DONETSK, Ukraine — Just over a week ago, Igor Strelkov, the key commander for separatist militia forces in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), was keeping an eye on several battles, both military and political. Strelkov was an experienced military officer, a former commander of the Russian special forces during the Chechen war in 2001; but here in Ukraine his rebel units were mostly made up of unprofessional fighters losing checkpoint after checkpoint to quickly advancing and constantly shelling troops from the Donetsk Ukrainia Anti-Terror Operation Forces sent by Kiev.
There was still no sign of the Russian army arriving to help Strelkov, who had already lost his previous stronghold, Sloviansk, earlier in the month.
And then—bodies began to fall from the sky. An anti-aircraft missile almost certainly fired by some of Strelkov’s men had reached six miles up to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, and suddenly Strelkov found himself not only the leader of a rebellion but denounced as a possible war criminal.
The time had come for the insurgent colonel to roll out his main argument for more support: Losing this war on the territory that President Vladimir Putin personally named Novorossiya (New Russia) would threaten the Kremlin’s power and, personally, the power of the president.
An article published by Strelkov’s adviser, Igor Druz, on Wednesday laid out the case that Putin, today, is facing the same choice that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych faced a few months ago: either send in the army and win control over the territories of Novorossiya in eastern Ukraine—or lose his presidency. “I hope that the Ukrainian tragedy will neither become the tragedy of Russia nor the personal tragedy of Putin,” wrote Strelkov’s adviser.
Ukrainian authorities insist that, in fact, Russian heavy weapons already are deployed and Russian personnel already are fighting in Donbass, as eastern Ukraine is known. The Ukrainian authorities say it was the Kremlin, specifically Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu, that has coordinated all of Strelkov’s actions.
“We have proved beyond a doubt that Strelkov and other terrorist leaders are equipped with the most destructive weapons and instructed directly by Shoygu,” Anton Gerashchenko, adviser to the Ministry of Interior Affairs, told The Daily Beast. “Shoygu would not dare to send the Grad system, tanks, APCs, and other weapons to Donbass unless Putin approved of it.”
The Ukrainian Ministry of Interior Affairs reported that as soon as the rebels managed to punch holes in the Ukrainian border in May, Strelkov’s forces received all the weapons they needed, including mortars, RPGs, APCs, tanks, and rocket launching systems.
All that hardware wasn’t free, according to Strelkov. His army, he claimed, had to purchase its arsenal for “a fabulous sum of money.” Apparently, to win the war, Strelkov also needed more professional fighters to use that newfound arsenal. His irregular forces were made up of local men in their late 30s or 40s, and volunteers from Russia and the Caucasus with little to no combat experience. He still required men who knew how to operate heavy weapons such as, say, surface-to-air missile batteries.
In Strelkov’s recent video posted online, he said he “could never have imagined” that of the more than 4.6 million people living in the Donetsk region, only about 1,000 volunteers were willing to join his rebel army to defend Novorossiya: “We can see anything but crowds of volunteers outside our gate,” admitted Strelkov, whose nom de guerre means “gunman” and whose real surname is Girkin.
To Kiev, Strelkov-Girkin is its most wanted terrorist; to the Donbass rebels—a hero and an idol. “He is not too tall but handsome, stout with a military poise, sometimes too serious—he is a true ideologue, one of very few in the DPR; he has a chess player’s brain, brilliant for battle plans,” is how a deputy of the self-proclaimed DPR parliament, Claudia Kulbatsky, described Strelkov to The Daily Beast on Thursday.
Col. Strelkov has admitted that he only quit working with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in May 2013. Since earlier this year, “DPR Defense Minister Strelkov” has become the dominant authority among the rebels, especially those who lived and fought with him under Ukrainian mortar fire in Sloviansk earlier this summer.
“Victory means a chance to return home to Sloviansk, which is now occupied by the Ukrainians; we are going to be with Strelkov through the worst,” said Denis, 31, a rebel working for Strelkov’s personal security forces, as he guarded me at their main headquarters in the old Ukraine SBU (security service) prison.
Several reporters detained last week had a chance to talk with our interrogators, and we asked for permission to place a call to the republic’s prime minister, Alexander Borodai. The rebels just laughed at us: “Borodai, is he still alive?” one of them joked. Strelkov, he said, is the only one who makes crucial decisions in Donbass.
Strelkov’s mission in Ukraine, whoever gave it to him, has been bigger than just the defense of the DPR. He claims to be defending Putin’s reputation and power in Russia, too. In an interview with The Daily Beast on Thursday, Druz, the Strelkov adviser, spoke of the importance of the Russians coming to Donbass to prevent a revolution like Kiev’s Maidan from spreading to Moscow.
“Putin’s popularity is fading away, since nobody has stopped the slaughter of the Russians in Donbass," Druz said. “The president’s approval rating is much lower in Moscow and St. Petersburg than in the provinces. As we know, [past] revolutions—both the French and October—took place in the capitals; unfortunately, we cannot exclude the possibility of attempts to mount Maidan-type protests in Moscow,” Druz said. “For now Russia mostly sends us information and humanitarian help,” he added, when what the rebels need to defend Russian interests is “significant military support.”
Dangerous talk, certainly. As anyone who knows Putin is aware, Russia’s president does not take kindly to threats. If Strelkov pushes too far, he could find himself a lone gunman in a very lonely war.