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Insight and Limitations of Russia's Most Popular Military Hero (Igor Strelkov)

  • It is unusual for a single individual to make so much difference as the former iconic military commander of Donbass rebels has
  • He recently give an interview confirming he at all times acted independently of the authorities in Moscow
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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

The Donbass rebel leader who goes by the name of Igor Strelkov, is arguably the single most interesting man to have emerged from the Ukrainian conflict.  

Strelkov’s importance to the success of the uprising in its critical first weeks cannot be overstated. Between April and July he carried out a brilliant defence of the towns of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk against an overwhelmingly superior Ukrainian army, pinning it down and preventing it from attacking far more important places like Donetsk and Lugansk, giving the uprising there the time and space it needed to consolidate.  

Strelkov has become a household name in the Russian world. An inspiring and charismatic leader, he retains a devoted following far beyond the Donbass. Perhaps the best comparisons are with Gordon of Khartoum’s popularity in late Victorian England, or with John Brown’s popularity in the pre-Civil War US. Just as many Britons never forgave Gladstone for failing to rescue Gordon in Khartoum, so many Russians are very critical of Putin’s failure to rescue Strelkov whilst he was besieged in Slavyansk. 

A person capable of such achievements is by definition an unusual person and like Gordon of Khartoum and John Brown of Harper’s Ferry, Strelkov is that in spades.  

Remarkably little is known about him or about his private life or about his previous career. Claims he previously served in the Russian internal security agency, the FSB, or the Russian external intelligence service, the GRU, appear to originate in Ukrainian sources and have never been properly confirmed.  

Western governments and the Maidan government in Ukraine say his given name is “”Igor Girkin” and invariably call him by that name. Perhaps it is his given name, but to Russians he is simply Strelkov and that is how they know him and how they will remember him.  

Ukrainian and Western reports place him in all sorts of earlier conflicts extending all the way back to the Bosnian war in 1992. He probably did fight in some of these earlier wars but details are sketchy and the reports do not seem very reliable.

Strelkov’s ideas hark back to pre-revolutionary Russia, combining a heady mix of Orthodox Christianity, nationalism, anti-capitalism and a mistrust of western liberalism and democracy.

He identifies with the White Army that fought the Bolsheviks in the Civil War. Some have called him a monarchist though whether that is because of things he has actually said or because of ideas and assumptions others project on him is unclear.  

Of a coherent political programme there is little evidence. Strelkov himself seems to realise that and that he is simply not cut out to be a politician. He has consistently refused to involve himself in politics. He has refused offers to become involved in Russian nationalist politics or to take part in Russian nationalist demonstrations. 

Such an unusual man is bound to be a difficult man and that is exactly what Strelkov is.  

During the time he was in charge first in Slavyansk and then in Donetsk, Strelkov fell out with almost everybody he worked with.  News coming out of Slavyansk and Donetsk during this period was one of a seemingly endless succession of dismissals, arrests and forced “resignations”, which must have made Strelkov many enemies within the rebel leadership.

One of his former associates, Alexander Borodai, has questioned Strelkov’s hold on reality. All one can about that is that a more “realistic” man would not have held out in Slavyansk for as long as Strelkov did.

In the interview attached below Strelkov gives some interesting information about the first days of the uprising.  

It is an article of faith on the part of the government of Ukraine and its supporters both in Ukraine and in the West that Strelkov (or “Igor Girkin”, as they insist on calling him) is an agent of the GRU sent by Moscow to organise the uprising in the Donbass.  

Strelkov’s account flatly contradicts this. According to his account, he went to Slavyansk at the head of a group of 51 fighters on his own initiative from Crimea without permission or orders from Moscow and without the involvement or probably even the knowledge of any of the Russian intelligence or security agencies.  

Subsequent events bear Strelkov’s account out. Very much like Gordon in Khartoum, Strelkov’s “strategy” in Slavyansk seems to have been to hold out as long as possible in the expectation that public opinion in Russia would force Putin to come to his rescue. 

Such a “strategy” almost by definition precludes prior coordination between Strelkov and the authorities in Moscow and it is clear that no such coordination or pre-planning ever existed.

To Strelkov’s obvious bewilderment, his “strategy” failed as Putin resisted calls to come to his rescue.  Unlike Gordon - and to Strelkov’s great credit - when it became clear his strategy had failed, he had the wisdom to withdraw from Slavyansk, preserving his forces intact. 

One of his greatest achievements as a commander was his astonishingly skilful retreat from Slavyansk, during which he managed to hold his force together and to evade a much larger Ukrainian force that was seeking to encircle him.

In the various interviews Strelkov has given since he was ousted from his post as defence minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, including the one we reproduce below, he continues to defend his original strategy despite its failure.

As is often the case when people try to justify a strategy that has failed, he does so by making claims about what might have happened if his strategy had succeeded as a result of Putin acting in the way he had expected.

His interview therefore makes sweeping claims about how the whole of Novorossia (the boundaries of which he does not define) would have been liberated and how the current war would have been avoided if Putin had done as he had wished. 

Of the problems a “victory” achieved in this way might have made for Russia, he shows little understanding or awareness.

This is not to say that Strelkov’s claims are without insight. He is surely right when he says that Putin has severely underestimated the extent of the West’s hostility both to Russia and to himself personally.  

This remains a recurring error of Russian policy. The Russians repeatedly make the mistake of thinking Western leaders are as rational and realistic as they are. Strelkov does not make this mistake, perhaps because as someone who is not a “realist” himself he is better able to understand the utopian thinking of the hardliners who run policy in Washington.

It is the “realists” in the Russian government rather than Putin himself who provoke Strelkov’s ire.  

Strelkov’s self-image is that of a Russian soldier obedient unto death, even though it seems that he has no professional background or history in the Russian army.  

This self-image makes it impossible for Strelkov to oppose the man he considers his commander-in-chief, who is Putin. Since Strelkov cannot oppose Putin (whose picture he has on his wall), he attacks Putin’s officials instead, many of whom he claims form a treasonable “fifth column” working to undermine Russia on behalf of the West. 

Strelkov’s main target is Vladislav Surkov, a senior Russian official who has managed the doubtful achievement of being on everybody’s hate list, from Russian liberals to Russian Communists to Russian nationalists (like Strelkov) and even to the West, which sanctioned him directly after the Crimean referendum.

If the interview we reproduce below gives us an example of Strelkov’s insight, it also however shows up his limitations. In his defence and retreat from Slavyansk last Spring Strelkov exhibited tactical brilliance of the highest order. 

His skill is however very much in small unit operations and what might be called partisan war. In the brutal conventional fighting that has been the hallmark of the conflict in Ukraine since July, he is out of place. As he says in the interview, “There’s no glory.  Nothing but damage”. 

In his discussion of the current fighting he shows little appreciation of the current rebel strategy or of why it is the only strategy that can enable the Donbass and the Kremlin to achieve their political objectives. Indeed, as he says himself, he is unable to see the strategy at all.

Strelkov has enough wisdom to understand his limitations.  He seems to have grasped that by mid July 2014 his work in the Donbass was done. In the interview he implies that his forced resignation was because of his known opposition to what eventually became the Minsk peace process.

To a great extent this is true, but as Strelkov has elsewhere admitted, in the conventional war the conflict in Ukraine has now become he was increasingly out of his depth. His removal was essential to make way for the more professional political and military leaders who have taken his place.

They however will never acquire the heroic, mythic quality that will always attach to Strelkov. And rightly so. Novorossia today owes its existence not to them but to him and to the peculiar combination of ideas and qualities that make him the man he is.

It is unusual for a single individual to make a difference in the way and to the extent that Strelkov has done. That is reason enough for him to be remembered. Like Gordon of Khartoum and John Brown of Harper’s Ferry, his legend will live on long after he details of this conflict - and his successors - are forgotten.

Article from Bloomberg:

Vladimir Putin’s critics say he went too far on Ukraine. The former Russian agent who helped trigger the conflict says his biggest mistake was not going far enough.

Putin has made himself a “hostage” to the war in Ukraine by opting not to annex the Donetsk and Luhansk regions after taking Crimea, according to Igor Girkin, the former rebel commander who goes by the name Strelkov, or Shooter.

If the president had sent troops into Donetsk and Luhansk to support the insurgents like he did in Crimea, all of Novorossiya, or New Russia, the term the rebels and their supporters revived to identify a swathe of southeastern Ukraine that was once part of the Russian empire, would now be reunited with the motherland, Strelkov said in an interview in Moscow.

But Putin, “not understanding that he’d already crossed the West’s red line,” and influenced by “top bureaucrats and oligarchs,” decided to stop at Crimea, said Strelkov. “Now we have a war that will continue to grow, regardless of whether Russia wants it to or not.”

Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies claim Russia is supporting militias with hardware, cash and troops, accusations the Kremlin has repeatedly denied. Russia says Ukraine is waging war against its own citizens and discriminating against Russian speakers, a majority in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said it would be wrong to characterize the president as a hostage to the conflict and declined to comment on Russian support for the insurgency.

Strelkov, 44, is a historian and a monarchist who retired from the Federal Security Service in 2013 as a colonel, the same rank as Putin, after serving in war zones in Bosnia, Transnistria and Chechnya. He’s been charged with terrorism by Ukraine’s government and has been blacklisted by the U.S. and the EU for his role in the conflict.

After volunteering to help organize the Crimean referendum on joining Russia, Strelkov said he led a convoy of 51 fighters northeast from the Black Sea peninsula in early April to Slovyansk, a city in the Donetsk region, to support pro-Russian protests after the ouster of Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. The vote and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea was condemned by the U.S. and the European Union as a violation of international law.

Armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and wearing balaclavas, the men quickly seized city hall and the local police headquarters, igniting a conflict that’s now claimed more than 5,300 lives, the United Nations estimates. It’s also led to the worst standoff between Russia and the U.S. and its allies in Europe since the Cold War.

Russian authorities weren’t involved in the Slovyansk operation, Strelkov said. He declined to comment on claims by Ukraine and its allies that Russia later poured thousands of troops and operatives into the region.

“I think some of Russia’s special services” knew of the plan, but they “didn’t provide any direct support,” he said at his Novorossiya movement’s office, which is decorated with religious icons and portraits of Putin. He said the first people killed in the war were Ukrainian security agents who tried to halt his convoy.

Ukraine and its allies have accused the rebels of shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 with a Russian missile system on July 17, killing all 298 people on board. Strelkov, or someone using his account on Russian social network Vkontakte, boasted of downing a Ukrainian aircraft at about the same time the Boeing 777 disappeared from radar. That post was quickly deleted, though copies of it have been archived on the Internet.

Strelkov said the rebels didn’t play any role in the Malaysia Airlines incident. A few weeks after the tragedy, which is still being investigated, he stepped down as defense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and returned to Moscow, where he’s been ever since.

Strelkov said he was “pulled out of the game,” without elaborating. He said it became clear that it “would be destructive” for him to stay because he would never support the political settlement Russia was seeking to achieve.

A tentative truce signed in Minsk, Belarus, in September has been all but abandoned, with fighting intensifying as the insurgents seek to expand the area under their control. The escalation is “an attempt to move the frontline to a more-or-less safe distance” from cities held by the rebels, he said.

“Ukraine used the four months since Minsk to pump up the army to the maximum and solve the question by force,” Strelkov said, adding that it’s now “impossible” to drive Ukrainian government forces out of all of Donetsk.

The government in Kiev says its troops are on the defensive against insurgents who have gained about 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) since the Minsk accord. The rebels last month captured the strategic Donetsk airport.

Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande head to Moscow on Friday to meet Putin in a bid to stop the conflict from spiraling out of control. The German and French leaders will stop over in Kiev to discuss a “new initiative” to resolve the 10-month crisis with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who met U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry this afternoon.

If the Kremlin has a plan for resolving the crisis, Strelkov said he hasn’t seen it. “It’s like that joke about the pregnant high-school girl who thinks the fetus will just dissolve,” he said. “Maybe Moscow is betting on Ukraine disintegrating, but that won’t happen anytime soon.”

The most recent peace talks, on Saturday, failed because representatives of the militants in Donetsk and Luhansk were “not even prepared to discuss” a cease-fire, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which arranged the meeting with Russian and Ukrainian officials.

Strelkov, whose hobbies include reenacting czarist-era military battles, said the campaign in Ukraine has deteriorated into an embarrassing and “absurd” facsimile of the kind of trench warfare seen during World War I.

“There’s no glory,” he said. “Nothing but damage.”

With his services no longer needed in Ukraine, Strelkov said he’s helping out in other ways, such as raising money to buy humanitarian supplies for the local population. He’s also working on other projects, including how to help Putin in the event an “overthrow” is attempted. Strelkov said that he would encourage a coup if he were part of the U.S. establishment.

It would make sense for the U.S. to try split Russia into “seven or 10 entities,” Strelkov said. “I was trained to think like the enemy.”

As for the dilemma Putin now faces in the biggest challenge of his presidency, Strelkov said it’s all or nothing:

“The war we entered, whether we wanted it or not, will either bring about Russia’s destruction or the resurrection of our national elite.”



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