Igor Girkin, the lone military commander of the Slovyansk rebels, showed up on our maps just under a month ago. The Ukrainian SBU had intercepted phone calls between someone referred to as “Strelok” (the Shooter), variably referred to as Strelkov, and a Moscow number. In the calls, Strelok was a Russian-accented voice who reported to his anonymous Moscow overlord on the successful assassination of a a team of Ukrainian “Alfa” seals. In a later phone call, the same voice could be heard issuing commands to Slovyansk fighters, instructing them to kidnap the OSCE observers.
A combination of SBU investigations and journalistic (mostly web-crawling) work had painted the following picture of Strelkov:
- His real name was Igor Girkin, he was born on December 17th 1970, and he was normally living in a shabby suburb of Moscow with his mother.
- He had been a colonel in the Russian army. His Moscow neighbors thought he had served in “some sort of intelligence services”, and described him as abnormally proud to wear his military uniform. Some neighbors who had know him as a child described a nerdish boy who could not communicate with other kids his age.
- Widely publicized was his interest in historical military reenactment, which kind of goes well his neighbors’ description of a dysfunctional childhood.
- He had fought as a volunteer in the Serbo-Bosnian war of 1992, on the Serb side. In memoirs he had written for various veterans’ magazines, he described gruesome war stories in which the Muslim enemies were clearly dehumanized (and the Serb fellow-fighters ridiculed as cowards). He insisted that he had gone to fight not as a soldier of fortune, but out of a sense of duty to the fellow-Orthodox Slavs against the savage Muslims. (Ironically, this essay was published in a Russian trade magazine called “Soldier of Fortune”)
- He had written fiction books, most recently “The Haldyborne Castle Detective”, a truly creepy children’s fantasy about ghosts and children looking for a treasure and magical trolls and other derivatives. The illustrations in the book were by his older sister.(Again, let’s not forget what his neighbors told us). He also published dozens of poems, ranging from patriotic, through military, to philosophical. NB! All his literary works were published under the Strelkov name.
- The SBU reported that his first “legal” entry into Ukraine in 2014 had been pin-pointed to March 24th. They had identified that he had played some role in the Crimean occupation and subsequent secession, prior to moving East and heading the Slovyansk/Donetsk military operations.
- In another intercepted phone call, he was heard coordinating the release of the OSCE hostages with Putin’s special representative Lukin; on the call, Girkin referred to having been “told to release them” by an anonymous higher power.
- In mid 2013, Girkin had taken part in a Moscow security conference of some sort, focused on the security implications of the Syrian conflict; his contribution to the conference was to warn that Russia was under threat from immigrants, and that to prevent risk of terrorism, Russia should not count on strictly legal methods alone.
In my own investigations, I had also stumbled upon a highly intriguing online presence. Strelkov had participated – for years – in a Russian online simulation military game, called “Republic SHGID” . I could trace his gaming activities back to at least 2010, and his posts continued well into 2014. In late March, on the day Crimea was annexed by Russia, the jubilant gamers went out of character on the game forum and started praising Putin and exchanging congratulations. It was here that Stelkov pinpointed to his fellow-gamers:
“By the way, you should congratulate me too, as I myself contributed significantly to this victory”
Another gamer, apparently with some knowledge of who Strelkov was, replied:
“Dear Igor G, we knew very well that you didn’t go down there to sun-bathe your ass”
Yet another gamer asked:
“By the way, do you have anything to do with – or were you – the uncatchable Kiev snipers?”
To which Girkin replied:
“You want to live longer, ask fewer questions :)”
Unfortunately, soon after I discovered this trove of online conversations and tweeted about it, the site was locked and emptied of all presence of Strelkov’s postings. His profile page is still there, though. Indeed, I found it highly intriguing that someone who is fighting a real war by day would have the time to take part in a simulated (low-tech) online war at night. That is, unless the in-game communication was part of a disguised out-of-game communication with the “overlords”. There were indeed many postings by Strelkov that could have had dual use, such as “I ran out of ammo for the machine guns, please send some more“. Sadly, now that the site is locked , we will never be able to know the truth on that.
