The insurgency in east Ukraine took a strange turn earlier this week when a car pulled up alongside Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the mayor of Slavyansk. Men pulled Ponomarev into the car and sped away with him. The strange, self-appointed mayor of Slavyasnk—a transportation hub in eastern Ukraine—had been arrested.
“The so-called people’s mayor Ponomarev has been dismissed,” Igor Strelkov, the de facto military leader of Ukraine’s insurgency, stated via Facebook. Why was he removed? “For engaging in activities incompatible with the goals and tasks of the civil administration.”
Some media in the region—such as Kyiv Post—reported that Strelkov gave the order. Some following the crisis in Ukraine—including The Guardian and the blog Open Democracy—speculated that the arrest represents a move by Strelkov to consolidate power in the region.
It’s possible that Strelkov arrested Ponomarev on trumped-up charges in order to easily dispose of a political rival.
But just who is Igor Strelkov? Well, that depends on who you ask. But two things are certain. He’s not from Ukraine and he loves to dress up and play soldier.
The main insurgent group in eastern Ukraine is the Donetsk People’s Republic—and Strelkov is its military commander. He’s in the back row of the above photo.
Strelkov claims he came to the Ukraine on his own initiative to fight what he describes as a tyrannical junta in Kiev. He gathered an irregular volunteer militia around him in Crimea and got to work keeping the fires of conflict burning.
Strelkov is a fascinating figure. He’s a complete media whore who’s given dozens of interviews to various media outlets. He’s also a fan of social media, often taking to Facebook or Russia’s VK social network to deliver pronouncements … and post pictures of all the cool toys Russia sends him.
He also loves history. He loves history so much that he frequently participated in various re-enactments, complete with full military costume. He’s a fan of any conflict involving Russia.
Pictures we pulled from Russian social media site VK.com show Strelkov dressed as a White Guard from the early days of the Russian Civil War. He also posed as part of the World War II era Soviet Army.
He’s not afraid to go old-school, however, as evidenced by his Roman Legionnaire’s costume.
Add to this the dozens of historical papers he’s written and his pre-Ukraine career as a military consultant to Russian news agencies and it’s clear that Strelkov is a big ol’ war nerd.
But Strelkov is also dangerous.
His past is hazy and warped by misinformation. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. For one thing, Strelkov probably isn’t his real name. Ukrainian intelligence says that Strelkov is actually a man named Igor Girkin.
He was born in Moscow in 1970 and he is—at the very least—a reserve colonel in the Russian military.
Back in April, Ukraine’s TSN news agency went to Strelkov’s Moscow address and spoke with his neighbors. When showed pictures of Strelkov, they said they knew him, but as Girkin. He was supposedly mild-mannered and pleasant.
So why the name change? Well, Strelkov translates to “rifleman” in English. Igor Rifleman is a lot more badass than Igor Girkin. The soldiers he controls call him “Strelok,” meaning “the shooter.”
Strelkov likes taking control of his personal narrative. He keeps a diary, a portion of which he’s published as Bosnian Diary, under the pseudonym “Igor G.”
Bosnian Diary tells the story Strelkov’s service in the Russian military while deployed in Bosnia in the early ’90s. Strelkov also served in Transnistria and both Chechen campaigns. After that—as best as anyone can guess—he took to writing and commentary for Russian news agencies.
But as unrest came to Ukraine. Strelkov saw his chance to become the hero he’d always pretended to be.
Strelkov leading a militia through the streets of Donetsk. Strelkov arresting other separatists leaders. Strelkov showing the world pictures of the equipment Moscow sends him. Strelkov the war nerd. Strelkov the memoirist. Strelkov the killer.
A man Ukrainian intelligence claims works for GRU—Russian military intelligence. A man that hackers believe once worked for FSB—Moscow’s successor to the infamous KGB. A man surrounded by so many conflicting stories, it’s impossible to tell what’s real.
Only this is certain. Strelkov, or Girkin or Strelok or whatever the Hell he’s calling himself these days does look quite dashing in the uniform of the White Guard.