Among the hundreds of anonymous rioters in Donetsk and Luhansk there are, in fact, a few names that jump out at you. Far from hiding behind balaclavas, they push their mugs onto YouTube. And while they claim to be a “people’s home guard” in Ukraine, as it happens just about all of them come from Russia. Who are these people taking hostages, killing local residents and fighting with the soldiers of the Ukrainian army, turning peaceful life in the Eastern regions into the bloody mess that it is today?
One of the best known is Ihor Girkin, or Hirkin, a.k.a. Strelkov, or Strielkov, or Strielok, which translates very roughly as “Rifleman.” He was was born in Moscow and by some accounts holds the rank of colonel in the reserve of the Russian GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate). Other sources give him a considerable demotion. According to Hennadi Moskal of the Ukrainian police, Girkin is an ex warrant officer in the GRU. His specialty supposedly was fighting international terrorism. But all you can say about that is it takes one to know one.
According to the dossier compiled on Girkin by Ukraine security, his own videos, and many press reports, “Rifleman” participated in several combat operations outside Russia, starting in the early 1990s: firstly, in Transnistria, the separatist enclave in Eastern Moldova supported by Russian army; then in Bosnia, where Russia backed the Serbs; next, in Chechnya’s brutal war. From 2006 to 2010 he visited with Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia on “special missions.”
When Rifleman takes time off from modern wars, it seems he likes to pretend he’s fighting past wars. His passion is military reenactments of great battles. Posted on the Internet ar photos of him dressed up like a Russian Empire White Guard officer, a WWII Soviet soldier and even an Ancient Roman Empire legionary. He Girkin seems to think it’s all a game and now he’s having a little sport in Eastern Ukraine, where he declared himself a Minister of Defense of so-called the Donetsk People’s Republic.
Rifleman’s first Ukrainian mission was in Crimea. A month before Russia occupied the peninsula he went there supposedly to guard the Magi Gifts, sacred objects of the Russian Orthodox Church, sent from their repository on Mount Athos in Greece to Simferopol, in Crimea, as a show of support for the Russian-speaking population. Rifleman reportedly used the trip for reconnaissance and met the leading secessionist there, the gangster (and now prime minister) Sergey Aksyonov.
The height of Girkin’s fame was in Slovyansk, a town in the Donetsk region. There he and several Russian mercenaries headed a small group of armed terrorists (mostly natives) paralyzing local authorities and killing everybody who tried to resist them. They provided armed support for the so-called referendum about independence for the Donetsk People’s Republic and after that formed a self-declared government.
Girkin was in a very optimistic mood earlier this month, as he hoped for a Russian army invasion, but that didn’t happen and looks like it won’t, and with the Ukrainian army’s anti-terrorist operations picking up pace, Girkin’s tone has grown decidedly angry.
“We obtained weapons, seized them at depots, took them away from Ukrainian army and police, purchased them from dealers for unthinkable money and what do we see? Nobody wants to fight together with us!” he ranted in a pretty revealing speech. “Where are these 20,000 volunteers that journalists wrote about? Only people who are 40-plus years old with a USSR education support us, but where are the youth? If men don’t come out to fight I will order to call up women.”
“He lives in an imaginary world, where he is on side of of good,” says Russian political operative Marat Guelman, “and suddenly it turned out that there is no good side and looting flourishes among his supporters, who use his ‘heroism’ as a cover.” A deputy of the Dniepropetrovsk governor put it even more bluntly: “The idealistic motivations of a Russian fascist were undermined when his subordinates decided to pillage jewelry stores and steal cars.”
If Rifleman is rather a tragic character, his ally Alexander “Babay” Mozhayev is more comic. Babay is the Russian equivalent of “bogeyman,” and when you see this robust 37-year-old man with a beard as thick as ZZ Top and a big fur hat, you’ll know why. Babay is a poorly educated bumpkin from the Russian provinces. When Moscow started Crimea annexation he came to the peninsula, because, as he said, he was wanted by the Russian police for attempted murder. “I did not have enough money to bribe the judge, so I decided to become a mercenary,” Mozhayev told a local reporter.
After Crimea was occupied, Babay moved to eastern Ukraine, where his peculiar appearance quickly earned him notoriety. He became a recognizable internet meme, designers make posters from his photos (“Hello, Ukrainians, we want to play a game with you,” reads one of the funniest and most ominous.)
Some of the YouTube videos went viral and collected hundreds of thousands views. One of the most revealing is of a local Kramatorsk street show where a woman sings a cover version of an old Soviet song from 1945 as Babay poses beside her, swaying to the music, gun in hand. The original song has the line “Our cossacks are riding in Berlin,” but the woman sings, “Our cossacks are riding in Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.” Russian propaganda loves to pretend that the “liberation” of Ukraine is the same as victory over fascist Germany.
When Babay isn’t dancing he’s killing Ukrainian soldiers and giving interviews for journalists. Russian TV usually present him as a member of the local Slovyansk home guard. Ukrainian authorities presented photos of Baby that supposedly proved he was a Russian agent participating in the Georgia war in 2008. Babay denies this, saying, “I’ve never been in Georgia, even on leave.”
Another odd character in this “Russian Spring” in Ukraine is Aijo Beness. He calls himself a “Black-skinned Russian patriot,” while others call him “Dark Lenin,” because he says he dreams of restoring the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Aijo is a son of a Latvian and a Ugandan and has lived in London in recent years. He is a member of the “Other Russia” party and, he claims, got special training in Palestinian military camps.
Aijo started his Ukrainian adventures in Crimea participating in the occupation of Ukrainian government buildings. The Latvian government deprived him of citizenship for such activity. After that the eccentric activist set out to Eastern Ukraine. People were astonished by his impassioned speeches at separatist meetings. “We must save Ukrainian people from the neo-Nazis who made fools of them,” he’d declare. He called for Ukraine to be annexed by Russia as soon as possible or “Europeans will turn Ukrainians into their slaves.” Recently Aijo was arrested in Latvia by local court for his participation in illegal military squads in Ukraine.
Russian militants continue to percolate through the Ukrainian border, hoping their Kremlin-stoked fantasies will come true. But as each day passes, that begins to look less likely. If, as Moscow insists, Russia really is pulling its troops away from the frontier, it may be because even Russian President Vladimir Putin came to realize his shock troops creating a bloody mess in Ukraine were starting to look like nothing more or less than the bloody fools they are.