Igor Strelkov: Mysterious Russian who led Ukraine rebels

An alleged Russian intelligence colonel with an obsession for reenacting historical battles, Igor Strelkov, who quit as a key rebel chief on Thursday, was a driving force behind the brutal pro-Moscow insurgency tearing apart east Ukraine.

AFP| Last Updated: Aug 15, 2014, 00:26 AM IST

Kiev: An alleged Russian intelligence colonel with an obsession for reenacting historical battles, Igor Strelkov, who quit as a key rebel chief on Thursday, was a driving force behind the brutal pro-Moscow insurgency tearing apart east Ukraine.
The Russian citizen -- whose real name is Igor Girkin -- is a fierce nationalist and Orthodox Christian believer who reportedly honed his skills fighting in conflicts from Bosnia to Moldova`s breakaway territory of Transdniestr and Chechnya, before helping Moscow seize Ukraine`s Crimea peninsula in March.

Normally dressed in military fatigues with a pencil moustache and a wave of oily hair, the secretive commander, 43, was accused of overseeing what the United Nations described as a "reign of fear and intimidation" across rebel-held areas that involved the abduction, torture and even murder of opponents.

Kiev claimed he was a serving officer in Russia`s military GRU intelligence agency, while he said he stepped down last year as an officer in the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Soviet KGB.

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Given the titles of defence minister and commander-in-chief by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People`s Republic in eastern Ukraine, Strelkov -- the nom de guerre means "shooter" in Russian -- was accused by Kiev of being a terrorist and placed on sanctions lists by the European Union and United States.

He was linked to the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 when posts from a social networking site claiming to be his bragged about downing a military plane, but he later denied his forces attacked the passenger jet.

To his fighters, Strelkov became a cult figure -- officiating at wedding ceremonies, minting medals for them and staring down with his hooded eyes from recruitment posters around the insurgent-held stronghold of Donetsk.

Pictures of Strelkov -- reportedly born in Moscow -- appeared on the Internet showing him dressed up in historical costumes re-enacting famous Russian battles from the Second World War and the campaign against Napoleon.

A puritanical self-disciplinarian, he also banned his fighters from alcohol and swearing, saying it "spiritually demeans us and will lead our army to defeat", according to documents posted on rebel websites.

Strelkov portrayed the fight in east Ukraine as a cataclysmic battle not just against the "fascist" authorities in Kiev but also to help Russia regain its rightful place in the world.

"Every man must make a choice for himself. If he is a man, he must be prepared to defend his Motherland," he said in an interview with the rebels` television channel.

But despite allegations he had direct backing from the Kremlin, he increasingly lashed out at Moscow for not sending in more support, as his forces ceded town after town in the face of a government onslaught.

"If Russia does not provide direct military aid, then the out-of-control Junta will certainly employ the full arsenal of forces and means at its disposal," he said in the interview. "They have resolved to destroy Donbass to the core."