Analiză REUTERS: Strelkov/Girkin, o stea în ascensiune în politica rusească (Should Putin fear the man who ‘pulled the trigger of war’ in Ukraine?):
The official Kremlin narrative on the war in eastern Ukraine is clear and simple: after seizing power in February, a Western-backed “junta” in Kiev sent neo-Nazi gangs – then tanks and warplanes – to stamp out peaceful protests by the Russian-speaking community. The locals who took up arms are freedom fighters, and the only help they get from Russia is humanitarian aid. For the past six months, Russian state television has carpet-bombed its viewers with this message, day in and day out.
Girkin is a loose cannon. He views himself as a warrior in a bigger war against a godless West that has lost its Christian roots and thirsts for Russia’s resources to feed its decadent ways. Girkin prides himself on his service to the greater Russian cause and has no reason to toe the Kremlin line. Hardcore Russian nationalists already consider him a worthy alternative to President Vladimir Putin.
For Girkin, there is no question of who started the conflict; he claims to have started it himself. “I’m the one who pulled the trigger of war. If our squad hadn’t crossed the border, it all would have ended like in Kharkiv or Odesa. There would have been a few dozen killed, burned, and arrested. And that would have ended everything,” Girkin says. “Our squad set the flywheel of war in motion. We reshuffled all the cards on the table.”
What the Kremlin tries to hide with fabrications and lies, Girkin says openly. The mustachioed, gray-haired 43-year-old, who used to appear in photographs in fatigues but now presents himself in a suit and tie, sees no shame in what he’s done. On the contrary, for Russian nationalists like Girkin, Kiev’s post-revolutionary paralysis presented a unique opportunity to restore Novorossiya – a czarist-era designation for much of present-day Ukraine. Girkin doesn’t use the vocabulary of Putin’s propaganda machine to describe Ukrainians (“fascists,” “punishers”) but speaks in the dispassionate voice of a military man when recalling key moments.
Little is known about Girkin, who says in the interview that he tried to remain in the shadows as long as possible. What he does reveal is that Ukraine was his fifth conflict, after the two Russian campaigns in Chechnya, the fighting for the pro-Moscow enclave of Transnistria in Moldova, and the Bosnian war, where he fought on the Bosnian Serb side. In his own words, Girkin is a former colonel in the Russian special forces.
The interview in Zavtra isn’t a Q & A in the classic journalistic sense, since the interviewer, editor Alexander Prokhanov, can barely contain his admiration for Girkin. “I believe you did everything right,” Prokhanov says. “Everything you did was a messianic feat.” Follow-up questions such as “Who gave you orders?” or “Where do the borders of Novorossiya end?” are missing.
Zavtra is the ideological home for ultranationalists who miss Russia as a great power, whether it was called the Russian Empire or Soviet Union. Alexander Borodai, a Russian citizen who served as the Donetsk rebels’ prime minister, has also contributed to the publication.
In Slovyansk, Girkin says he was joined by no more than 200 local men who helped storm the police station. From there, he sent 30 Cossacks to take the neighboring town of Kramatorsk. By the end of May, the Donetsk rebels had 28,000 local volunteers, and even if half of them were criminals or random characters, the rest were ready to fight, according to Girkin. The main problem was that there weren’t enough weapons.
Girkin maintains that of his 1,000 fighters holed up in Slovyansk, 90 percent were locals. By early July, their situation became increasingly precarious as Ukrainian government forces encircled the town. With only two working tanks and six armored vehicles, Girkin decided to cut his losses by abandoning Slovyansk and relocating to Donetsk on July 5.
But then help did arrive in the form of soldiers from the regular Russian army. Girkin and Prokhanov euphemistically call them otpuskniki (soldiers on leave), in reference to rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko’s admission on Russian state TV in late August that up to 4,000 Russian soldiers preferred to spend their leave fighting in Ukraine than “on the beach.” The Russian intervention halted the Ukrainian offensive and forced President Petro Poroshenko to agree to a ceasefire on Sept. 5.
Girkin’s conversation with Prokhanov raises some intriguing questions. It’s completely unclear who Girkin’s superiors were, though they were clearly not the rebels. “I had the explicit order: don’t give up Slavyansk,” he remembers. Girkin was told to defend the town “to the end,” he says, but when he asked what kind of help he’d be getting, there was silence.
Also, Girkin claims that the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol was empty when the Russian otpuskniki reached it and could have been taken without a fight. “There was the order not to occupy it – not just an order to stop, but not to take it under any circumstances,” Girkin says. Again the source of the order goes unmentioned. And if Girkin is right that the pro-Moscow forces were ordered not to take one of the most strategic cities in the Donetsk region, it raises the question why.
At this point in the fighting, Girkin himself was no longer military commander of the Donetsk rebels, as he was recalled to Russia on Aug. 14 under murky circumstances. Why? And by whom? Based on Girkin’s comments, it appears the Kremlin is not only opposed to annexing the Donetsk and Luhansk regions but wants to prevent them from becoming too powerful. As dysfunctional gangster states inside Ukraine’s borders, they provide Moscow with the greatest possible leverage over Kiev.
Girkin has been careful not to criticize Putin, even though in an earlier interview he blamed traitors in the government – including Kremlin insider Vladislav Surkov – for the precarious state of the Novorossiya project. Girkin complains to Prokhanov that Russia continues to sell natural gas to Ukraine while the Ukrainian army shells Donetsk.
Girkin is representative of an ultranationalist fringe whose anti-Western, Russian Orthodox ideology is gaining in currency. While Putin has tapped into Russian nationalism out of opportunism, his ultimate goal is not the resurrection of the Soviet Union but his own political survival. When tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to protest against Putin three years ago, ultranationalists marched in their midst. The Ukraine conflict has only empowered them.
In the Zavtra interview, Prokhanov repeatedly tries to get Girkin to show some interest in politics, but he doesn’t go for the bait.
“There isn’t anything for an honest person to do in politics. I hope that changes. After all, war changes a lot of things,” Girkin says ominously. “Politics right now is the manipulation of elections, lying on TV, lying everywhere. The main quality of a politician is to twirl like a weathervane.”
Girkin says that he sees himself as a “secret services man” above all. Prokhanov replies that “as a secret services man, you have the chance to become a great politician.”
Putin, after all, also rose out of the secret services.
PHOTO (Inset 1) Pro-Russian separatist military commander Igor Strelkov attends a news conference in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk July 28, 2014. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
PHOTO (Inset 2) A billboard with images of pro Russian armed “Colonel Igor Strelkov” (center) is seen in Ukrainian town of Konstantinovka June 9, 2014. An inscription on the billboard reads: “Steel Russians” and “300 Strelkov’s”. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
PHOTO (Inset 3) A Ukrainian soldier stands near a destroyed military vehicle of pro-Russian separatists just outside the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk July 7, 2014. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich