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Who is Girkin/Strelkov

Flowers in memory of the victims of the Malaysian airliner shot down in Eastern Ukraine..
Makeshift memorial at Amsterdam Schiphol airport in memory of the victims of the Malaysian airliner shot down in Eastern Ukraine. Igor Girkin/Strelkov has been charged in absentia for destroying the plane. PHOTO: Roman Boed, Wikimedia Commons.
Written by Heli Santavuori

Igor Girkin, military name Strelkov (“Shooter”), is a former colonel of the GRU (Russian foreign military intelligence organisation) and a veteran of several wars (Bosnia, Transnistria, Chechnya, Syria). He has also been called “Igor the Terrible”, referring to Ivan the Terrible. Strelkov seems to be the most commonly used name for him, so I will use it below.

He led the “little green men” who took over Crimea. After that, he led the conquest of the cities of Eastern Ukraine. He was the “defence minister” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, in which capacity he issued illegal execution orders for petty offences such as stealing a T-shirt. Rebel leaders in Eastern Ukraine have alleged that Strelkov also suggested blowing up a high-rise building in Luhansk to blame the Ukrainian army for it.

In December 2014, Euromaidan Press described Strelkov’s interview with the Russian online publication Zavtra.ru as follows:

”The interview titled ‘Who are you, Strelkov [the Shooter]?’ begins with Girkin’s sentimental recollection of the wars he fought in. ‘It’s my fifth time,’ says the young Ogre. The surreal interview is akin to listening to a maniac who flicks through a photo album of his victims as he reminisces the gory details.”

Strelkov had to leave for Russia in 2014 following the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner MH17. He and three others are now on trial in absentia in Holland.

Strelkov’s statements over the years

Strelkov is a chauvinist whose initial goal was the conquest of the whole of Ukraine. When that did not happen in 2014, he began making statements that compromised the entire Russian leadership. He has been making them to this day.

2014: I was the one who pressed the trigger

At a time when the entire Russian leadership was rock-hard claiming that there were no Russian soldiers fighting in Eastern Ukraine, Strelkov openly said that there were and that their role was crucial.

“I was the one who pressed the trigger,” he told the Zavtra newspaper, according to Yle News. He said that if the Russian troops had not crossed the border, the situation would have calmed down as it did in Kharkiv and Odesa.

He claimed that Putin’s adviser Vladislav Surkov had embezzled money intended for the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Igor Girkin-Strelkov.
Girkin-Strelkov quoted in Denis Kazansky's video. Screenshot.

Matti Puolakka analysed this statement in 2014 as follows:

“Strelkov should, in principle, have been court-martialed for such statements. He must know this. He must have powerful supporters. And on the other hand, if his accusations against Surkov are true, Surkov should also be court-martialed:

In a war situation, one reveals a big state secret related to it. The other systematically embezzles funds going to the front line, thereby endangering the lives of Russian soldiers.

Surkov and his supporters certainly think: ‘Strelkov must be liquidated.’ Strelkov and his supporters certainly think: ‘Surkov must be liquidated.’

The Russian elite seems to be drifting, with the inevitability of natural law, towards a bloody internal showdown.”

2015: Russia has no ideology

In 2015, Strelkov complained that Russia would face eventual defeat in Eastern Ukraine because it had no ideology. Puolakka commented on the statement:

“Strelkov’s opinion can be said – strangely enough – to be visionary!

Strelkov realises that the intervention in the Donbas is turning into a disaster for Russia.

He strategically condemns the war-madmen in power in the Kremlin: ‘There is no ideology in Donetsk and Luhansk and Russia…’ Admittedly, he uses the word ‘ideology’ in a hollow, empty way. No philosophical theory can be created out of nothing.

But while leading the ‘separatist’ forces in Donbas, Strelkov found in practice that none of the inhabitants truly, ideologically supported them. The reason: Russia’s intervention in Eastern Ukraine cannot be justified in any rational (or any honest) way.

The slogans ’The era of democracy is over!’ and ‘Russia and Russia’s former possessions must be restored to tsarist rule!’ are absurd. Any civilised person would regard gunmen pushing such a line as crazy freaks.

Strelkov also sees the core of the problem from another angle: the money sent from Moscow to rebuild Donbas is not getting through. Every intermediary is stealing as much as they can from it.

Strelkov knows that they have set up kleptocratic barbarism in Donetsk and Luhansk. Thieves and swindlers, drug gangs and other armed criminal groups are in the grip of power.”

Recommended Reading

Bill Browder:
Freezing Order

A true story of Russian Money Laundering

2017: Kremlin is eliminating all its critics

In 2017, it was reported that yet another “separatist” leader, Mikhail “Givi” Tolstykh, had been assassinated in Eastern Ukraine. According to the online publication Censor.net, Strelkov accused the Kremlin’s corrupt leaders of killing all military leaders in Eastern Ukraine who criticised their actions. He marvelled that he was still alive and predicted that his death would soon be celebrated.

”That’s a clear fact that all people able to decide for themselves and take responsibility for their words were eliminated or excluded from Donetsk. It is clear that no one will do anything without the political will of Moscow. After all, Donbas problems are rooted in the Kremlin. If the Kremlin decides to act, neglecting its own interests, like daughters in London and granddaughters in Paris, we will win.”

Strelkov also said that during the battles of Avdiivka, there was a mass exodus from the ranks of the “separatists”.

