Colonel Igor Girkin, in Video, Laments Failure of Ukrainians to Rally to His Secessionist Uprising

The Russian armed forces colonel commanding eastern Ukraine’s secessionist militias can’t recruit enough local men as fighters, and that doesn’t make him happy.  Igor Girkin has been away from his family and his apartment in Moscow for months now, leading a small force of volunteers fighting first in Crimea and now in Donetsk province, he says, to liberate his fellow Russians from the “Nazi threat” posed by Ukraine’s government. But to his surprise and disgust, he says in a video posted May 17, his fellow ethnic Russians in Donetsk are not rising up to join him in returning the region to its rightful place under Russian rule.

In a nearly nine-minute video recorded in a spare office with a paper-strewn desk and a local map hung on the wall, Girkin – using his nom de guerre Igor Strelkov (Igor “the Shooter”) – berates the men of Donetsk province for refusing to fight. Because of their cowardice, he says, he has no choice but to humiliate them by publicly inviting the women of Donetsk province to take roles in the liberation of eastern Ukraine that properly belong to real men.

“This video is one more sign that the Russian effort to destabilize eastern Ukraine is losing steam,” said the director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, former US ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst.

In the video, Girkin, who was announced Friday as the “defense minister” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” proclaimed by the separatists, sits at a desk in his camouflage uniform with no insignia other than the pro-Russian ribbon of St. George tied to his left sleeve. Reading from a statement, he is frustrated and even petulant. “I am going to say things you may not like, things that will insult your dignity,” he says to the people of Donetsk, “but they must be said.”

“When I was in Crimea [during Russia’s invasion in February and March] I was told that the Donetsk miners would rise up, they’d tear people apart with their bare hands,”  Girkin says. “But now hundreds of thousands are calmly sitting in the comfort of their homes watching events unfold on television while drinking beer, waiting for an army from Russia to come and do your fighting.”

The few local men who have joined his militia are those aged over forty who were raised in Soviet times, and there is a complete absence of youth in his rebel ranks, Girkin says. “Where are the young people?” he asks, “Maybe in the gangs that are currently robbing, looting and wreaking havoc in the province?”

Girkin contrasts the indolence of Donetsk men with his own force. “A small group of volunteers from Russia and Ukraine answered the call of your leaders for help,” he says. “We came here more than a month ago and are now resisting the entire Ukrainian army by ourselves. All this time we’ve heard calls [from Donetsk residents] – ‘Give us weapons so we can fight for our right to read and speak in our native Russian, the right to honor our ancestors of the great patriotic war, and not the henchmen of Nazi criminals.’”

But in a province of 4.5 million people, Girkin laments, he can’t find 1,000 volunteers to defend this “noble mission.”

Evoking Ukraine’s origins in the medieval state, Kyivan Rus, Girkin says Donetsk’s men have failed to fulfill the historic Russian tenet that “protecting your freedom was an honorable endeavor by those who considered themselves honorable men.” Then he completes his scripted humiliation of Donetsk’s males by announcing that, as they have failed to step up, he must now invite women as recruits to the cause. “It is too bad there are no women officers,” he said, but strong, committed women can be trained, “while those scared men sitting at home like frightened sparrows will never be officers in our eyes.”

The video (which was recorded by at least two cameras and posted in slightly varied versions on Youtube) is Girkin’s first public statement since he was proclaimed defense minister in the secessionists’ attempt at forming a government. Girkin began his campaign firmly undercover as Igor Strelkov until late April, when Ukraine’s intelligence agency published his real name, his position as colonel in the Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU by its Russian officials) and his home address in Moscow.  Since then, various news organizations, most recently Reuters, have sent reporters to visit his Moscow apartment and confirm with neighbors that the man leading Ukraine’s secessionist guerrilla war is a Russian army officer. Last week, his official spokeswoman at his headquarters in the city of Slaviansk, Stella Khorosheva, confirmed that her boss Strelkov “has rich military experience” in the Soviet and Russian armies “and holds the rank of colonel.” She neither confirmed nor denied that his real name is Girkin, telling Reuters simply that “his aides do not know if he has any other names.”

In the video, Girkin says his guerrilla forces does not lack for weapons. “We took them from the Ukrainian police and army, and purchased them from underground arms dealers for huge sums of money,” he says. This arsenal is centered around Slaviansk and the nearby towns of Kramatorsk and Konstantynivka – “liberated cities,” he calls them – in the north of Donetsk province.

The Ukrainian army has deployed its largest force in the conflict to encircle these cities, Girkin says. The enemy is demoralized but still strong, because Ukraine’s government is supported by wealthy business magnates. “Those of you who hear me and want to protect your native land, join us,” he urges. “Our commanders will form units and train you. The units may be small, but we will win because God and truth are with us.”

Irena Chalupa covers Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the Atlantic Council.