Igor Girkin was one of three convicted of murder over the MH17 attack and is the elusive figure behind Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine

Igor Girkin was one of three convicted of murder over the MH17 attack and is the elusive figure behind Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine

Updated: 2 months, 13 days, 15 hours, 27 minutes, 7 seconds ago

In 2014, a Russian spy-turned-soldier who went by the nom de guerre Igor Strelkov crept into the Ukrainian city of Sloviansk with a rag-tag team of masked militants.

Just 55 men with a daring plan was all it took to change the world. 

They seized control of government buildings, including the police station, and grabbed 400 handguns and 20 automatic rifles. 

The rebels and their supporters raised a Russian flag over the city and barricaded the streets with stacks of tires and huge tangles of barbed wire.

Sloviansk was no longer Ukrainian, they declared. 

Instead, they claimed they were part of the Donetsk People's Republic, and Igor Strelkov their "supreme commander". 

Ukrainian government forces had no doubt the astonishingly slick operation was backed by the Kremlin.

They fought fiercely to recapture the city, living in fear that Russia would use the operation as a prelude to full-scale invasion. 

As the weeks dragged on, the siege began to spiral out of control. 

Rebels took activists hostage, blindfolded them, and paraded them through the streets. 

A journalist was abducted and held in a cellar for weeks. 

A local politician was found in a river on the city's outskirts, his body in such a shocking state that authorities concluded he'd been "tortured to death". 

But after nearly three months of relentless bombing from Ukrainian forces, the Russian separatists — including Strelkov — bolted from the city. 

The "Russian Spring", as Strelkov dubbed it, was a total failure because the Kremlin never sent in troops to support him. 

But still, the Russian commander said it was his audacious move that "pressed the launching trigger", unleashing eight years of war, bloodshed and misery in Ukraine. 

"Practically, the flywheel of war which lasts until now was launched by our squad. And I bear a personal responsibility for what is happening there," he boasted. 

Two weeks after he was chased out of Sloviansk, Strelkov would trigger another devastating international incident, killing 298 innocent people, including 27 Australians. 

Wanted by Interpol, with a $US100,000 ($149,000) bounty on his head, the man who calls himself Igor Strelkov has been on the run ever since. 

The real Igor 

Strelkov means "shooter" or "rifleman" in Russian. This is, of course, not Igor's real name.

Little is known of his past, except that he was born Igor Girkin in Moscow in 1970.

But as a veteran of the Soviet and Russian armies, he swiftly earned himself yet another moniker: Igor the Terrible.

He volunteered to fight for Russia in the breakaway region of Chechnya.

While he was there, six Chechens mysteriously disappeared from their homes, and witnesses say a Russian officer going by the name Strelkov was responsible.

"The people we captured and questioned almost always disappeared without trace, without court, after we were done," he wrote to a friend in a leaked email of his activities in Chechnya.

He also stands accused of taking part in the massacre of Muslims in the Bosian town of Visegrad, which left at least 3,000 men dead.

He has never addressed the allegations that he took part in ethnic cleansing, but wrote in a self-published memoir that it was in Bosnia where he became addicted to war.

"After the first euphoria — we're alive! — came the sensation familiar to most professional fighters: the desire to risk it again, to live a 'full' life," he wrote.

"It's the so-called 'gunpowder poisoning syndrome.'"

At some point, Girkin was likely recruited by the FSB, the successor to the fearsome Soviet-era intelligence service, the KGB.

His leaked emails suggest he served as a covert officer in the organisation's shadowy counter-terrorism unit for 18 years.

Those who knew him say he nurtured a lifelong obsession with Russia's imperial past, and was hell-bent on restoring a Czarist empire. 

"Strelkov is almost a caricature of the Putin era," Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services, told the New York Times in 2014. 

As the years went by, his fixation with Ukraine grew.

Like President Vladimir Putin, he believed that Ukrainians are in fact Russians, and their lands rightfully belong to Moscow.

