The face now of the pro-Russian separtists in Eastern Ukraine is 43-year-old Igor Strelkov. The Russian media fell in love with Strelkov this April, when his armed group took control of the town of Slavyansk, escalating the conflict from a war of nerves into an actual full-fledged war. And Strelkov has become a fixture in the Western media too ever since pro-Russian separatists shot down Malaysian Flight 17. Western journalists and commentators, from the New York Times to the State Department, glean facts from Strelkov’s page on the Russian social-media network “VKontakte.” That’s where the message about the downed Ukrainian military transport plane first appeared: “We warned them not to fly in ‘our sky.’”
But in fact, Strelkov does not run the social media pages that generate these quotes. He never has. Since April, he has only published his messages on an Internet forum dedicated to the antique trade, http://forum-antikvariat.ru. He writes under the username “Kotych” (“Cat”). Others then take Strelkov’s messages and copy them on to Facebook, VKontakte, and Livejournal. Some of these pages are maintained by Strelkov’s sincere fans. Others are run by Ukrainian activists, still others just by pranksters. As a result, it can sometimes be difficult to divine authentic quotes from fabrications. For example, “Strelkov” once ordered his subordinate Cossacks to dress less provocatively in order to avoid provoking sexual desire among gay Caucasians. The virtual “Strelkov” also ordered the troops to lay down their arms and to leave for Russia in civilian clothes. Amazingly, even after four months of war, most Russian journalists have not learned to tell the real Strelkov from the impostors, and now this mistake has crossed the ocean and spread through the American media.
But why does Strelkov communicate with his fans through an antiquing forum in the first place? It’s very simple: for many years, this forum has been his main online refuge. Before he became a military star in Ukraine, Strelkov was already a star among war reenactors. These men arm themselves with old weapons, dress in military uniforms, and gather in deserted places to act out long-ago battles. Strelkov “the cat” particularly loves the 1918-1920 battles of the Russian civil war, where he usually plays the role of a White Guard officer. Essentially, he is now playing the same role in Ukraine: his haircut, his mustache, his manners, and even his military tactics are almost all copied from images of White Guard officers in Soviet films.
One of Strelkov’s idols is the White Guard general Mikhail Drozdovsky, killed in a battle with the Bolshevik army in the south of Russia in 1919. While Strelkov’s soldiers held on to Slavyansk, the entrance to the city was decorated with an enormous banner blending allusions to the “Drozdovites” with images from the film “300.” Another fun fact: When Strelkov rewarded his fighters with St. George’s Crosses (the main award given to soldiers in czarist Russia), he thanked on the antique forum a friend who runs a Moscow antique shop for providing him with authentic crosses for free. It is unclear if Strelkov has any real military experience: He is said to have fought in Chechnya, though that is unconfirmed.
They say that real actors dream of playing the greatest roles in real life beyond the confines of the stage. This may also the dream of war reenactors who play at battle while fantasizing about the real thing. What had once been a game for Strelkov has now become a real war, with real deaths, real shootouts, and real assaults. If Putin does not want to become a sponsor of international terrorism in front of the whole world, he will have to do all he can to stop Strelkov. The Ukrainians think this is very simple: Putin orders Strelkov to return to Moscow, and the Donbass is at peace. To me, this does not seem very realistic: I doubt Strelkov would take orders from Putin.
I met Strelkov in Crimea in February, several hours after the “polite people” in unmarked Russian military uniforms took control of key points of the peninsula. I didn’t know his first or last name—only one and a half months later, after seeing him on television, did I realize I had been speaking with Strelkov—but I observed his role as an emissary from Moscow when he accompanied Crimea’s new Prime Minister, Sergei Aksenov. Dressed in a dark green civilian suit that somewhat resembled a military uniform, Strelkov led the negotiations between Aksenov and the Ukrainian seamen who were to give themselves up to the Russian side. Russian naval officers also took part in these talks, and next to them Strelkov looked like a real diplomat, clever and subtle. The Russian officers insisted on negotiating from a position of power: “if you don’t surrender, we’ll destroy you.” But Strelkov preferred to speak of an officer’s honor and an officer’s oath, which he respects. It was precisely this tactic that led Ukrainian Admiral Denis Berezovsky, now serving in the Russian navy as deputy commander of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, to be one of the first to come over to the Russian side.
During these negotiations, I got to talking with Strelkov’s bodyguard, a former special services soldier from Moscow. This soldier was quite sociable, and even told me Strelkov's first name and patronymic, Igor Ivanovich. But even he didn’t seem to know which Russian security agencies Strelkov was representing in Crimea. Volunteers from the Crimean people’s militia, loyal to Moscow, told me that Strelkov was in the GRU—Russian military intelligence. The Russian officers, in turn, thought that Strelkov probably worked for the FSB.
Through all the years of Putin’s rule, Russian politics had become a dull play, with fictitious political parties and a Parliament in Putin's pocket. Political journalists were forced to write day after day about meaningless initiatives and empty statements. Everything changed when the Ukrainian crisis began: For the first time in many years, there was an epic drama involving imperial ambitions, business interests, history, geopolitics, and warfare. Reenactor Igor Strelkov became the main hero of this drama. He has, perhaps, more fans in Russia now than any politician of the older generation, of whom the Russian television viewer has long grown weary. The Russian journalist Andrei Arkhangelsky conducted a special study of Russian talk radio stations and has come to the conclusion that Strelkov’s name is mentioned even more frequently than Putin’s. Arkhangelsky even speaks of a “Strelkov generation” that has come to replace the “Putin generation”—but this is an exaggeration. Putin needed Strelkov in order to rattle the new Ukrainian authorities. Thanks to him, part of the Ukrainian territory has remained volatile, and this has allowed Putin to claim that Kiev is not in control, that Ukraine’s revolution is a dead end.
But now that Strelkov is suspected of international terrorism, Putin will not need him much longer. Probably in the coming days, Vladimir Putin will do everything possible to get rid of an ally who has become a deadly danger, whose war games now force Putin to make midnight phone calls to Western leaders and to publically justify himself in a way unheard of in Putin’s Russia.