Fittingly on the even of the Maidan anniversary, Russia’s frontman in the eastern Ukraine conflict, Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov) gave a long interview where, intersperced with lots of lies, omissions, and half-truths, he also made some admissions about Russia’s role in that war—and others. Like other Russian leaders in that conflict, he seems to have a great ego and lots of pride in what he does, so he loves to boast of his “achievements,” such as they are.
Tellingly, he gave his interview on the 20th to the Russian extreme right-wing publication Zavtra (Tomorrow), which has long been the brainchild of Russian “writer” Aleksandr Prokhanov, who acts frequently on Russian state television as a mouthpiece for the Russian government, though like his fellow traveler Zhirinovskiy, also says publicly a lot of the ridiculous things the Russian leadership is thinking, but are even embarrassed to utter.
In the interview, titled “Kto ti, Strelok?” (“Who are you, Shooter?”), Girkin tells about his role in starting the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but first recounts some of the things he has done in his military past. He notes Ukraine was his fifth war, which include two Chechen wars, Transnistria, and says he was fighting for the Serbs in Bosnia in the 1990s against the Bosnian Muslims. This is interesting, in that there were always indications the Serbs had some advisors or other military assistance from the Russians at that time, but no clear evidence. His admission that he, as a career Spetsnaz officer was involved there, is an interesting bit of information.
As for Ukraine, he says he says he was an advisor to Russian-appointed Prime Minister (Chairman of the Council of Ministers) of Crimea Sergey Aksenev right after the takeover of the peninsula starting in late February, calling Aksenev “smart, competent, sane, talented,” which are hardly words people usually use for the guy who was a major figure in two organized crime groups there going by the nickname “Goblin,” and was involved in a number of contract killings, as well as having been injured in an attack by a rival crime group on a convoy he was riding in back in 1996. Though Aksenev was a Crimean Rada member since 2010 when his pro-Russian anschluss Russian Unity party (Русское единство) got a whopping 4% of the vote (which is amazing given that just four years later in Russia’s referendum nearly 100% “voted” for unification with Russia), Aksenev had himself appointed Prime Minister on 27 February, the day after Spetsnaz seized the Crimean Rada by holding the Rada members at gunpoint in the building after confiscating their phones and locking the doors, and was blessed by Moscow (and still retains the same job there running Moscow’s Crimean fiefdom. Apparently to Girkin, these qualities make “Mr. 4%” Aksenev smart and talented, which says something of his own values. Girkin claims he was in charge of the Crimean Spetsnaz company, which he claims was the only “rebel” unit there.
After Crimea was taken by Russia, he says he realized Crimea (which he calls the diamond in the crown of the Russian Empire) was just part of “Novorossiya” and could not stand by itself. In his version, delegates from other parts of “Novorossiya” arrived in Crimea asking for help to start similar uprisings there. Since Aksenev was too busy, he told Girkin to take care of matters in the “northern territories.” He put together a Spetsnaz company of 52 men for this. They first raided Slovyansk and had help from 150-200 locals who he alleges helped them raid the local police building (the actual detailed video footage of the raid shows the Spetsnaz group professionally taking the building, and only then were some locals marched up to be shown getting credit for taking down the Ukrainian flag). He lamented that he had not informed his family of what he was doing, so once he was shown on TV and identified, press descended on his Moscow apartment (though it turns out that some black limos later rolled up and spirited his wife and others there to some unknown destination–an obvious government move to get them out of the limelight).
He claims he and others hoped Russia would get involved as his fighters were suffering more difficult attacks into the summer, but it never came. He notes they had to get weapons wherever they could. This is one of his massive lies in the interview, since from the start the fight was being conducted largely by professional Russian military like his group, Russian government mercenary groups equipped with modern Russian military weapons, and there are mountains of video and photo documentary evidence that his fighters there were equipped with some of the most modern Russian RPG models, thermobaric rocket launchers, antitank guided missiles, and man-portable air defence missile systems, including some models that were never in the Ukrainian inventory. Then in August large numbers of Russian Army regular forces in battalion groupings were operating there, which ended up pushing the Ukrainian military back. Perhaps initially the Russian military—which he belongs to and was absolutely getting his orders from daily—left his groups to their own means, but they soon started sending in the mercenary and regular forces in greater numbers.
He makes the bold announcement that everything started in the east because of him, who “pulled the trigger.” He also takes the responsibility for deserting Slovyansk but says he had to in order to help defend Donetsk, where other units like Vostok Battlaion were fighting, but not under his command (which is odd if he was supposed to be the “Donetsk Peoples’ Republic Defence Minister,” which indicates that this unit was under other Russian MOD control). Things impoved though when, as he puts it, “vacationers” started arriving. He mentioned this a couple of times. Interestingly this is even put into quotations marks in the original, since this is a reference to what Putin and others claimed were Russian military soldiers who were just in Ukraine while on “leave.” This was a term they applied to regular Russian forces who were apprehended or killed there, as well as to some Russian government mercenary subunits. Just average Russian soldiers on “leave” (which most soldiers in Russia do not even get) in order to go fight a foreign war on their spare time. Right.
A most interesting comment near the end of the interview was that he is not a reconnaissance/intelligence soldier in the usual terms, but is a special services operator (“спецслужбист”). This could well be true in a way, since although he has been career SPetsnaz, it is clear that he was given a special mission here and in Crimea. His account of having volunteers may be correct—not in that these were local volunteers—rather that they were volunteers from the Russian Spetsnaz forces for a particularly sensitive operation.
It seems Girkin does talk a bit too much about what he has done. The detailed parts left our here about his actions in Donetsk and other parts of the east certainly contain elements of truth, as well as certainly some lies and some aggrandisement related to his role. As a fanatical military reenactor, he seems to see himself as a combination of Napoleon, Zhukov, and Richard Zorge the agent, though during his stint commanding in Slovyansk he also played Stalin by issuing death decrees based on 1941 military occupation orders. But in any case, he enlightened everyone just a bit more in this interview about Russia’s role in thie was and the one in Bosnia, even if pulling his punches a bit to avoid giving out too much information. “Vacationers” to the rescue?