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‘I pulled the trigger on the war’ In 2014, Igor Strelkov orchestrated the downing of a passenger jet over Ukraine. Today, he was arrested for criticizing Putin on social media. Meduza explains

Source: Meduza

On Friday, July 21, a court ordered the arrest of Igor Strelkov (whose real surname is Girkin), a convicted war criminal, former commander of troops fighting for the self-proclaimed Donetsk “people’s republic,” former FSB officer, and, until today, pro-war and anti-Putin blogger. The criminal case against him was opened on charges of making “public calls for extremist activity on the Internet.” Russian authorities reportedly brought charges against Strelkov at the request of former Yaroslavl municipal deputy Dmitry Petrovsky, who himself went to fight in Ukraine as a “civilian volunteer” and who was outraged that Strelkov criticized the Russian army and Putin. Meduza looks at Strelkov’s backstory and explains how he went from FSB officer to commander of a Russian proxy militia, to one of the most implacable critics of the Kremlin.

“I’m the one who pulled the trigger on the war…Our detachment started up the flywheel of the war that’s still ongoing,” Igor Strelkov told the ultraconservative magazine Zavtra (Tomorrow) in the fall of 2014.

Strelkov, whose real surname is Girkin, is a former war reenactment enthusiast and veteran of the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s as well as both Chechen wars. He then went on to work for Russia’s Federal Security Service (the FSB). But he became infamous in the fall of 2014, as the commander of a Russian backed unit that seized administrative buildings in Sloviansk and other cities in eastern Ukraine. From May to August 2014, Strelkov served as the “defense minister” of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR), but quit after a series of defeats at the front. After that, Strelkov was no longer actively involved in combat. He went back to Russia where he helped “veterans of the Donbas,” launched a YouTube channel and later a Telegram channel, and debated opposition figure Alexey Navalny. 

According to Meduza sources close to Putin’s administration, Strelkov was forced to leave the Donbas, in part because of a “feud” with presidential aide Vladislav Surkov. In 2013, Surkov, the former head of Putin’s domestic policy team, became Putin’s personal adviser on issues related to Ukraine (among other things). After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and provoked war in eastern Ukraine, Surkov began to supervise the “people’s republics” in the Donbas. The Kremlin’s belief was that the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” should become centers of Russian influence in Ukraine, and Surkov was put in charge of the project. He was unsuccessful in the Kremlin’s eyes, though, and Putin fired him in 2020.

Strelkov repeatedly criticized Surkov for his involvement in negotiating the Minsk agreements, which sought to end the Donbas war. Strelkov went so far as to call Surkov a member of the “party of treason” who had “betrayed Donbas residents.” However, one of Surkov’s acquaintances, who spoke to Meduza on the condition of anonymity, said that the former presidential adviser “did not oppose Strelkov.”

A Meduza source close to the Kremlin agrees. According to the source’s information, Strelkov was “chucked out of the Donbas” by FSB agents who considered him “uncontrollable.” Their belief arose not from the fact that Strelkov made direct verbal attacks on a Putin aide, but from his involvement in shooting down a passenger jet over the Donbas. 

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A life sentence in absentia

In November 2022, a court in the Netherlands sentenced Igor Strelkov and two other defendants to life in prison. The court declared Strelkov a war criminal, finding him guilty in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) in the Donetsk region. The flight was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on June 16, 2014. All 298 passengers were killed.

Over the course of the investigation, experts concluded that the airplane had been shot down by a Buk anti-aircraft missile system that belonged to Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, based in Kursk. The Buk missile system was transported into “DNR” territory the night before the plane was shot down and sent back to Russia shortly after the missile was launched.

The Netherlands court held Strelkov responsible for supplying the Buk system and negotiating with the responsible parties in Moscow, though Russia denies any involvement in the downing of the plane. Researchers involved with the MH17 case believe that Putin personally authorized the Buk’s delivery.

None of the defendants in the case appeared before the court, and the prosecutor expressed doubt that they would ever receive real punishment for the crime, since Russia does not extradite its citizens. “No one knows what the future will bring, and, for our part, we’ll make every effort to arrest them,” said the prosecutor.

