Was Russian Commander in Eastern Ukraine Involved in Crimes Against Civilians in Chechnya?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 99

Russian commander Igor Strelkov (Source: therussiantimes.com)

Russia’s official position on the current conflict in eastern Ukraine has been seen as especially hypocritical, given its own treatment of secessionist efforts of Chechnya. While Moscow supports and promotes ethnic-Russian separatism in Ukraine, in the North Caucasus it brutally suppressed persistent attempts of the Chechens to secede from the Russian Federation in the 1990s and 2000s. At a May 24 press conference with the foreign media, President Vladimir Putin reiterated his support for the right for self-determination of nations (https://www.kremlin.ru/news/21090). Once again, the Russian leader pointed to Kosovo’s secession as justification for the annexation of Crimea, even though Kosovo was an example of actual secession, while the annexation of Crimea was a thinly disguised territorial grab. Last December, Putin signed into law new legislation that envisages imprisonment of up to five years for individuals who publicly call for secession from Russia (https://www.gazeta.ru/social/news/2013/12/29/n_5851929.shtml).

Meanwhile, the connections between Crimea and Chechnya took an unexpected turn when the Memorial human rights center’s well-known expert on Chechnya, Alexander Cherkasov, said that the notorious Russian militant commander in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, Igor Strelkov, may have committed crimes against civilians in Chechnya during Russia’s second post-Soviet military campaign there.

Forty-four-year-old Igor Strelkov (a.k.a. Igor Girkin) has been involved in the upheaval in the Donetsk region since the middle of April 2014. Almost from the start, observers identified him as an officer who was part of the airborne forces’ 45th reconnaissance regiment that operated around the village of Khatuni in Chechnya’s Vedeno district in 2001. The officer was known for involvement in the forcible disappearances of residents of the Chechen Republic. However, the surname “Strelkov” could have been a pseudonym or a call sign that was used by different people for undercover operations.

Cherkassov wrote in his blog on Radio Ekho Moskvy’s website that dozens of people were detained by the Russian military in the vicinity of the villages of Khatuni, Makhkety and Tevzeni in 2001 and subsequently disappeared. Memorial has information about four incidents of forcible disappearances near the village of Khatuni involving a person by the name of “Strelkov.” Six people disappeared in those incidents. Three years later, two sisters of one of the people who disappeared became terrorists. One of the sisters blew herself up on an airliner, killing 42 people while the other participated in the hostage taking of the school in the city of Beslan in North Ossetia in 2004 (https://www.echo.msk.ru/blog/shalommani/1324504-echo/).

In an interview with the Russian state TV channel Rossiya, Igor Strelkov denied that he was a member of the Russian security services and asserted that he was only helping the people of Donetsk “to have free expression of [their] will” (https://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=1529830). According to other reports, Strelkov is a colorful person with a variety of interests and deep expert knowledge in non-conventional warfare. In 2013, Strelkov was spotted on several occasions speaking publicly about suppressing the rebel forces in Syria. In February, he went to Crimea to help pave the way for Russia’s annexation of the peninsula. The Ukrainian security services assert that Strelkov is an officer of the Russian military intelligence service, the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) (https://podrobnosti.ua/analytics/2014/04/28/973431.html). However, other Russian experts identify Strelkov not as a GRU officer but as an officer of the second department of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which is responsible for combating international terrorism (https://www.bbc.co.uk/russian/international/2014/04/140430_ukraine_donetsk_pushilin_moscow.shtml).

The connections between Chechnya and the events in eastern Ukraine did not stop there. On May 25, Ramzan Kadyrov informed the world via his beloved way of communication—Instagram—that the two Russian journalists from the Lifenews web portal, Oleg Sidyakin and Marat Saichenko, were released from Ukrainian captivity. Kadyrov’s people held secret talks with the Ukrainian authorities in Kyiv to secure the release of the Russian journalists. To drive the point home, the journalists were flown on Kadyrov’s airplane to Grozny, where they stayed overnight before traveling on to Moscow (https://lenta.ru/news/2014/05/25/lifenews/). The Ukrainian authorities stated that even though the government had strong evidence implicating Sidyakin and Saichenko in terrorist activities, Kyiv respected the calls by officials of the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to release them. Officials in Kyiv denied the rumors that there had been an exchange of prisoners or that a ransom had been paid for the Russian journalists (https://www.unian.net/politics/921671-v-sbu-obyyasnili-pochemu-otpustili-jurnalistov-lifenews-kotoryie-soprovojdali-terroristov.html).

However, shortly before the release of Russian journalists, one of the major Russian TV channels, NTV, reported that both separatists in Donetsk and Ukrainian authorities considered exchanging the Russian journalists for captured Ukrainian servicemen (https://www.ntv.ru/novosti/984238). After a video showing the Chechen-manned Vostok battalion in Donetsk was revealed on May 25 (https://youtu.be/vNjHwHWugKY), the version that Chechen commanders brokered the exchange of the detained Russian journalists for Ukrainian servicemen appeared to be quite plausible.

The latest developments confirm Moscow’s tactics in eastern Ukraine will be tied to the extensive experience of Russian forces in human rights violations in Chechnya. While Kadyrov will apparently enjoy ever-greater support from Vladimir Putin for services rendered, eastern Ukraine is unlikely to revel in its quick transformation into a Chechnya-like zone of lawlessness.