Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Ukraine Crisis: Militia Leader Igor Girkin a Hardline Russian Ex-FSB Colonel (Updated)

Girkin opens up about eliminating Russia's enemies, the menace of "alien" migrant workers and the "new type of war." Latest update: Jan. 25, 2015.

Igor "Strelkov" Girkin, commander of pro-Russia
gunmen in eastern Ukraine, says Russia faces
disintegration similar to Yugoslavia and Syria
unless it takes "decisive measures" that "might
even violate human rights," according to his
comments at a round table on Russian military
strategy last year.
Igor Girkin is the soft-spoken man with a pencil moustache who has bedeviled Ukrainian authorities as leader of the pro-Russia gunmen taking over government buildings in eastern Ukraine.

Kremlin officials have insisted Russian soldiers aren't orchestrating the building takeovers and that protesters are merely "local self-defence forces."

But Russian media accounts reveal the militia commander is a hardline Russian reserve officer who has extremist views on migrant workers and has called for the "timely elimination" of opponents of the Russian state.

In this June 2013 story, the pro-Kremlin ANNA News agency said Girkin is a Russian reserve colonel who ANNA News invited to speak at a round table on Russian military strategy.

The story identified Girkin by his pseudonym Igor Strelkov. (Strelkov can be translated as "Shooter" or "Sniper" in Russian.)

Girkin appears in a photo accompanying the story (at the bottom, seated with moustache).

"Let's be straight. He is a 'f-----g insane colonel.'"
- Militia's "deputy prime minister" 
Andrei Purgin on Igor Girkin

UPDATE (July 11, 2014): Girkin acknowledged at a news conference yesterday in Donetsk that he served in Russia's FSB intelligence agency (successor to the notorious KGB) until March 31, 2013. He said he was discharged with the rank of reserve colonel.

New Type of War

Girkin can be seen seated at the bottom of the 
photo (with moustache) at a round table on
Russian military strategy organized by
pro-Kremlin news outlet ANNA News in June
2013. Strelkov is identified as a colonel in the 
Russian military reserves in a story about
the event.
In a foreshadowing of his activities in Ukraine, Girkin advocated a "new type of war" that involves "special operations rather than large-scale military ones," according to the ANNA News story. (See here for an English translation of his comments.)

The new strategy, he said, would be based on "the timely elimination of selected leaders, even if by methods that are not always outwardly legal."

Girkin warned that Russia is threatened by a "massive" influx of migrant workers, whose presence could spark disintegration and war "similar to what we witnessed in Yugoslavia and what we are seeing in Syria today."

"Alien" Migrants Threaten Russia

Migrant workers are drawn to "shady business" and "radical Islam," Girkin said.

"Some of these people are quite alien to our society," he said.

"As soon as an economic crisis starts, war will begin immediately. If we fail to draw the appropriate conclusions, we will meet the same fate as (Syrian leader) Assad, (Libya's) Qaddafi and (Serbia's) Milosevic."

Girkin said Russia faces "exactly the same situation" as in the 1917 communist revolution. Then, he said, "a portion of the political elite" sided with "propagandized street crowds" to overthrow the Russian government -- "guided and supported by foreign embassies as well as other covert and secret international structures."

The government fell because it "had failed to take timely measures to neutralize this elite."

"Decisive Measures"

The implication is a similar scenario could occur today.

Girkin called for "decisive measures" that "might even violate human rights."

"If the situation deteriorates, it will be necessary to proceed to the next phase of military operations, and at that point, targeted special operations alone will no longer be sufficient," he said.

"He Really Is an Officer, But Not GRU"

"Strelkov" was also described as a Russian reserve officer in this sympathetic story last week in the pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.

The story described Strelkov as "our hero" and quoted an old friend of his who fought alongside Strelkov in the Russian military campaign in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria in 1992. The article said Strelkov also fought in Chechnya.
Girkin is a fan of historic military reenactments.
Here he is a Roman legionary.

The article said Ukraine's SBU security agency believes Strelkov's actual name is Igor Girkin and that he is a member of Russia's GRU military intelligence agency.

"We won't say if they have correctly identified him or not," the article cryptically said, then added, "He really is an officer, but not the GRU. And he has been in the reserves a long time!"

The story said the militia commander is a fan of historic military reenactments and included a photo of him dressed up as a Roman legionary.

Many Militia Not Ukrainians

In a video interview accompanying the story, Girkin acknowledged that many of his gunmen aren't Ukrainians. "More than half or maybe two thirds" are from Ukraine, he said.

