Why is Igor Girkin still alive?

by | 11 Jun 2022 | Opinion

We all love Igor Girkin’s doom updates on the war in Ukraine. His overviews are surprisingly critical, precise, and realistic.

Yet, why is he allowed to speak like that, given the existence of well-known cases where Russian people are sentenced to prison for simply coming out with anti-war banners or posting critique of authorities on social media? Frankly, Igor is not just speaking – every few days he publishes hours-long videos giving recaps of the frontline situation and often criticising members of the Russian military high command for their failures. He also runs a telegram channel with daily updates, similarly not shy of expressing criticisms. Given the vastness of his audience, this appears to make no sense, and leave us guessing as to what are his real intentions.

8 things you should know about Igor Girkin, the Ukraine separatist leader | The World from PRX

Igor Girkin in Donbas, 2014

I’ve tried to get an understanding of Girkin’s persona by looking for opinions of him from various individuals, mostly Russian opposition heavyweights currently in exile. As I found, the answer to Girkin’s mysterious openness turned out a bit simpler than expected with most commentators agreeing on the main thesis, only diverging in their supporting opinions.

One influential journalist, known for daily broadcasts with Ukraine’s Presidential Office staff member Aleksey Arestovych, Mark Feygin gives the following overview of Girkin’s persona:

Regarding Girkin, he is a FSB Lt. Colonel. Yes, he is not enlisted, he is not active, he’s in reserves, that’s a different question, but he undoubtedly goes to Lubyanka (FSB main headquarters in Moscow) to his direct curators – every agent, whether former or active has a responsible person they are connected to. Of course, he can say things… but he can only be scolded after the fact, he understands what he’s dealing with so he’ll never cross the red line. Everything he says in one way or another is valuable and needed for someone inside the security service, inside the FSB.

 

Even when he attacks Putin, and he appears to be an anti-Putinist, which he is pretending to be in my view, it is still needed for insider operative goals and objectives… For some time he was pulling in certain audience which he then snitched on – they were creating the 25 January committee *of ultranationalists*. It is entirely possible that some things he says come from his heart and that he says all the alarmist speeches based on his own opinions, but again if it crossed what’s allowed he would have already stopped this whole public activity.

So, Girkin is a former FSB Colonel, and as they say in the post-Soviet space, there are no former security service employees. All the individuals whose opinions I explored agree that Girkin still has direct contacts with the security service despite not being one of its existing staff members. As a former FSB officer, today Girkin acts as a “repeater” – that is expressing opinions of a certain circle within the security services – an alternative opinion to the mainstream propaganda, if I may say. Representatives of these services in the highest echelons of power in Russia are the individuals loyal to the regime such as the FSB director Bortnikov and the security council secretary Patrushev – the officials whom their junior colleague Girkin never criticises directly, though he does point at the incompetency of intelligence occasionally as well. Girkin’s protection from repressions comes from these very people and his organisation.

Here is Viktor Yagun – a Ukrainian representative of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), General Major of SBU, with his opinion on Girkin:

Look, in reality, he *Girkin* is a “repeater” – there is such a term in the security services, it’s a person who doesn’t speak their own mind, or their thoughts coincide with what they’re offered to voice. Thus, he is practically voicing certain things that are used to release steam for a specific category of Russian citizens. These citizens belong to ultra radical structures with imperial ambitions “…” Girkin did not join FSB immediately, he fought in Transnistria, Balkan Wars, that’s where he was noticed by the FSB and recruited in 1994-95. As an ex secret service operative he got into the system where… there’s a category of secret servicemen who realistically assess the situation and certainly do not support the moves which are currently being undertaken by the authorities.

 

“..” These are definitely not lovers of Ukraine… but they say the army is not ready and there will be serious consequences for the army and Russia. This category of people are now trying to play these contradictions and through Girkin all these things are being voiced. That’s one thing. Another thing is that in any situation they can say – if you say we have no alternative opinions, here it is – we have Girkin who can let himself say the things that are completely unacceptable. He speaks, and nothing happens to him…

Being a monarchist, an imperialist and generally a war criminal, aside from FSB Girkin also represents a category of individuals directly interested in “restoring historical justice” for Russia – very often these are radical personalities such as Colonel Kvachkov, General Ivashov and other soviet-imperialistic fascists who do not consider Ukraine being an independent state. In reality, this category is quite widespread in Russia and enjoys extensive popular support, however it had been shifted away from the foregrounds of the Russian politics in favour of more presentable personalities with whom the West can have a conversation without a rancid aftertaste in the mouth.

Being one of the “repeaters” for this group, Girkin does not let the steam of societal pressure to accumulate: one will read or listen to Girkin, think he is right, only to go back to their daily life believing that surely someone must be looking into this situation if Girkin is aware. There are no doubts that many of the security services officers are inclined to support this radical imperialistic point of view, making motives of both groups concentrate on Girkin.

Russian political analyst Andrey Piontkovskyi points that while Girkin’s view appears to be quite radical, it’s perhaps not even that far from what’s being portrayed on the Russian state TV:

He’s a war criminal, and a total scumbag. You must remember how the so-called Russian Spring has started – with kidnapping of a deputy of the Horlivka City Council Vladimir Rybak who was brutally tortured for several days, and later his body was found in a river with his stomach cut open. Organising this crime were two Russian Army Colonels – Bezler, who organised the kidnapping, and Girkin – in his headquarters in Sloviansk Rybak was tortured.

