The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Vladimir Putin’s New Alter Ego Is Igor Strelkov

Placeholder while article actions load

Amid the carnage of war in Ukraine, one man appears to feel grimly vindicated, if not quite happy about how things have turned out — the man who played an outsize role in starting the conflict in 2014, Igor Girkin, also known as Strelkov.

Few people are hated as much in Ukraine as Strelkov (I’ll use his nom-de-guerre throughout, since he prefers it to his real name). In April 2014, after Ukraine’s provisional government said it would send troops to put down pro-Russian revolts in eastern Ukraine, Strelkov crossed the border from Russia with about 50 men and wreaked enough havoc to pull the Russian military into a conflict that Vladimir Putin initially was reluctant to enter. He almost got Putin to do in 2014 what he is doing now, but Strelkov received no thanks from the Kremlin, was marginalized and became — so it seemed — little more than a bitter fringe figure. 

The conventional wisdom saw Putin as a wily, modern strongman more interested in self-preservation and the enrichment of his clique than in any kind of ideology. By contrast, Strelkov was a romantic believer in a version of the Russian Empire that has never really existed outside of nostalgic pseudo-historical literature. Putin pursued a bureaucratic, then a political, career and consolidated power while Strelkov reconstructed historical battles as a hobby and fought as a volunteer in Transnistria and the former Yugoslavia. And yet in 2022, Putin is so besotted with history that he can talk of little else; to a large extent, he’s come around to Strelkov’s worldview, ditching his cynicism and pragmatism for a kind of murderous idealism.

“I have written more than once that the president is ‘sitting on two chairs that are gradually moving apart under his butt’,” Strelkov wrote recently on his Telegram channel.The chairs were a patriotic state ideology, represented by all kinds of military and civilian officials, and a ‘liberal-oligarchic’ economic model. Your humble servant has also cautioned that, while one could be comfortable sitting like that before the Crimea events, it was no longer sustainable, and the president would have to choose a chair — or fall down in between. And now — incredibly late, but still — the choice has been made.

Indeed, Putin appears to be past caring about the open economy he maintained for the first 21 years of his rule. He certainly cares little about the fortunes of the wealthiest Russians, or about the effect of unprecedented Western sanctions on everyone in Russia, from his closest friends to millions of ordinary workers. He’s no longer listening to “systemic liberals” around him, the architects of Russia’s relative oil-fueled prosperity that underpinned Putin’s popular support. The recent headlong emigration of a key “syslib,” Anatoly Chubais, a man to whom Putin in large part owes his rise, is a sign that this group no longer has a place in Putin’s system of power.

This metamorphosis makes Strelkov’s utterances a rare window on what Putin might do next as he continues his spiritual and intellectual journey toward the loony edge Strelkov has always inhabited — a journey that ends when the two become indistinguishable.

When Strelkov’s tiny group of fighters, funded apparently by the wealthy nationalist Konstantin Malofeev, took control of the Ukrainian town of Slavyansk in 2014, it became a magnet for local separatists, like-minded Russian volunteers and out-of-uniform soldiers acting as mercenaries. Strelkov quickly rose to “defense minister” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, commanding a substantial ragtag force. As the regular Ukrainian army caught its stride and pushed back against Strelkov’s fighters, the Russian resorted to the tactic that serves the Ukrainians well in the current conflict: He led the rebel army into the city of Donetsk, where street-by-street urban combat would have been too costly for the Ukrainians. Then Putin reluctantly sent Russian troops to support the separatists — their defeat would have undermined the popular euphoria that gave him his best-ever poll numbers after the Crimea annexation.

Strelkov, however, was too uncompromisingly odious a figure for Putin to support or even tolerate. He was ousted as “minister” in Aug. 2014, as Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov became “curator” of the separatist “people’s republics,” with a brief to make them as self-reliant as possible, and thus less costly for Russia. Putin appeared to be interested in minimizing all kinds of costs, including foreign policy ones; he wanted a deal with the West, and he got one in the form of the Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015, brokered by the leaders of Germany and France.

“The biggest tragedy for the residents of Donbas is that the founding referenda of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s republics weren’t immediately recognized by Russia like Crimea’s referendum,” Strelkov told an interviewer at the time, complaining that the Kremlin didn’t share his enthusiasm for further military action. “They never thought their uprising would lead to an outcome as disgraceful as the Minsk agreements.”

Eight years later, Putin gave up on Minsk and recognized the “people’s republics,” as if Strelkov’s pleas have only just reached his ears.

The time lapse in following Strelkov’s advice appears to be hurting Vladimir the invader. The former “defense minister,” for example, never would have advised the Russian dictator to go into Ukraine as blithely as he’s done: He knew from his remaining sources in the separatist statelets that Ukrainians were much better prepared to resist now than they were eight years ago. Thus his often sarcastic criticism of Russia’s invasion planning. Responding to the Russian General Staff’s recent assertion that Russia never planned to storm big Ukrainian cities, Strelkov wrote:

Agreed: They just planned to occupy them — Kharkov, Chernihiv, Kyiv, the whole list. The occupation didn’t quite work out, but they really didn’t plan to storm — and so didn’t pull together the necessary forces.

What would Strelkov do differently? Firstly, give up the official pretense of a “special military operation” and start using the word “war.” No more talk of “demilitarization and denazification.” Instead, an existential war to the death. This framing, Strelkov’s thinking goes, would allow a mobilization of the much more numerous military force needed to conquer and hold Ukraine. He would withdraw official recognition from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his government as a whole, declaring them fair game. He would pull out all the stops to achieve total victory, because the only alternative to it is an equally total defeat. Strelkov has suggested that Putin would arrive at the same conclusions by his usual circuitous route — just as he arrived at the inevitability of the February invasion.

If there’s any kind of logic to Putin’s recent actions, after all, it’s the warped logic of Strelkov, the empire-or-death logic. Theirs is now a kinship of war criminals: Strelkov is wanted by the Dutch authorities for his alleged role in the 2014 downing of a Malaysian passenger airliner over eastern Ukraine, and Putin will never be safe from prosecution for the near-complete destruction of Ukrainian cities such as Mariupol and Volnovakha. If Putin loses the war, Strelkov’s relative safety in Moscow will end, too. For the former “defense minister,” defeat is no abstract notion — it’s an existential threat. That applies to Putin, too.

As I read Strelkov’s impassioned commentary from the sidelines, I wish I’d paid more attention to his ramblings earlier. I wish I’d noticed the clear connection between his ideas and Putin’s increasing history obsession, between Strelkov’s insistence that the very name “Ukraine” be stamped out and replaced with Malorossia — Little Russia — and Putin’s contempt for Ukrainians as a people. If I’d noticed how close the two men’s beliefs had grown, I wouldn’t have misjudged Putin’s determination to wreck two countries — the neighboring one and his own, my own — in the name of an apocryphal reading of history. I fear there’s no going back for the dictator now: He has to go where Strelkov has been waiting for him all these years. And even if there are seeming victories along the way, this road leads toward the bitterest defeat.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin. He was previously Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. He recently authored a Russian translation of George Orwell’s “1984.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

Loading...