Igor Strelkov, the pro-Russian rebel leader who reportedly may have taken credit on social media for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, is a mysterious figure who casts a frightening shadow as he plays a central role in the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine.
The New York Times described Strelkov as a “shadowy rebel” who wields an “iron fist” in its July 10 report about the rebel leader. He had reportedly ordered the execution of a 30-year-old man for stealing a pair of pants and two shirts from an empty house in a rebel-controlled town. In the execution order, according to the Times, Streklov wrote that crimes “committed in the zone of military activity will continue to be punished ruthlessly.”
In press reports, which are limited, Strelkov has been described as a devout Russian nationalist with a “messianic” personality. He was born Igor Girkin in 1970 and was raised in Moscow, the Austrailan Broadcasting Company reported.
“Strelkov is almost a caricature of the Putin era,” one Russia expert, Mark Galeotti, told the Times. He worked in the past at the Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate, according to ABC. The Times reported that he supported a return of the Russian monarchy while he was a student at the Moscow State Institute for History and Archives.
He joined the pro-Russian rebels when they seized Crimea earlier this year and then moved to eastern Ukraine, where he asserted his control of the separatist forces in Donetsk earlier this month after they suffered a defeat by the Ukrainian military, according to the Times.
On Thursday, a profile on Russia’s version of Facebook attributed to Strelkov allegedly posted a cryptic message: “We did warn you — do not fly in our skies” and took credit for shooting down a plane. The message was posted about the same time that Flight 17 went down. The post was quickly deleted and the rebels told reporters that it was a fake profile “made by fans” of Strelkov.
Ukrainian officials have pointed to the post as evidence that the rebels are responsible for the crash. They have also alleged prior to Thursday’s events that Strelkov was still a Russian intelligence agent, according to the Times, though the Russian government has disavowed any links and even denied his existence.
The picture of Strelkov’s personality painted by the press reports portrays a possibly delusional man who takes part in historical reenactments of well-known Russian military victories and believes Russian President Vladimir Putin has not gone far enough in helping the rebels annex territory in eastern Ukraine.
“It used to be a fantasy world for people like him, but now they have a realm for their imaginations,” a former adviser to Putin told the New Yorker this week.
According to the Times, which cited Strelkov’s 1999 memoirs of fighting in Bosnia, the man himself described war with a characteristic fervor.
“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.’”