2020–21: Donbas is a dump and a black hole

Halya Coynash, a Ukrainian journalist who has been following the investigation and prosecution of the Malaysian airliner shooting, writes that Strelkov keeps giving new interviews in which he exposes his own war crimes as well as those of the Kremlin officials and proves claims of a “civil war” to be lies. Coynash cites videos of another Ukrainian journalist, Denis Kazansky, who has published some of Strelkov’s statements. In July 2020, Girkin called occupied Donbas “a dump”, saying the situation there was worse than in either Russia or (government-controlled) Ukraine. Of course, Strelkov does not admit that this is the work of his own forces. However, he sees that the mess and impoverishment in occupied Donbas have led to hatred of Russia which he acknowledges “is justified”.

In June 2021, Strelkov called Donbas a “black hole”. He again criticised Vladislav Surkov but said that the main responsibility lies with Putin, from whom the orders come.

2022: The Russian invasion has been a strategic failure

On 28 March 2022, the Mirror online news reported Strelkov’s latest statement to the Russian-language section of the OSN TV.

Strelkov admitted that Putin had failed in his strategic efforts in Ukraine. He predicted an “exhausting and bloody” war. “29 days of ‘special military operation’ have passed. Nowhere, in any direction, has strategic success been achieved, but only operational successes,” he said.

“Moreover, the enemy is relatively successful in mobilising and beginning to counterattack,” said Strelkov, adding that “This, of course, Konashenkov never mentions in his reports.” – Major General Konashenkov is the chief spokesman for the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation who deliveries regular televised updates of the progress of the Russian invasion.

“Unfortunately, I can state that my most pessimistic predictions that we will be drawn into a bloody, push and pull, long, exhausting and extremely dangerous war for the Russian Federation have been fully justified at the moment,” he said.

The upshot: Putin’s cell neighbour in the Hague?

Leonid Bershidsky, a Russian Berlin-based journalist, reflects on Putin’s situation in the Washington Post on 30 March 2022 with a quotation from Girkin:

“‘I have written more than once that the president is sitting on two chairs that are gradually moving apart under his butt,’ Strelkov wrote recently on his Telegram channel.

The chairs were a patriotic state ideology, represented by all kinds of military and civilian officials, and a ‘liberal-oligarchic’ economic model. Your humble servant has also cautioned that, while one could be comfortable sitting like that before the Crimea events, it was no longer sustainable, and the president would have to choose a chair – or fall down in between. And now – incredibly late, but still – the choice has been made.”

However, as Strelkov still criticises the war situation, Bershidsky wonders what Strelkov himself would have done differently. First, he would have stopped all the nonsense about a “special military operation” and called the war a “war”. No more talk of “demilitarisation” and “denazification”. Instead, an existential war to the death. This starting point would have allowed the kind of mobilisation that the invasion of Ukraine would have required. Strelkov would have put everything on the line to achieve total victory because the only alternative is total defeat.  

To Putin’s recent actions, Bershidsky sees no other logic than the logic of Strelkov, the empire-or-death logic. “Theirs is now a kinship of war criminals,” he writes, concluding:

” I wish I’d paid more attention to his ramblings earlier. I wish I’d noticed the clear connection between his ideas and Putin’s increasing history obsession – –. If I’d noticed how close the two men’s beliefs had grown, I wouldn’t have misjudged Putin’s determination to wreck two countries – the neighboring one and his own, my own – in the name of an apocryphal reading of history. I fear there’s no going back for the dictator now: He has to go where Strelkov has been waiting for him all these years. And even if there are seeming victories along the way, this road leads toward the bitterest defeat.”

Putin’s meandering, of which Bershidsky speaks and which Strelkov has criticised all these years, reflects, I believe, the power struggle within the Russian elite. Indeed, it has been said that watching that power struggle is like watching two bulldogs fighting under a big carpet. Whichever meander Putin has appeared to be heading for shows only which faction of the elite has been stronger at the time.

Strelkov’s astonishing statements are simply because he has been consistent in his desire to push for empire-building and the conquest of the whole of Ukraine by any means necessary. It has given him a kind of lucidity and a willingness to say straight how things are.

The fact that he has been allowed to walk free and air his criticisms shows that he has had influential supporters. Obviously, the very warmongers in the various intelligence services, the military, etc., who now have the upper hand in the power struggle and who have clearly been preparing for a war of aggression already since the Euromaidan revolution, or even since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Of all Strelkov’s visionary statements, the most visionary is perhaps the one from 2014:

“If he (Putin) continues in the same spirit as now, then we will become neighbors in prison cells in the Hague.”

Selected sources

FSB Colonel Girkin tells details of how Russia invaded Ukraine in twice censored interview.
Euromaidan Press, Dec.7, 2014.

Igor Strelkov venäläismediassa: Olen vastuussa Itä-Ukrainan sodasta.
Yle Uutiset, Nov. 21, 2014.

Zik: ex-terrorist leader says breakaway Donetsk republics face eventual defeat.
Kyiv Post, May 17, 2015.

“Kremlin is eliminating everyone. You will celebrate my death soon,” terrorist Girkin.
Censor.net, Feb. 12, 2017.

Russian who brought war to Donbas admits it has turned into “a dump” worse than Ukraine or Russia.
Halya Coynash, Kharkiv human rights protection Group, Oct. 11, 2021.

A video by Denis Kazansky (in Russian), Jun. 23, 2021:

Russian military leader brands Ukraine invasion a failure as Putin’s grip unravels.
Mirror, Mar. 28, 2022.

Vladimir Putin’s new alter ego is Igor Strelkov.
Leonid Bershidsky, The Washington Post, Mar. 30, 2022.

Matti Puolakka’s extempore speeches and messages from 2014–2015. The New History Association archives.