"The unit I came with to Sloviansk was formed in Crimea. I won't hide that," he said. (An English translation of the interview is available here.)

After the SBU announced Girkin's Russian passport number and address in a Moscow apartment building last week, Ukraine's TSN news program interviewed Girkin's neighbours in the building, who identified him after being shown images of the militia commander in the media.

"He's a soldier," one neighbour said.

Girkin's mother and sister live in the same building, but they refused to answer questions, TSN reported.

EU Sanctions "Strelkov"

Last week, the European Union included "Strelkov" on its expanded list of Russian officials and others targeted for sanctions for undermining Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty.

The EU identified him as a GRU member and "assistant on security issues" to Sergei Aksyonov, leader of the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula.

The BBC's Russian-language service cited Russian military experts last week who said "Strelkov" had worked with Russia's FSB intelligence agency in a counterterrorism unit.

The BBC quoted a Moscow representative of the pro-Russia forces describing Strelkov as an "Orthodox Russian officer" who went to Ukraine as "a volunteer."

Girkin in FSB 18 Years: Report

This week, hacker group Anonymous International published what it said were Girkin's personal emails revealing he had served in the FSB from 1996 to March 2014, including in Chechnya from 1999 to 2005, according to this Moscow Times story.

The self-proclaimed pro-Russia mayor in Sloviansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, who described himself as an old friend of Girkin's, said the information about Girkin was true, the Moscow Times reported.

The newspaper also said Girkin was born in Moscow and that it contacted him by email and phone but that he wouldn't confirm the claims.

Torture, Attacks on Roma, Anti-Semitism

Since Girkin's fighters took over Sloviansk in mid-April, three pro-Ukraine activists have been found tortured to death in the city's environs.

Reports have multiplied of Russian-backed gunmen attacking and robbing local Roma (Gypsy) people and kidnapping and beating journalists and activists. Girkin's forces also detained an observer mission from the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe for over a week.

Pro-Russia militants in Sloviansk vowed to fight "zombie Zionists" in a local TV broadcast that the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress condemned as anti-Semitic. The broadcast followed reports that far-right Russian extremists had joined the pro-Kremlin protests in Ukraine.

"Slava, Please Take Care of the Corpse"

Local city council member Volodymyr Rybak being
led away by pro-Russia militants after he tried to
remove a Russian flag from a government building
occupied by militants in eastern Ukraine. His
body was later found near militia-held Sloviansk
with gruesome signs of torture.
Ukraine's SBU security agency has released several intercepted phone calls involving Girkin that it says show his complicity in torture and connections to Russia.

In one intercepted phone call, Girkin asks Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-proclaimed local pro-Russia mayor, to dispose of a body that is "lying here, stinking." (Here is an English transcript.)

The SBU says the body was that of Volodymyr Rybak, a city council member tortured to death after he tried to remove a Russian flag from a government building the gunmen had seized.

Rybak was filmed being led away by pro-Russian militants and was later found in a river with his stomach cut open and multiple knife wounds.

"Slava, please take care of the corpse," Girkin apparently tells Ponomaryov.

"The corpse? Yes, yes, in a moment. I'll just finish with the journalists and take care of it," Ponomaryov says. "I'll go right away to take care of burying that faggot."

Contacts in Russia

The SBU had previously released another series of intercepted calls of Girkin apparently reporting to contacts with phone numbers in Russia. (Here is an English transcript in which Girkin is identified as "Shooter.")

Girkin tells a contact named Alexander about how his forces ambushed Ukrainian security personnel in a bloody firefight on April 13 that left an SBU captain dead and others injured.

"What's your status?" Alexander asks.

"We fought off the first attack. They ran into our men and incurred significant losses."

"Great," Alexander says. He tells Girkin he is coming to Sloviansk with reinforcements.

"Tell them to bring more anti-tank weapons," Girkin says.

Reporting to Crimean Leader

In another conversation, Girkin apparently tells a second contact from Russia named Konstantin Valerevich about the ambush.

"Did you report to Aksyonov?" the man asks Girkin, possibly a reference to Crimean leader Sergei Aksyonov.

"No, not yet," Girkin says.

"Keep trying to call him. I am meeting him here tomorrow. He flies in this evening."

"Yes, sir. Of course," Girkin says.

On April 14, Aksyonov was in Moscow to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin, according to the Kremlin's website. The SBU said Girkin's calls occurred on April 13.