 

“…” He’s allowed to say these things because Putin must take into account opinions of the ultra-patriotic bloc. Even if you watch these standard TV shows with Skabeyeva and Solovyev – often you hear similar discussions – why are we still not striking Kyiv, the presidential administration, why are we not destroying the Western weapons in NATO countries? So this “mad party” exists, it seems to be influential, and the same people responsible for the informational agenda, they seem forced to consider the opinion of this party.

Kidnaping and assassination of Volodymyr Rybak: terrorists have cruelly dealt with a member of Horlivka City Council - Open Dialogue Foundation

Volodymyr Rybak, Horlivka City Council

Also, it is important to note that despite his unusually radical critique of the authorities Girkin not only avoids slamming the influential individuals within the security services, but also never criticises the very idea of the so called special operation – he wants the situation in the army to improve to achieve the success of destroying Ukraine as a state, while the corrupted military representatives such as “Plywood Marshall” Shoygu (who in fact does not actually decide anything on the battlefield) are in the way of this. Thus, his critique becomes an alternative to the victorious propaganda which can be fed to the TV-watching zombies but doesn’t work for the layers of the Russian society that are resistant to it.

Mark Feygin adds: 

What Girkin says is a position of the special services in relation to this special operation – “It’s not our fault, it’s the military’s fault! Let’s attack Shoygu, let him be the scapegoat”. When in fact the main person responsible is Putin, obviously it was him who was making the decision about the operation, not Shoygu. Yet I have not heard from Girkin saying anything bad about Bortnikov, about Patrushev, only about Putin himself, but very carefully – the critique is that he didn’t capture enough of Ukraine.

 

As for the others? Yes, total corruption, incapable and unskilled team. Which is true! Yet the other question is, does that change anything in general? He’s an imperialist, a supporter of the invasion of Ukraine, but his critique is that the command should have been better and then we would have already conquered Ukraine. Asking a question of “Why do you need Ukraine in the first place?” is too much. He has protectors, he’s allowed to say these things.

As for personal motivation, I wouldn’t be brushing off Girkin’s past either – he is not just a repeater but also an experienced military man and a “true patriot” of Russia. He is not simply repeating like a parrot everything that’s fed to him from above, but has his own opinions which often coincide with opinions of his superiors. Igor Girkin truly believes in what he’s doing. To a certain extent, he is probably risking with his speeches, though as an experienced agent he likely knows the lines he shouldn’t be crossing.

What does Girkin himself say? In late May, Igor Girkin published on his telegram channel a note explaining why he is not going to stop with his critique of the authorities:

1. I am intending to continue expressing and writing everything that I consider necessary and correct, and deny any external censorship of my words and recordings (except for self-censorship which I employ continuously).

2. Everything I’m writing and saying is not intended to create and support my own popularity, but using the only method available to me to draw the attention (by forming public opinion) to actions of the authorities that may lead Russian Federation to a DEFEAT IN THE WAR. To force the authorities to improve on these actions as much as possible. Additionally, I’m providing recommendations for appropriate actions that will contribute to the victory in the war if they are correctly and consistently applied by responsible and strong-willed actors. Cowardice, irresponsibility, corruption, outright theft, looting, and outright sabotage will be recorded and exposed to the extent that I consider it useful for the above purposes and not harmful for the cause of a VICTORY IN THE WAR.

3. Attempting to affect me with threats is useless. As the only option to stop my public activity during the military actions (apart from of course coercive and violent, within or outside the law) – is my conscription to the active military service according to the mobilisation order which will give to me all the responsibilities of a senior FSB officer, involved with observing the military and civilian discipline.

I am also ready, in order to share their fate with my comrades-in-arms in Russian AF and DPR AF (regardless of the outcome of the war), to consider any other options of a partial or complete cessation of my public activity in case where I’m offered other options of being used in the frontline or in the near rear of the military theatre that are worthy and appropriate to my age, combat experience and service qualifications.

It is almost as if Girkin knows nothing is going to happen to him, and he is not hiding his FSB connections either. His note does not contradict anything we’ve said earlier though he doesn’t allude directly to insider knowledge and any current involvement with the FSB. Indeed, publicly he only mentions his connections in DPR as his main sources of intelligence. But replace Girkin with anyone from the intelligence services and his critique would still make sense.

We can presume that certain groups within the Russian authorities, for whom Girkin acts as a mouthpiece, are capable of assessing the situation in Ukraine objectively. While the Russian official stance may be presenting Russia as continuously victorious (for the wide internal public) and seemingly unaware/non-caring of its own failures, surely the secret services with all the access to all layers of the Russian society and military command are fully aware about the real state of affairs on the frontlines. With this much data, Girkin can say a lot.

Knowing this, can we believe and should we continue listening to Girkin? In my opinion – yes, if we pay attention at the ultimate goal of his assessments which is improving positions of the Russian Armed Forces in this war, rather than supporting Ukraine (obviously!). Is Girkin genuine with his words? Most of the time, yes, though I prefer paying more attention to his assessment of the battlefield rather than his opinions, which appear to be fed from above sometimes.

Yet the man took part in many military engagements for Russia, has access to security service intelligence in addition to contacts within DPR ranks, so his data is more likely reliable than not. His critique might be beneficial for Ukrainian fighting spirit but announcing these failures in an attempt to improve the situation simply doesn’t work separately from boosting the enemy’s morale. We can take him seriously if we consider his real motivations and filter out the imperialistic spew. Plus, it makes for a fun read.

 

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