ways.”

Lucian Kim

Truth be known.

Jesus is the cornerstone of “Christian roots”.

Jesus would never orchestrate an armed take over to kill thousands of people.

Jesus has nothing to do with this war.

Don’t portray the reason for this war as having “Christian roots” when clearly Jesus stands behind two thousand years of history as a beacon of Peace. Have you heard?

John McCain orchestrated the Ukraine protest; just like he did in Syria and other nations … Get your facts straight Lucian.

John McCain is orchestrating war and death.

Peace be with you All.


Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive

Glory to the heroes defending Ukrainia from national socialism once again. Slava Bandera!!!

Posted by libovsky14 | Report as abusive

The world should fear Vladimir Putin and Girkin. Both are very dangerous people with their fanatical approaches to restore a Russian Empire that has long since passed and will not come back.

Posted by smokeymtnblues | Report as abusive


With God there is no fear; Only Peace.

Peace be with you All.


Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive

No, Putin should not fear him.

Posted by Govornik | Report as abusive

Anybody that trusts Vlad Putin or John McCain is a fool.

Posted by CanadianRealist | Report as abusive

This seems like a lot of confusion and diffusion. It more or less shows that the west has no clue as to whom is really in control and what the end aims are. Instead of leading the political charge the west is in reaction mode with the whole action phase shifted far to the east.

There are “loose cannons” in every government – they frequently have very little power if any at all. Some are in US, some in Russia, even in France.

This seems to be one of these characters.

Posted by TomK2 | Report as abusive

Another megalomaniac looking for a bigger stage.

Posted by JimVan | Report as abusive

Putin has tens of thousand of Girkins in his back pocket – but most now how to serve in silence. This is a Snowden of sorts to Russia.

Posted by DonD1977 | Report as abusive

I admire Strelkov; but Putin is the real hero.

Posted by AVPx | Report as abusive

Its a good thing he goes by the name stelkov, because gerkin means “little pickle” in english.

Posted by nuruguru | Report as abusive

This article is western disinformation. Girkin a.i.a. Strelkov published a face book page claiming he and his men shot down MH17. It later turned out that the article was produced in several portions, some of which were recorded before the crash.

Strlkov is retired Spetznaz – the old Soviet special ops army that was disbanded by the IMF/USA – which created the many criminal gangs operating in Russia. The only reason there is to push forward a type of soldier like Strelkov is to gain a foothold in Ukraine, particularly Donbas, which shows Strelkov to be a double agent, working for both, the rebels and Kiev/US.

The article has nothing to offer and in the end and the author reverts to the standard prejudice used by the western press. Putin never had any intention to annex Donbas.

Posted by 1964 | Report as abusive

Putin is even afraid of the girls of Pussy Riot. Had them imprisoned for making fun of him. Yes. He is a fearful silly little man.

And when you go looking for new Russian territory, the best you can do is…. Chernobyl, Ukraine? A place that most of the world already thought was part of Russia anyway. Wow. Impressive :)

Putin is a small time chump.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Putin is just a puppet, he is nothing, everyone knows who runs Russia, and for that they made him very wealthy. Should he be scared YES very scared. Everyone thinks that the next world war will start from the middle east. Think again, all of Europe hinges on Ukraine the bread basket of Europe. Why doesn’t anyone ask the question before the turmoil in Ukraine who heard of ISIL, I certainly didn’t, they seem to of came from left field WHY. Seemed to be a well kept secret and came out just in time to draw of any attention. Look now hardly any media attention in Ukraine WHY.

Posted by Ray7 | Report as abusive

this article distorts the original interview so not entirely correct

Posted by ooooooooo | Report as abusive

Reuters… Yes thats a very reliable source for Truth….

Posted by amisgohome | Report as abusive

Girkin is an FSB Colonel. He served the FSB in Bosnia, Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea and Donetsk. He is not an independent player. He was acting on Putin’s orders.

Posted by Richard_M | Report as abusive