"Fewer enemies will die than the peaceful 
population that he is freeing... He will ruin 
million-strong city to kill 10,000 Ukes."
- Militia's "deputy prime minister" 
Andrei Purgin on Igor Girkin

UPDATE (May 19, 2014): Ukraine's TSN news program reports today that Konstantin Valerevich is in fact Russian oligarch Konstantin Valerevich Malofeyev, founder of a large Russian investment fund named Marshall Capital Partners.

Meanwhile, Russian journalist Oleh Kashin reported today on that "Alexander," Girkin's other Russian contact, is Alexander Borodai, a Russian political consultant chosen on May 16 as prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.

The Moscow Times has reported Borodai was once deputy editor at the far-right Russian nationalist newspaper Zavtra. (Zavtra editor Alexander Prokhanov has openly blamed Jewish people for Russia's problems, according to this report.)

Ukrainska Pravda said today Malofeyev (sometimes transliterated as Malofeev) once employed both Borodai and Girkin at his investment fund.

Oleh Kashin's report on said the Crimea takeover was apparently "a public-private partnership" between the Russian military and Malofeyev. 

Kashin said Malofeyev had previously done "delicate work in the interests of the Russian state." 

Kashin also reported first coming across Girkin and Borodai in Crimea in March where he said both men were active in Russia's takeover of the Ukrainian peninsula.

The Interpreter, an online publication, carried this English-language report on Kashin's story.

UPDATE (May 23, 2014): In an interview with Forbes Russia Wednesday, Malofeyev acknowledged employing Borodai as a PR consultant, calling him "one of the best in Russia," but denied having a "professional relationship" with Girkin.

Malofeyev also denied financing pro-Russia groups in Ukraine.

UPDATE (May 24, 2014): Malofeyev has helped finance the World Congress of Families, a U.S.-based umbrella of the religious right that has lobbied for anti-gay legislation in Russia and elsewhere, according to this Mother Jones investigation.

UPDATE (July 24, 2014): "I want the Russian Empire back," Malofeyev says in a profile today in The Financial Times, titled, "Malofeev: the Russian billionaire linking Moscow to the rebels."

Malofeyev is reported to have attended a far-right conference in Vienna this spring along with France's Marie Le Pen and Austria's Heinz-Christian Strache. 

Moscow political analyst Alexei Makarkin calls Malofeyev "very ideological, patriotic and believes in the idea of a great and Orthodox Russia. There is basically no difference between his views and Strelkov's."

Girkin Discusses His "Instructions"

The authenticity of the SBU-released calls hasn't been independently verified. But Kremlin official Vladimir Lukin did confirm the authenticity of other SBU-released calls between himself and Girkin (see here with English subtitles).

The calls related to Lukin's arrival in eastern Ukraine in early May to discuss the release of OSCE observer mission members whom Girkin's forces had detained for several days.

Girkin says in one call he has received "instructions" from an unnamed party related to the OSCE observers. Lukin asks Girkin if he has any objection to Lukin's mission. "I have no objections for one simple reason. All this has already been discussed with me," Girkin says.

"Very well. Then the problem is how are we going to get there to carry this out. So let me call you a bit later," Lukin says.

"Call me, call. But I had instructions to help you and not the European partners," Girkin says.

"I understand."

Ukrainian authorities say the calls and Lukin's success getting the observers released show the Kremlin's hand behind Girkin.

Lukin confirmed the calls took place but denied they showed Russia controls Girkin's forces, BBC reported.

UPDATE (July 28, 2014): Girkin reportedly took part in the 1992 Serbian ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Bosnia, says the New York-based International Business Times citing a Bosnian media account.

Girkin fought as a volunteer with Serbian forces who massacred at least 3,000 Muslims in a 1992 attack in which Muslim men were lined up and murdered, the story says. Women were reportedly mass raped, while others were locked in houses that were set on fire.

AS WELL, the SBU has released what is says is a recorded call (with English subtitles) in which a top militia leader complains about Girkin.

"Let's be straight. He is a 'f-----g insane colonel,'" says Andrei Purgin, "deputy prime minister" in the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, in a call with Denis Pushilin, "chairman" of the republic until he resigned in mid-July.

"When he calls the city mayor and says, 'Let's stop public transport and blow up nine-storey buildings in the city suburbs' -- that's nonsense," Purgin says.

"He has fully destabilized and disrupted the work of all trade networks. That's it, we are about to starve because we can't persuade Strelkov to let even something in.

"Fewer enemies will die than the peaceful population that he is freeing... They're robbing the city... It's going to be a f-----g disaster! He will ruin a million-strong city to kill 10,000 Ukes."

