Partial translation of illuminating interview with former Russian-separatist leader
As part of its recent investigation into MH17 alongside Bellingcat, the Russian publication The Insider interviewed infamous Russian-separatist commander Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, the former “defense minister” of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). Girkin is arguably the most recognizable individual from the outbreak of the Ukrainian conflict. Girkin arrived from Russia to the Donbas to lead the hybrid Russian and separatist forces to a number of victories and defeats until his August 2014 ousting from Donetsk. The former FSB officer has described himself as the “Kremlin’s emissary” and was credibly accused of a litany of war crimes, including the kidnapping, torture, and execution of prisoners in April 2014.
The lengthy interview touched upon a number of subjects but mostly focused on the summer of 2014, when the most violent and decisive battles of the war in eastern Ukraine took place. Not all of Girkin’s statements can be taken at face value, but they remain fascinating in understanding how the bloody summer of 2014 unfolded from his perspective. While Russia’s role in the war in the Donbas is well-established, Girkin provides specific insights as to how Russia both directly participated in and helped to guide the formation of hybrid Russian-separatist forces in the so-called DNR and so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR).
This installment of #MinskMonitor includes translated excerpts of this interview and provide context to Girkin’s responses.
On Aleksandr Borodai, the “Prime Minister” of the so-called DNR from May to August 2014:
Borodai is a PR-man. A professional PR-man who has worked in this sphere for many years. Before this, when I met with him, he was a journalist of the newspaper Zavtra, [note: Russian ultranationalist newspaper published since the early 1990s] and we were acquaintances and, you could even say, friends. But sometime, starting around 2001–2, I don’t remember exactly when as I was spending most of my time in Chechnya back then, Borodai started his own PR office that engaged in ‘black PR’. [note: practice of carrying out political smears against opponents. Surkov is widely acknowledged as one of the most notable practitioners of ‘black PR’.] As far as I now, he soon started to carry out various tasks from the Presidential Administration. In particular, he even tried to introduce me to Chesnakov, [note: long-time Kremlin political strategist who left official service in the early 2010s] and I somehow saw them together. It’s true that our talks did not go well, because to me this person seemed too arrogant and pompous. But it’s a fact that Borodai had already fulfilled the orders of the Presidential Administration, since back then Surkov was running domestic politics. Borodai made pretty good money on this and would often brag about his income. (…)
Borodai is a very ambitious and conceited person. He apparently saw his chance to end up in a position he dreamed of. He’s always wanted to be a politician — a successful politician, a renowned politician, a well-known one. Well, most likely, Surkov promised him this, or hinted at the possibility.
Much of the first wave of “leaders” in the Russian-led separatist “republics” in eastern Ukraine was made up of a motley group of ultranationalists and loyalists to various Kremlin and pro-Kremlin actors, including Russian Presidential Advisor Vladislav Surkov and Russian billionaire Konstantin Malofeyev. Former Prime Minister of the so-called DNR Aleksandr Borodai is both of these, as a long-time editor of Russian ultranationalist publications, including Zavtra and a consultant to Malofeyev. Girkin’s comments related to Borodai’s previous work for Russia’s Presidential Administration — where Surkov was the long-time Deputy Chief — illuminates how factions within the Kremlin tapped ultranationalist contacts to take up the reins of power in the Donbas, contradicting the narrative of an organic uprising of Ukrainians in the country’s east. Later, this first wave of (largely Russian) ultranationalists and hand-picked consultants were replaced by a number of Kremlin-chosen strongmen, who were mostly Donbas natives.
