In order that ukraine will never again become a threat to Russia—it must COMPLETELY DISAPPEAR AS A STATE. Entirely—even in the context of “autonomy” . . . For Russia’s security the existence of an “independent ukrainian state” is unacceptable in principle . . . Ukraine is part of Russia and must return to the Russian State (whether all of it or most of it—that’s a tactical question). Everyone who opposes this or tries to obstruct it is an enemy. Both without and within. And in wartime enemies are always handled quickly and mercilessly. There is no other way.
Well, what kind of ideology does the Russian Federation have? Before, there was an incoherent but almost tangible “striving towards affluence.” Recently they’ve extruded “Russian patriotism.” The first was more comprehensible, since it was obviously in sight: all the numerous Russian bureaucrats demonstrated it to everyone, hinting (with their openly swinish behavior) how it might actually be achieved. What the second means (in the eyes of VIP bureaucrats) they can’t quite explain to a Russian citizen. Yes, “our grandfathers fought [in World War II]” . . . But Putin & co. aren’t those grandfathers, right? . . . So does this “patriotism” differ all that much from the previous version of “ideology” (“steal, divide, kick back, steal some more”)? What are citizens of Russia supposed to be patriots OF? Russia or a warm circle of parasites who stole fortunes worth billions and stashed their children, property, and loot abroad? If they believe . . . the concept of “Putin” equals the concept of “Russia” (and Russia cannot exist without Putin), then why are the authorities so convinced that people are willing to fight and die for Putin?
It would be easy to imagine these comments as dueling entries in an interminable argument between opponents and supporters of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. In fact they come from adjacent Telegram posts by a single person—and not just any person, but a man who can credibly claim to be, next to Vladimir Putin himself, the single individual most responsible for the outlines of the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia. He is Igor Strelkov, né Girkin, former historical reenactor, secret police agent, and defense minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Washed up for many years after being forced out of the DNR government, Strelkov has recently reappeared as a trenchant critic of the Russian war effort in Ukraine (which he refuses to spell with a capital letter). He does this largely through his pages on Telegram and the Russian social network VKontakte, which regularly feature analytical posts and lengthy video interviews. As one satirical Telegram channel announced1 in April, “Ukrainian television will start showing Strelkov’s streams instead of [Zelensky adviser] Arestovych’s briefings” because “every day Igor Ivanovich talks about the strength of Ukraine’s army and the failure of Russia’s, raising Ukrainian morale.” Putin’s chief TV propagandist Vladimir Soloviev, meanwhile, has blasted him as a traitor, coward, and American agent.
Strelkov’s torrent of well-informed critique has been especially attractive because of the propaganda fog of war that has descended on the region. Russian briefings daily proclaim the destruction of more tanks and drones than Ukraine ever possessed, while Ukrainian sources routinely inflate Russian battlefield casualties; both sides, understandably, avoid mentioning their own losses. Unofficial supporters of each side adhere to slightly looser but still comprehensive standards of message discipline, giving inhabitants of each filter bubble the impression that victory is imminent. Strelkov, though a fervent supporter of his own side, thinks the current method of fighting the war is leading inevitably to Russian capitulation. Only if Russia recognizes that it is engaged in an existential conflict to wipe Ukraine off the face of the earth and carries out a wholesale mobilization for total war does it have any chance of victory. In the meantime, he reports the worst news from the front, excoriating all the manifold failures of Russian strategic and tactical planning. Since official media are constrained by strict military censorship, no commentators of comparable standing have emerged to challenge Strelkov’s niche. If he were just any old sofa strategist, this stance wouldn’t be worth much. But his career has given him such an extensive network of contacts in the Russian war machine, and especially its puppet republics in the Donbass, that some speculate that he is being kept off-leash precisely because he provides reliable information untainted by propaganda yes-men.
Like many post-Soviet careers, Strelkov’s has consisted of a long series of second acts. Other examples abound: Boris Nemtsov, who began as a high-profile power player in the Yeltsin administration, became a member of the parliamentary opposition, and ended his life as an extraparliamentary dissident, which led to his murder in 2015. Maria Baronova became politically active as an oppositionist during the 2011 election protests, later went to work for RT, and recently, after February 24, returned to the ranks of the opposition. Strelkov has never been part of the opposition, but has traveled a path that brought him both to prominence and to the political fringe.
Strelkov was born in 1970, and there are few post-Soviet conflicts in which he has not participated. He served in Transnistria in 1992, in Bosnia from 1992 to ’93, in Chechnya in 1995 and again, this time on the FSB’s payroll, from 1999 to 2005. Alongside his involvement in these present-day wars he has also been an aficionado of historical ones, taking part in reenactments of Napoleon’s invasion in 1812 and World War II (as the leader of a machine gun squad). This all-encompassing obsession with war (he is also a collector of historical weapons and has written memoirs of his experiences in the military) has gone hand-in-hand with an ongoing commitment to a far-right imperial restorationist ideology that centers on Russian national identity. Like many ultranationalists, he regards the current government as a sham—too mired in corruption and self-dealing to truly pursue the cause of Russian national greatness.
Unlike most other Russian nationalists, however, Strelkov has been in a position to implement his political agenda. In the spring of 2013 he left the FSB and became a private individual patronized by the Orthodox nationalist oligarch Konstantin Malofeev. That fall, protests erupted in Kiev, ultimately leading to pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich’s flight to Russia at the end of February 2014. Within a week or two Strelkov was in Crimea as unofficial adviser to the regional head Sergei Aksenov, who was collaborating with the undercover Russian military forces that had begun to occupy the peninsula. On March 16 Aksenov held a referendum declaring Crimea’s independence; two days later he signed an agreement formalizing its annexation by Russia.
