Russians detain their own former spy chief on route to front line

·2-min read
Igor Girkin
Igor Girkin

A former Russian spy who led rebels in Ukraine's Donetsk region in 2014 has been detained after attempting to join the front line of the Kremlin’s war.

Igor Girkin, also called Igor Strelkov, decided to sign up after growing frustrated with the slow progress of the conflict.

Photos on social media show a clean-shaved Mr Girkin without his trademark moustache in an apparent attempt to travel in disguise to the battle near Kherson, southern Ukraine.

His Russian nationalist supporter Alexander Zhuchkovsky said that Mr Girkin had been detained by Russian forces in Crimea as he headed to the front line near Kherson, southern Ukraine.

"Strelkov is a man with vast military experience," he said."It is a great political crime that such a person cannot get to the front."

Mr Girkin gained a cult following among hardcore Russian nationalists in 2014 after he led rebel forces in Donetsk. He styled himself as an officer of the Russian Imperial army, striding around, barking orders and chain-smoking.

Igor Girkin fake passport
Igor Girkin fake passport

He also imposed an unforgiving form of martial law, ordering looters to be shot by firing squad. Ukrainian officials have accused Mr Girkin of shooting dead prisoners.

Analysts said that Mr Girkin, a former FSB colonel, travelled to Donetsk in 2014 as a freelance nationalist fighter and that his charisma and know-how propelled him into the leadership.

For a few months the Kremlin tolerated Mr Girkin's leadership in Donetsk but after rebel fighters shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 on July 7 2014, killing 298 people, they ditched him.

Most of the people killed on Flight 17 were Dutch and in 2019, Dutch prosecutors charged Mr Girkin with murder. The Russian authorities have ignored the arrest warrant.

His face is puffy

In the past few years, Mr Girkin has been spotted on the Moscow Metro cutting a forlorn figure. Now aged 51, his face is puffy, his hair grey and his moustache has lost its sharpness.

But the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine in February rejuvenated Mr Girkin who has established himself as a military analyst on the Telegram social media channel.

Mr Girkin supports the invasion of Ukraine but he has criticised the Kremlin for not committing itself fully and ordering a full mobilisation.

He also used Telegram to deny that he had tried to join a front-line unit.

"Sooner or later I will certainly be at the front (this war, as I warned in advance, will be long and difficult). But not right now," Mr Girkin told his 426,000 followers.