On his control of so-called “DNR” and “LNR” military groups in July-September 2014:
I was only in the war-zone until August 15, 2014, and can only only talk about this period. My attempts to in July and August to consolidate command, though only in the Donetsk Republic, did not work out because there were units that categorically did not wish to comply, and had their own financial and supply channels. Who financed them and how they were financed, this is a separate topic that I don’t want to discuss. However ‘Vostok,’ represented by Khodakovsky, [note: former SBU commander who commanded soldiers in the so-called “DNR”] categorically refused to obey, and even refused to even cooperate at all. They didn’t even send any representatives to the headquarters in order to coordinate any actions, and they categorically refused all contact. ‘Oplot’ [note: military unit in the so-called “DNR” commanded by future leader of the “republic,” Aleksandr Zakharchenko] came into operational subordination when we left for Donetsk, and while there was at least some sort of cooperation with them. Although to be frank, they did not fight brilliantly. Zakharchenko did not subordinate himself to me. I was considered the Minister of Defense, he considered himself the commander of internal troops, and accordingly, was able to ignore my orders. (…)
Mozgovoy [note: Luhansk-based commander who was assassinated in 2015] voluntarily subordinated himself to me in the Luhansk Republic. That is, he carried out my order and made up the the right flank. Plus, “Batman” [note: Aleksandr Bednov, a Luhansk-based commander who was assassinated in 2015] also voluntarily subordinated, but what he actually did (I don’t really know), since he was operating around Luhansk, was he just asked for ammunition from me. (…)
Borodai, who was then Prime Minister, and his first deputy Antyufeyev, didn’t help me in any way. In fact, they had no levers to pull. I had a couple of telephone conversations with Luhansk, Bolotov [note: former head of the so-called “LNR”] when I was still in Sloviansk. He promised to send help, promised to send weapons, but he didn’t send anything. As I was told, he assembled a convoy and publicly declared that it was headed to Sloviansk. But the convoy didn’t go anywhere. The end. From that point on, I haven’t communicated with Bolotov, and I have not had any interaction with him. The headquarters in Krasnodon worked from the middle of July, where there were several retired generals and colonels who had to unite the command of the republics. I had constant contact with them, but it was absolutely senseless to me because I did not receive any orders from them. I just sent them operative reports each morning and evening for the sectors in which units under me were fighting.
Girkin’s comments regarding his command structure in the Donbas mostly consists of a list of complaints of insubordination and broken promises, especially from the so-called LNR, which had far less central organization and leadership than the so-called DNR. While many of these military groups were directly funded and led by Russian military, intelligence, and Kremlin officials, they rarely acted in unison with conflicting forces and disorganized chains of command. Much of the so-called LNR was guided and funded by the Russian FSB, while the so-called DNR had more guidance from Presidential Advisor Surkov. Girkin also mentions the headquarters in Krasnodon, located in Luhansk’s territory near the Russian border, which fell outside of other chains of command with “retired” Russian generals or colonels in charge.
This Krasnodon headquarters was the primary focus of The Insider’s investigation, as a key figure in the MH17 investigation, “Delfin,” led this operation when the airliner was shot down. While Girkin reported to this headquarters, they had little influence on him and elsewhere in the Donbas, as multiple sources report how “Delfin” failed in his mission to bring order to the disparate military units in and around Luhansk. “Delfin” was named by the Dutch-led criminal investigation into MH17 as a person of interest in the passenger plane’s downing. Furthermore, this group of retired Russian colonels and generals fell outside of other hierarchical structures in eastern Ukraine, being separate from Surkov’s sphere of influence and closer to the Russian Ministry of Defense.
On Vladislav Surkov and Aleksandr Zakharchenko, now the “Head” of the so-called DNR:
I was ordered to transfer command to Zakharchenko. I assessed his military talent as nonexistent, and I was not mistaken. He is a man who had the rank of a militia sergeant, who as far as I can remember did not even serve as a conscript in the army, and is not able to lead combat operations. He did not strike me as someone with natural talent.
[And why do you think that he was chosen?]
Well, I don’t know, he and Borodai went to meet with Surkov. And apparently he was chosen, that is for the formal head of command. And why and how this happened… Surkov’s choices are always shit.
[Because he would be more obedient?]
I don’t know. I think, yes. Long before the events in Ukraine, I had to deal with the activities of Aslanbek Andarbekovich [note: alleged birth name of Vladislav Surkov] in a number of regions of the Russian Federation and CIS [note: Commonwealth of Independent States] countries. Because of that, in general nothing surprised me. And when I found out in May  that Aslanbek Andarbekovich himself would answer for coordination with the republics, I then realized that they would merge us together. It’s true that I didn’t tell anyone about this, because…
[Because you didn’t want to demoralize?]
Yes, not to demoralize personnel. (…)
I can only answer for myself, I’m simply not thrilled [by Surkov’s direction of the DNR-LNR]. I consider it was worse than a crime, it was a mistake, and this mistake was very vile and stupid. It’s unlikely that Surkov was mistaken. I believe that a person who simultaneously plays on several boards, or rather with several hands, will always allow elements of direct sabotage.