In a second call released by the SBU at the same time, Girkin's name comes up in an alleged conversation between Oleksy Chesnakov, deputy secretary of the ruling United Russia party of Russian president Vladimir Putin, and Alexander Borodai, self-appointed prime minister of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic.

Chesnakov appears to ask Borodai to get Girkin to praise Putin.

"It would be important if the 'legendary one' [Girkin] gave an interview solidly saying something like, 'I've gotten to Donetsk... I am an officer. I have a commander-in-chief. At this point, of course, I do not execute his direct orders because I am in another country, but I respect him greatly. I think he is the most outstanding leader of the present times. Owing to him, Russia has stood up from its knees, and we are all looking at him with great hope,'" Chesnakov says.

"Okay," Borodai says.

In the call, Borodai also complains about the militia's shortage of funds. Chesnakov says more funds can be made available: "If there is no flow, we'll arrange more using the same channel."

"Everything he touches (and that 
touches him) instantly turns to shit."
- Igor Girkin on Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov

UPDATE (Aug. 14, 2014): Girkin is reported to have resigned his self-appointed post as defence minister of the Donetsk People's Republic after a report by pro-militia media that he was severely wounded in fighting, later denied by some militia leaders.

The DPR says in a statement that Girkin has moved on to "other work," though no details are given. Another man is appointed defence minister, while a man with the same moniker, Nykolay Vladimirovich Strelkov, is appointed chief of the DPR's "general staff." 

Also by bizarre coincidence, the second Strelkov is said to be born in 1970, the same year as Igor Strelkov/Girkin, and to also be a retired Russian colonel. A pro-militia website says the DPR has never previously mentioned the second Strelkov.

Meanwhile, a recruiter for the Russian-backed militia says in an early morning post on Aug. 15 on Girkin's social media page that he has been inundated with questions about Girkin. 

"All I know is that he [Girkin] was in Russia in the last few days," the post says. "I don't have complete information. The situation is changing rapidly... Everyone in Donetsk who knows what's going on can't be reached or won't speak by phone."

UPDATE (Aug. 15, 2014): Girkin is no longer in the DPR, says militia member Oleksander Zhychkovsky in a post on Girkin's social media page.

"His return to the position of defence minister is not planned (his future plans aren't known yet)," the post says.

"For me this is sad news. But the war goes on, and we have to work with the new command."

"Destroying nine-storey buildings on 
the outskirts of Donetsk is insane."
- Self-proclaimed militia "prime minister" on Girkin's 
plan to mount defence from ruined buildings

UPDATE (Sept. 30, 2014) #1: A bitter Girkin takes a shot at top Putin foreign policy advisor Vladislav Surkov, said to be an architect of the Kremlin's covert war against Ukraine, in social media posts.

He scoffs that Surkov "celebrated victory" over Ukraine at a dinner in a Moscow restaurant with leaders of the Kremlin-backed gunmen fighting in Ukraine.

The diners were celebrating Ukrainian legislation that gives gunmen-controlled areas autonomy for three years, reported Russian online news outlet

In another version of his post, Girkin goes on to call Surkov a "modern-day Midas -- except that everything he touches (and that touches him) instantly turns to shit."

"At first nobody wanted to fight... I pulled the 
trigger that started the war."
- Girkin tells far-right Russian newspaper Zavtra

UPDATE (Sept. 30, 2014) #2: Girkin has become persona non grata in Russian media, reports Russian pro-Putin blogger Anatoliy "El Murid" Nesmeyan. "My journalist colleagues in Russian mass media told me privately that there has been a ban on showing not only Strelkov's image but also the mention of his name," Nesmeyan writes on his blog.

UPDATE (Oct. 8, 2014): Alexander Zakharchenko, the self-proclaimed "prime minister" of the so-called "Donetsk People's Republic" group, slams Girkin for a ruthless disregard for local inhabitants in an interview with the Russian Reporter newspaper.

"He was a person who fought alongside us. But 90 percent of his troops did not support his views on how to conduct military activities," Zacharchenko says.

An example of Girkin's ruthlessness was an apparent plan to destroy nine-story buildings to "defend ourselves from among ruins... For me, destroying nine-storey buildings on the outskirts of Donetsk is insane... We would have done things differently when it came to trying to resolve certain issues at the expense of the lives of our fellow countrymen."

The interview confirms the authenticity of a phone call between militia leaders complaining about Girkin that Ukraine's SBU security agency says it intercepted in July (see above).

UPDATE (Nov. 20, 2014): Girkin takes credit for starting the war in eastern Ukraine in an interview with Alexander Prokhanov, the anti-Semitic editor of far-right Russian newspaper Zavtra ("Tomorrow").