Strelkov was already moving on. By early April protesters in eastern Ukraine who opposed the new Maidan regime were beginning to occupy government buildings in hopes of recreating the Crimean annexation, but active military conflict had not yet begun. On the night of April 11 Strelkov crossed the border from Russia with a few dozen men, joined up with local anti-Kiev forces, and captured the city of Slaviansk; when the insurgents began targeting “saboteurs” associated with the neo-Nazi organization Right Sector, the war in Ukraine began. It has not ended since. With a characteristic mixture of arrogance and melodrama, Strelkov has claimed “personal responsibility” for the conflict, arguing that without his intervention events in the Donbass would never have developed into a war. Even if it is not possible to prove conclusively that Strelkov was acting under orders from above, he may be right—in a leaked email sent to a pseudonymous Russian nationalist contact in 2010, he had already sketched out a version of 2014’s events, in which an unauthorized group of “veterans” would recreate the “Transnistrian scenario” in Ukraine and only then trigger official Russian support.
Be that as it may, Strelkov was soon leading the military of the Donetsk People’s Republic. But his moment of glory was to be short-lived. On July 17 separatists under his command, working with Russian anti-air missiles and military personnel, mistook a Malaysian airliner for a Ukrainian military plane and shot it down. Minutes later, Strelkov blasted the news all over social media. His post on VKontakte subsequently became one of the prosecution’s central exhibits during the MH17 trial in The Hague, in which Strelkov was the leading defendant. (He has accepted “moral responsibility” for the downing but not actual responsibility, refusing to stand trial in a court whose jurisdiction he doesn’t acknowledge; he denies that separatists shot down the plane but has explicitly refused to claim Ukraine was responsible.) With the war in the Donbass going badly and Putin increasingly angry with his insubordination, Strelkov was forced out of his command position in mid-August of 2014; the DNR’s military defeat was prevented only by direct Russian intervention later that month, which set up the dynamic for the subsequent course of the war.
Strelkov loathes Putin and especially the circle of his close supporters that makes up the “Ozero Cooperative,” an organization of dacha owners in Karelia established by Putin in 1996 before his rise to power, whose participants have since acquired disproportionate political and economic influence in Russia. Strelkov shares with other far-right figures the belief that Russia’s post-1991 capitalist oligarchy, including the members of Ozero, is interested only in self-enrichment, at the expense of Russia’s reemergence as a great power. Putin’s nationalist slogans, in his view, are insincere and are deployed only to camouflage this agenda. There is a personal element at play here: beyond Strelkov himself, the circle of assorted right-wing activists who drove events in eastern Ukraine in 2014 has since been marginalized and sometimes—as in the case of Strelkov’s friend and ally Arsen “Motorola” Pavlov—physically eliminated. (Strelkov accuses the close Putin ally Vladislav Surkov, who began overseeing the “people’s republics” after his departure, of orchestrating Motorola’s assassination.) More broadly, the goal Strelkov and his supporters shared in 2014 was not a frozen conflict or the building of puppet statelets but the recreation of a historical “Novorossiia” under Russian control that would include not just Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea but also the rest of Russian-speaking Ukraine. Until February 24, it seemed that Putin had betrayed this ideal in the name of craven political expediency, and even now the lack of a full-scale program of mobilization and annexation has convinced Strelkov that Russia will stop short.
Strelkov’s attempt to turn his advocacy for Novorossiia into a political career has not borne fruit, but even prior to February 24 he retained a great deal of notoriety. In 2017 he came up with the idea of holding a televised debate with Alexey Navalny, who agreed to participate. One hundred and fifty thousand people tuned in. Strelkov’s principal accusations against Navalny included not just his betrayal of Russian nationalism (he claimed his opponent “never once referred to [ethnic] Russians, only citizens of the Russian Federation”), but also the claim that Navalny’s economic program was incapable of dismantling the “total system of corruption” that defines Russian life. As one of the moderators put it, “they’ve spent an hour calling each other Putin”: Navalny accused Strelkov of being a tool of Putinist nationalism and Strelkov accused Navalny of being a useful idiot for Putinist oligarchy.
Five years later, Navalny is in prison, his political program in tatters. For Strelkov’s part, only the escalation of the war in February 2022 has rescued him from the eventual oblivion that awaits failed politicians. It has allowed him, finally, to put all his personal experience, ideological intensity, and amateur military expertise to use as an analyst whose insights are eagerly sought-after—but without the weight of the responsibility that he has been so used to claiming and whose consequences he has managed to evade.
On May 4, Strelkov posted a kind of flash-fiction story about what will happen “if nothing changes.” It envisions a near-future scenario in which Ukrainian forces have pushed east of the Russian border cities of Belgorod and Rostov, Polish and Romanian troops have invaded Crimea, and Russian propaganda continues to nevertheless insist that it is winning the war and issue fantastical statements about Ukrainian casualties. This would be the prelude to, as he put it elsewhere, “the unconditional surrender of the Russian Federation and the preparation of the Russian elite for a harsh and unmerciful ‘auto-da-fé’ at the hands of its beloved Western partners,” itself to be followed by civil wars and a sociopolitical collapse that would make the ‘90s look mild in comparison. For Strelkov, the only alternative is “complete victory, which is only achievable now through a total exertion of strength.” But are there really no other options?