Girkin’s antipathy for both Zakharchenko and Surkov, who emerged victorious together in the political tug of war in Donetsk, could not be more clear than it is here. This is felt not just in his comments, but in his choice to call Surkov by the name he was allegedly given at birth in Chechnya, “Aslanbek Andarbekovich.”
Many, including Girkin, believe that Surkov was one of the architects of the failed 2017 declaration of “Malorossiya,” a planned state that would nominally place all of Ukraine under Russian-led separatist control, but more realistically lay out a plan for the unification of the “republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk. In a VK post after the announcement, Girkin blamed Zakharchenko and men loyal to him, including novelist-turned-“separatist”-commander Zakhar Prilepin, of carrying out Surkov’s “Malorossiya” initiative.
[This idea] could not have been born without the direct participation of the political technologists attached to [DNR leader] Zakharchenko — Misters Kazakov, Prilepin, and so on — the figures that undoubtedly originate from Surkov’s nest.
On Putin and the frozen conflict:
But for the central power, and for Putin, all that happened in the spring, summer, and autumn of 2014 was a colossal mistake and colossal stupidity, since my attempt to stop the irreversible led to the worst consequences.
[The worst consequences — they are, it turns out, the frozen conflict?]
Why the frozen conflict? The worst consequences are that, having taken decisive actions and brought back Crimea (namely the reunification, and not the creation of another banana republic that the West would have been able to eventually swallow up), Putin crossed the red line and did not have to stop. He should have continued on to victory. And the path to victory was laid through Kyiv, or at the very least, through Dnepropetrovsk [note: now Dnipro], Odesa.
[So you think that this was a real scenario…]
I believe that there were only two scenarios that existed at that moment. There are only two scenarios: the first, this is victory, even if it is heavy, even if it is bloody, even if it is very unprofitable economically. Or there is defeat, which is also bloody, also heavy, and also catastrophic for all: for the regime, for the economy, and for the people. I believe that Putin committed a colossal mistake, that he actually tried to freeze the situation.
The regret that Girkin shows for Russia not more directly intervening in the war in eastern Ukraine is common among many ultranationalists, who wished to see an outright Russian annexation of not just Donetsk and Luhansk, but most all of the majority-Russian-speaking areas in the east half of Ukraine, including Odesa and Dnipro. While most in the international community view Russia’s actions from 2014 to the present day as a series of outright violations of international laws and norms, a number of Russians and separatists see Putin’s refusal to explicitly invade Ukraine as either betrayal or incompetence.
On the current chaos taking place in the so-called separatist “republics” in eastern Ukraine:
On one hand, I believe that this is entirely logical — the bandits in power are removing competitors. Actually, Surkov led bandits into power in both the Donetsk and Luhansk republics. Plotnitsky [note: former head of the so-called LNR, who was forced out of power during the recent chaos in Luhansk]— a bandit. Zakharchenko — a crook who, after coming into power, also became a bandit. Accordingly, they’ve put down their competitors. Due to a number of reasons, Donetsk is increasingly stronger [than Luhansk]. There, an impetus has been given to organization, and Zakharchenko hasn’t had any competitors other than Khodakovsky. But in Luhansk, Plotnitsky had to fight against people who didn’t understand that he was better than the rest.
Girkin’s claim description of leaders of the so-called republics is not entirely subjective, as many were involved in fraud and criminal activities. For example, Denis Pushilin, the current “Chairman” of the so-called “People’s Soviet of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” was heavily involved in promoting a Ponzi scheme before and even after he rose to power in Donetsk.
As we have seen in the leaked emails from Surkov’s inbox, Pushilin had a very close relationship with the men whom he guided into power in Donetsk. However, as reflected in Girkin’s comments, there is far less central organization in Luhansk, and Surkov has much less influence there.
Igor “Strelkov” Girkin’s comments are heavily influenced by his personal grudges; however, he is unusually candid in his remarks. For example, when asked if Russian-led separatist forces shot down MH17, Girkin firmly replied no — but also would not say that Ukraine was guilty, leaving only one logical suspect.
While Russia claims no involvement in the war in the Donbas and many others assume Russia had complete control over the smallest details of the so-called separatist republics, Girkin’s interview with The Insider shows a more realistic picture. Russia indisputably had the final say in the important matters in Donetsk and Luhansk, but a number of men — both in Moscow and eastern Ukraine — were jockeying for power and influence over the future of the illegally-occupied Ukrainian territory.
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