In early 2014, Girkin took part in Putin's illegal annexation of Crimea.

The southernmost tip of Ukraine had been the object of the Russian strongman's obsession for decades. 

But when Putin failed to push further east, Girkin became frustrated.

"He crossed the Rubicon, but then stopped unexpectedly and illogically," Girkin later said of Putin's decision to stop with Crimea.

"He didn't retreat, but didn't go forward either. He has no ideas and seems to be waiting for a miracle. He's stuck in the middle of a swamp."

With or without the Kremlin's approval, Girkin decided to forge ahead with his band of 54 militants.

The downing of MH17

By the summer of 2014, Girkin was commanding separatist forces in the city of Donetsk, as self-declared "defence minister" of the so-called People's Republic.

Having retreated from Sloviansk, his forces were determined to hold on to their grip over the Donbas. 

As Ukrainian troops closed in on the regional capital, Girkin sent word back to the Kremlin that his rebel group needed more weaponry and boots on the ground to stop the advance.

According to investigators, Girkin worked together with Sergey Dubinskiy and Leonid Kharchenko to transfer a BUK missile launcher across the Russian border and into a field in eastern Ukraine.

Their plan? To shoot down Ukrainian war planes.

But on July 17, the surface-to-air missile brought down a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet, killing all 298 people on board.

When the plane went down, Girkin posted a statement on VKontakte, Russia's version of Facebook, seemingly taking responsibility for the attack.

"We warned them not to fly in 'our sky," he wrote in a post that was later deleted.

Girkin has since maintained that his rebels had nothing to do with shooting down MH17.

Instead he has hinted at a debunked conspiracy suggesting it was a false flag operation by Ukrainian authorities, while refraining from debate about Russian military involvement.

"What I think I will keep for myself. If I live for another 20 years, [you can] wait for my memoirs," he told The Insider in 2017.

Investigators concluded the missile in question had come from Russia's 53rd anti-aircraft brigade based in Kursk, and uncovered evidence that Girkin and his men had been directly involved in returning the BUK back to Russia.

Moscow has continued to deny any involvement or responsibility for the incident, as well as any presence in Ukraine at the time, but judges overseeing the criminal trial in The Hague concluded there was "no reasonable doubt" a Russian missile system was to blame.

In the eyes of the Netherlands and Australia, all roads lead back to Russia.

"Separatists had direction from Russia, Russia supplied weapons, training, money and the missile which downed the plane," Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said this week.

In handing down life sentences for the three men directly involved, the presiding judge was unequivocal.

"Only the most severe punishment is fitting to retaliate for what the suspects have done, which has caused so much suffering to so many victims and so many surviving relatives," Hendrik Steenhuis told the courtroom, where none of the guilty parties ever stepped foot.

Since the trial began, Girkin has accepted some responsibility.

"In as much as I was the commander of the rebels and a participant in the conflict, I feel a moral responsibility for these deaths," Girkin told The Times in 2020, again insisting that the separatist forces under his command "did not bring down the plane".

When pushed further as to whether this was an admission that the Russian military was to blame, he said: "People can interpret this as they like."

From the safety of Moscow, Girkin taunts Ukraine

A month after the downing of MH17, Girkin was pulled out of eastern Ukraine on orders from the Kremlin. 

He was publicly portrayed as a valiant war hero. 

But insiders suggest the peacocking commander, who went everywhere with hulking bodyguards and a pistol attached to his hip with a vintage wooden holster, had simply become too much of a loose cannon for Putin.

Other than a one-sentence post on his website, the Russian leader has never displayed sympathy for the victims of MH17 or their bereft families. 

But the international incident drew far too much attention to his menacing of Ukraine, and Girkin was promptly dispatched back to Moscow.

An extensive investigation by Bellingcat suggests Girkin was granted a passport with yet another new identity — Sergey Runov — so he could travel freely and elude an Interpol warrant for his arrest.

But for the most part, Girkin stayed put in Russia, setting up a YouTube channel so that he could air his ultra-nationalist views and lob verbal grenades at Putin.

