Ex-Separatist Leader Launches Party Aimed at Restoring Russia’s Empire

MOSCOW- Igor Girkin, a former commander and self-declared defense minister of Ukraine’s separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, has officially announced the creation of an ultra-nationalist, irredentist political party known as the Russian National Movement.

A former FSB colonel and veteran of several post-Soviet wars, Girkin rose to prominence in the early stages of Ukraine’s war in its eastern Donbass region.

Known for his stridently anti-Western rhetoric and Russian chauvinism, Girkin said his movement would join with other like-minded nationalist political groups to create a party that would reassert Moscow’s authority over its former imperial dominions.

The movement held its first party congress in Moscow on May 28 where it unveiled a political platform that aims to restore Russia’s imperial glory.

"The lands where Russians live, which are soaked in the blood of the Russian people, have the right to become a part of Russia. We will unite the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Belarus and other historical Russian lands into a single all-Russian superstate and transform the entire territory of the former Soviet Union into an unconditional Russian sphere of influence," the party’s manifesto says.

Through his press officer, Girkin said the Russian National Movement fully rejects President Vladimir Putin’s regime and calls for an end to the current climate of fear and intimidation of Russia's citizens.

In addition to opposing the policies of the Kremlin – which they see as too lenient, liberal and Western-influenced – Girkin’s party has called for a strict quota system for migrant workers from the former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus and the cancelling of laws on internet control.

The creation of a new ultranationalist party comes several months after Girkin hinted he was looking into entering politics. In October 2015, he said that he planned to create a party that would oppose Putin’s government and “respond to the Western fascist threat that Russia faces today."

Crimea Involvement

Girkin, who rose to international prominence under his nom de guerre Strelkov (or “Shooter”) as the commander of pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, played a key role in the invasion of the Crimea Peninsula.

He organized, trained and eventually commanding the self-styled Crimean defense forces in the lead-up to Russia’s annexation of the strategic Black Sea region.

He has since been identified by a former Crimean separatist as having commanded the FSB's special forces units that trained pro-Russian volunteers, which were used to ensure the Kremlin's takeover of Crimea and later took part in military operations in various parts of eastern Ukraine.

According to an interview that Girkin gave to Russian media in January 2015, support for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea was far from universal and required the use of his volunteer units and regular Russian forces to ensure the result the Kremlin desired.

"The overwhelming national support for our self-defense units, as portrayed by the Russian media, was complete fiction. We had to use those defense units to force the (Crimean) deputies to vote (to join Russia),” Girkin said in the interview.

Staunch Russian Nationalist

A 45-year-old Moscow native, Girkin is a historical military re-enactment enthusiast and battle-hardened veteran who fought in several of the brutal wars that broke out in the former Soviet republics and Balkans in the 1990s.

Described as a staunch Russian nationalist, he has written for right-wing Russian newspaper Zavtra - run by anti-Semitic Russian nationalist Alexander Prokhanov - since the mid-1990s. While he was a regular contributor to the paper, he met and later collaborated with future separatist political leader, Alexander Borodai.

Girkin has also been a frequent contributor to the Abkhazian Network News Agency, a Russian-language publication that supports Abkhaz separatism in Georgia.

According to his personal diaries that were leaked in 2014, Girkin fought on the side of pro-Russian separatists in Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region in early 1992.

Later that year he travelled with hundreds of other Russians to the Balkans to fight for Serbian ultranationalists in the 1992-95 Bosnian War. According to Bosnian media, he and his Russian volunteer unit took part in a 1992 massacre of hundreds of Bosnian civilians in Visegrad.

He later served as an FSB colonel from 1996-2014, including a seven-year deployment to Chechnya from 1999-2005. Russian human rights group Memorial has accused Girkin of taking part in the forced disappearance of dozens of Chechen civilians.

Memorial alleges that Girkin was responsible for the abduction and murder of Chechen residents in the war-torn republic's Vedensky District while he served with the 45th Guards Detached Spetsnaz Brigade, a special-forces paratrooper unit.

Girkin was quoted in Russian ultranationalist media saying, "The people (Chechens) we captured and questioned almost always disappeared without a trace after we were done with them."

Commander of DNR Forces

At the time of the Crimean crisis, Girkin reportedly resigned from the FSB and presented himself as an official emissary of the Kremlin to the pro-Russian leader of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov.

Once the seizure of the region was complete, he and his trained units travelled to Ukraine’s eastern city of Donetsk to take part in the capture of the region’s government buildings.

Girkin later established his headquarters in the separatist stronghold Slavyansk, a drab Soviet industrial town of 120,000 located two hours northwest of Donetsk.

His takeover of Slavyansk and nearby Kramatorsk quickly descended into an organized reign of terror as he enacted harsh Stalin-era military laws that included curfews, summary executions and kidnappings as well as the torture of pro-Ukrainian activists and arrest of Western journalists.

Girkin, himself, admitted in January to ordering the execution of several civilians who were convicted by ad-hoc military courts.

"Under the military legislation, we tried and executed those who we convicted," Girkin told Russia's Komsomolskaya Pravda. "

While I was in Slavyansk, four people were executed. Two of them were from the militia and one was a local that we shot for looting. Another civilian was executed for killing a serviceman."

Girkin later admitted that one of the executed individuals was a pro-Kiev activist and supporter of the Ukrainian nationalist group, Pravy Sektor.


Nearly three months after Slavyansk became the heart of darkness of the pro-Russian separatist movement, Ukraine’s beleaguered military slowly began to gain ground against Girkin’s forces.

They eventually recaptured the city in July 2014 and forced Girkin to retreat to Donetsk.

His defeat at Slavyansk and the subsequent shoot down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014, ushered in Girkin’s rapid fall from grace.

Almost immediately after the plane disappeared from radar contact, Girkin boasted on his Vkontakte social networking page that his troops had downed a large plane. He later deleted the post once it became apparent that his forces had shot down a passenger aircraft, killing all 298 people on board.

He was abruptly removed from command by Moscow officials in August 2014. The FSB had allegedly grown impatient with the attention caused by the downing of MH17.

Girkin has repeatedly accused the Kremlin’s special envoy to the rebel republics and close Putin confident, Vladislav Surkov, of ordering his dismissal.

The separatists’ political leader, Borodai, claimed Girkin had to be gagged and handcuffed before he was put on a military transport back to Moscow.

Political Future

Since his return to Russia, Girkin has been a vocal critic of the Kremlin’s handling of the war in the Donbass. He has consistently criticized the Russian government’s decision to abstain from major combat operations in an attempt to freeze the conflict.

With the establishment of a political party, many inside and outside of Russia, worry that Girkin may be able to translate his near-mythical popularity amongst Russian ultranationalists and those who believe in re-establishing the country as an empire into a formidable political movement with a powerful mandate.

By Nicholas Waller

02 June 2016 07:08