Strelkov maintains his innocence and has been reluctant to comment on the topic. “The militia did not shoot down the Boeing,” said Strelkov, commenting on the trial in June 2019. After the verdict, he spoke on the radio station Govorit Moskva, repeating his earlier remarks and calling the “trial illegal and aimed against the enemies of the new world order.” By that point, Strelkov had transformed himself into not only an “enemy of the new world order” but also one of the Kremlin’s main critics.

More on the trial

Flight MH17 trial concludes with guilty verdicts — and sorrow in the Dutch courtroom The court convicted three perpetrators and awarded damages — including same-sex couples as ‘next of kin’

More on the trial

Flight MH17 trial concludes with guilty verdicts — and sorrow in the Dutch courtroom The court convicted three perpetrators and awarded damages — including same-sex couples as ‘next of kin’

‘A nobody is heading the country’

Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Igor Strelkov has been a regular commentator on the course of the war and an outspoken critic of Russia’s military and political leadership. He often accused them of being insufficiently decisive. The former “DNR” commander has expressed the belief that “Ukraine does not have the right to exist.”

The criticism became especially harsh following Strelkov’s unsuccessful attempt to join the Russian army in October 2022. Several pro-Kremlin Russian “war bloggers” reported at the time that Strelkov had “gone to fight” in Ukraine. Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate promised $100,000 for his capture: there are several active criminal cases against Strelkov in Ukraine, including ones for terrorism and violating the laws and customs of war.

But in early December, Strelkov said he would return to Moscow. According to him, he had, in fact, gone to the occupied Donetsk region in October and had even enlisted as a private in one of the Russian proxy units fighting there, but this allegedly displeased “higher command” and he fought in secret for two months.

After his return, Strelkov announced the creation of the “Angry Patriots Club” (KRP) — an informal association, which he hoped to turn into an official political movement. Since 2014, Strelkov has made several attempts — all failed — to launch a political career. Pavel Gubarev, one of the founders of the self-proclaimed “DNR,” became the club’s chairman. He, too, was arrested on July 21, 2023, shortly after Strelkov.

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“We love Russia. Our country is waging a serious war, but waging it ineptly,” reads the KRP manifesto, published on April 17. The document says that “incompetent organization on strategic, operation, and tactical levels has led Russia into a war of attrition.” 

“Angry patriots, as part of [civil society], took on many functions of the Russian state. First and foremost, we’re talking about the direct supply and re-equipping of Russian army combat units. We will continue to do this in any situation. We have experience in solving other problems, too,” the manifesto notes. 

In reality, KRP activities (at least the publicized ones) mainly boiled down to calls to “liquidate the Ukrainian state.” Strelkov called the current situation at the front “humiliating” and laid the blame primarily on Putin. “History has no ‘would haves.’ For 23 years, a nobody who managed to throw dust in the eyes of a significant part of the population has headed the country.” 

“The country will not bear this cowardly mediocrity in power for another six years,” he added.

Meduza sources close to the Kremlin were sure that Strelkov’s arrest was initiated by high-ranking officials as “prophylaxis” after Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion. “To the Kremlin’s domestic affairs team, Strelkov was understandable and to some extent even convenient as a release valve for dissatisfaction among a small but still notable number of angry patriots,” said one source. 

The source emphasized that the Kremlin did not consider Strelkov particularly popular among Russians. “He has a base of supporters, but it’s a drop in the bucket, it’s not even close to Prigozhin. And he’s been publishing for a long time.” The source adds that the presidential administration believes the explanation is simple: “Strelkov’s views are not mainstream.” Strelkov, indeed, refers to himself as a staunch monarchist.

Another source, who is close to the presidential administration, calls Strelkov’s arrest “logical” after all of his statements, saying that “he’s been barking at everyone for a long time, from the president and Defense Ministry to Prigozhin.”

That source believes that Strelkov would have been arrested “sooner or later.” He says that Strelkov “was needed at first in the Donbas as a ‘we’re not here’ presence. Then he wasn’t needed. He’s too confident.”

Story by Elizaveta Antonova and Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Emily Laskin

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