"At first nobody wanted to fight," the ex-FSB colonel says of the situation last spring in eastern Ukraine. 

"I pulled the trigger that started the war. If our unit hadn't crossed the border, everything would have ended like in Kharkiv and Odessa -- a few dozen people dead, burned, arrested," Girkin says.

"I am personally responsible for what is happening there."

(Reuters carries this English-language analysis of the interview.)

UPDATE (Jan. 25, 2015): Girkin acknowledges on Russian TV that Moscow-backed militants in Ukraine's Crimea peninsula forcibly gathered regional deputies to stage a fraud-riddled referendum on joining Russia last March.

"I did not see any support from (Crimea) state authorities in Simferopol (the regional capital)," he says. "It was the militants who gathered the deputies so they would accept this (the referendum)." (See an English account of Girkin's remarks here.)

Bezler a Second Former High-Ranked Russian Officer

Girkin isn't the only former high-ranking Russian officer to have surfaced at the heart of the turbulence in Ukraine.

In April, a YouTube video appeared of a man describing himself as a "lieutenant-colonel of the Russian army" giving instructions to police in the eastern Ukrainian city of Horlivka after pro-Russia militants had forcibly taken over their police station.

Ukrainian authorities later identified the man as Igor Bezler, a retired GRU lieutenant-colonel who they say the GRU sent to participate in the Russian military takeover of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in March and then sent to eastern Ukraine.

Bezler On Kidnapping

A man who appears to be Bezler can be briefly seen among pro-Russia militants during the police station takeover in this Vice News item (at 3:52 and 3:56 seconds in).

The SBU has released intercepted phone calls of what it says is Bezler discussing the kidnapping of murdered council member Rybak. Bezler apparently instructs another militant to "tie his hands and make sure he can't see anything."

Bezler and the militant speak again in a second call in which the militant assures Bezler there is no video footage implicating the pro-Russia gunmen in Rybak's kidnapping.

UPDATE (July 29, 2014): The Guardian correspondent Shaun Walker reports on his disturbing encounter with Bezler, the militia commander whose unit is suspected of having shot down MH17.

Walker was granted a rare interview with Bezler. But before they had a chance to discuss MH17, Bezler started screaming and threatened to have Walker and a Russian journalist shot, Walker reports.

"Don't think for a minute will 
hesitate to have you shot!"
- Russian gunman commander Igor Bezler 
screaming at Guardian journalist

Bezler said his forces summarily execute captured Ukrainian National Guard volunteer soldiers. "We question them and then shoot them on the spot," Walker quotes Bezler as saying. "I will hang those f---ers from lampposts!"

While shouting "at the top of his voice," Bezler noticed the Russian journalist's dictaphone was on and that Walker was writing notes in his notebook. Walker reports that Bezler grabbed the dictaphone, ordered a fighter to throw it against a wall, then took Walker's notebook and frantically ripped out pages.

"Burn their notebooks!" Bezler barked at his subordinates. "Seize their electronics! Search everything for compromising material and then destroy it! If you find anything, execute them as spies!

"Don't think for a minute I will hesitate to have you shot," he yelled at the journalists, who were eventually released unharmed.

Protesters Paid: Report

Ukrainian authorities said in April they had detained 25 Russian military intelligence agents in Ukraine involved in organizing pro-Russia protests.

Ukrainian border police have reported detaining couriers trying to bring large sums of money into Ukraine to finance the pro-Russia protests.

In the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk, pro-Russia militants offered residents the equivalent of $35 to help block Ukrainian security forces and $90 to participate in attacks on soldiers or act as "human shields" for pro-Russia gunmen, according to this Ukrainska Pravda newspaper story last week.

1,200 Got Payments in Luhansk: Prosecutor-General

Authorities in Ukraine detained a Ukrainian citizen who admitted in a video posted by Ukrainska Pravda in mid-April that he was recruited as a GRU agent to lead a 10-person unit participating in building takeovers in eastern Ukraine.

The man said those who participated in attacks were paid the equivalent of $10 a day, while those with military training got "several times more."

Some 1,200 people in the eastern Luhansk region alone got payments to participate in pro-Russia protests and disrupt planned May 25 presidential elections, Ukraine's prosecutor-general said in April.

A Ukrainian investigation reported last month that 30 members of Russia's FSB intelligence service had helped plan a Ukrainian government crackdown on mass protests in February that left 76 dead, provoking an uprising that swept pro-Moscow Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych out of power.

See also
4 myths about the Ukraine crisis, Crimea and NATO
7 signs of Russia's far-right turn

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