Anyway, this was all that we knew about Girkin until yesterday. Then came the announcement that the Russian branch of Anonymous had hacked into his email and published a few extracts that fill in a lot of gaps in his life, and promise to fill in more in future leaks. Here is a summary of what else we know now.
In one email, Girkin makes a self-introduction to someone. “Anonymous” have redacted the identity of that someone, but Girkin begins by saying “now that I know everything about you as I delved without your permission into our files, it is only fair that you know a bit more about me too”. From his focus on historical reenactment it appears this is a reenactment partner (or whatever they call each other there). Here’s what he shares with us:
- “Strelkov” was originally his secret military alias. Later he adopted the same alias for his literary and “gaming” lives.
- He graduated in Moscow as a “historical archivist”, but never worked as one and moved into the “traditional for my family military sphere”.
- He fought as a volunteer in the Transnistria secession war (1992), in Bosnia (1992-1993), and in Chechnya (“under a contract” in 1995).
- From 1996 onwards he served as an officer at FSB (the former KGB). He says he worked for the FSB until “March of this year”,
but as the email is undated we cannot be sure which year that is. (Yet, it is a very recent year, as it is the year in which he went into military retirement – typically not earlier than 40, in Russia)Today Anonymous published a new batch of emails, which show that Girkin worked for FSB until early 2013.
- In the 1999-2005 period, he was almost permanently dislocated in Chechnya. There he was wounded several times and received medals of honor for that.
- Due to staff cutbacks, he was sent into reserve as a Colonel.
- “Currently” (as of mid-2013) he was organizing the retirement paperwork, and as of the spring of the said year became Chief of Security of Marshall Capital, one of Russia’s largest investment funds, controlling, among others, Rostelecom. Anonymous published several corporate emails between Girkin and colleagues, showing Girkin organized security for Marshall Capital’s billionaire owner Konstantin Malofeev’s US visit in September 2013.
- Twice divorced, the latest time – 5 years ago. Children live with mother(s), he doesn’t see them often, but sends them money.
- He got obsessed with historical military reenactment during his student years.
Another email is less private but potentially more important for understanding what Russia’s role in Ukraine has been. This time the mail is dated : March 10th, 2014. It’s a letter to Girkin, from some other Igor (possibly Igor Bezlov, of the fame of this phone-call where he instructed Slovyansk rebels how to kidnap local MP Rybak, and bring him to him blindfolded – later the MP was found dead)
The letter reads:
“On Monday at 10:00 an Auto-Euromaidan convoy will be coming from Odessa. We edpect it will merge with other convoys and will try to peacefully enter into Sevastopol. We expect up to 1000 cars, that means 4000 persons, part of them women and most likely children. They will try to organize a corridor for the army and create chaos, as they did in Kiev. All of this will be video-streamed. Prepare molotov cocktails for the cars and as many people as possible, so they can’t get through. And be careful, these monsters are ready to kill their own kind for the PR and propaganda. Do not under any conditions let them merge with the Tatars. Possibly some of them will have weapons and shields; take away everything that may be used by them….currently in Odessa and in the region in our units there is active work on repairing shields; we have even taken out some boxes from the 60s. “
A further stash of emails sheds light on Girkin’s role in recruitment and advising for Russian mercenaries in the Slavonic Corps in the war in Syria. I will address these in a future post.
UPDATE: the newly hacked emails, released by Anonymous International, show that – in his own words – Girkin worked for the Russian FSB between 1996 and early 2013, when he retired. Thus it becomes increasingly unlikely that his posting in Crimea is of his own Napoleonic initiative, and suggests an active linkage between him and FSB/GRU today.
UPDATE 2: I re-read my records of Girkin’s posts on the war-game site. Interestingly, in all of them he promises his gaming buddies to be back in Moscow “by early June”. Note that he wrote this in March and April, when he was in active combat in Slovyansk and surrounded by Ukrainian army. Thus his “return plans” may be just his wishful thinking, or it may suggest a very specific end-game and timeline planned by his Moscow overlords, that may yet unfold before our eyes. Any ideas on what this may mean, please feel free to use the comment box below.