He was eventually put on the Kremlin's secretive "stop list", which unofficially barred him from appearing on state television.

"I'm an inconvenient figure for them, they don't know what to do with me: am I a hero or a terrorist?" he told the Guardian.

In 2019, the Netherlands announced plans to try him and three others for the murders of those on board MH17.

He may have been a thorn in Putin's side, but the Russian leader declined to hand him over for prosecution. 

Despite being a wanted man whose only chance of staying out of prison depended on the favour of the Kremlin, he continued to taunt Putin online. 

He threatened to create his own neo-imperialist political party that "fully rejects President Vladimir Putin's regime" and would unite "the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Belarus, and other Russian lands into a single all-Russian state".

If Putin would not create an "unconditional zone of Russian influence", Girkin would do it himself. 

But this year, Putin finally made his move. 

He launched the full-scale invasion of Girkin's dreams, and Russian troops marched over the Ukrainian border.

The spy-turned-warlord turns on Putin

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, Girkin has emerged as arguably one of the country's most prominent pro-war bloggers, continuing to post scathing attacks of Putin and the Kremlin online.

"Don't EXPECT ANY BIG WINS in the next 2-3 months," Girkin wrote in a Telegram post on Putin's campaign in August.

"If our Kremlin elders do not change their tactics, we will be seeing catastrophic defeats by then."

He has also joined Yevgeny Prighozin and other Kremlin allies in condemning Sergei Shoigu, suggesting the defence ministry and its leader have made "an invaluable and huge contribution to the fact that we are now on the verge of a military-political catastrophe".

Nationalist war bloggers like Girkin likely operate with "tacit" approval from security forces, according to some analysts, allowing them some leeway in a country known for cracking down hard on public dissent.

But there are signs that Girkin's antagonism of Putin has taken a toll, with the nationalist reportedly strapped for cash and driven to sell a gold medal he was awarded in 2014 for his role in the occupation of the Crimea Peninsula.

Reports from inside Ukraine earlier this year suggested that the self-described war addict may have tried to get back on the battlefield.

In August, a photo of a solemn-faced, shaven Girkin was posted on Telegram, suggesting he'd been detained in Crimea by Russian authorities as he attempted to slip into Ukraine to fight in Kherson.

And when his Telegram channel fell silent earlier this month, there was speculation over where he was.

It soon emerged that Girkin may have been sent to Ukraine, with his wife Myroslava Reginska sharing a photo of the former "defence minister" in military fatigues on his channel and the man himself later posting a short statement: "Since October 14, 2022, I am in the active army."

His whereabouts remain a mystery, but the suggestion that he could be back in Ukraine prompted local intelligence services to put a $US100,000 bounty on his head for anyone who captured him.  

Even Ukrainian tennis star Sergiy Stakhovsky said he'd be happy to contribute cash to the reward. 

Adding weight to the theory Girkin may be taking on a bigger role in the war effort in Ukraine are reports he has linked up with Prighozin, the man known as Putin's chef and head of the mercenary Wagner Group, to recruit a "volunteer battalion".

The decision to pair up appears to be a mutually beneficial one, with Russian military bloggers noting that while it has long been Girkin's ambition to head up his own force again, a lack of supplies and other bureaucratic restrictions have long thwarted his efforts.

In return, Prigozhin, who is able to operate outside of the defence ministry's direct supervision, will likely have access to a large nationalist constituency to support his goals.

Meanwhile, Girkin told Ukrainian journalist Dmytro Hordon that he does sometimes think about the 298 people who died on board MH17. 

"I am not such an insensitive person that I am completely cold," he said in 2020.

He said he doesn't expect to live a long time, and like all "believers" he fears God's judgement.

"There are things in my life that I am ashamed of and regret," he admitted.

The families of those who died in that field in eastern Ukraine now have a verdict.

But with Girkin and his accomplices at large and refusing to emerge, they are still denied justice. 

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