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In Ukraine, Separatist Commander 'Strelkov' Seems To Be Getting Frustrated

Self-proclaimed defense minister of the pro-Russian separatist "Donetsk People's Republic" Igor Strelkov (left) delivers a press conference as a fellow fighter looks on in Donetsk in July.
Self-proclaimed defense minister of the pro-Russian separatist "Donetsk People's Republic" Igor Strelkov (left) delivers a press conference as a fellow fighter looks on in Donetsk in July.

The commander of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine was once fond of using social media to boast about his fighters' victories -- large or small -- over Ukraine's military forces.

But as Kyiv has moved to surround the last bastions of rebel control, Igor Girkin, known by his nom-de-guerre, Strelkov, or "Shooter," seems to have soured.

With Moscow placing as many as 20,000 Russian military personnel along the border with eastern Ukraine, but so far resisting his call for a full-scale "peacekeeping" mission, Girkin is now lashing out at his own supporters for the military losses.

In a post on Vkontakte, Russia's most popular social network, the former military reenactor, whom Kyiv accuses of working for Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), announced that Ukrainian forces had taken the strategically important town of Krasnyy Luch.

The self-proclaimed separatist republic of Donetsk is "fully surrounded," Girkin says before tearing into a brigade of pro-Russian Cossacks.

"The Cossacks, keeping with tradition, ran," he says while facetiously congratulating them for recent defeats. "They are awaiting new great achievements. The brilliant Donetsk Cossack battle path has been marked by landmark achievements like [their] surrender of Krasnyy Lyman in one day, the surrender without a fight of Poposna, the surrender of Debaltseve, and the surrender without a fight of Fashchivka. Now Krasnyy Luch has joined the list. Hooray! We will wait for new achievements."

A map released by Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council on August 9 shows the shrinking self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk now fully cut off from each other, but a Ukrainian military spokesman said he could not yet confirm that Krasnyy Luch is in Kyiv's hands.

And separatists, who have lost 75 percent of what they once occupied, appear increasingly desperate for assistance.

[Hours after this story was published, reports said that pro-Russian rebels said they were ready to agree to a cease-fire to prevent a "humanitarian catastrophe."]

In a recorded video in late July, Girkin recorded an urgent call for volunteers, expressing dissapointment that so few had decided to take up arms against Kyiv.

Calls from the commander and his supporters for a Russian invasion have also taken on a tone of increasing urgency.

On the Russian side of the border, Russian military vehicles have been seen with peacekeeping logos and some suspect Moscow may send in troops under the pretense of a "humanitarian" operation to stave off a complete Ukrainian victory.

But while there is strong evidence that Moscow is already sending increasingly powerful equipment across the border, an invasion would likely lead to further sanctions from the European Union and the United States, which in July agreed to sharpen trade penalties following the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines flight that many have blamed on pro-Russian separatists.

Some separatists have expressed disappointment in the level of Russian support so far.

In a video uploaded to YouTube on August 9, an unidentified separatist supporter expresses dismay at the current situation.

"Stop placing your hope in Vladimir Putin," he says as he holds up his hands about 20 centimeters apart. "The promise was the ocean -- and this is the ocean [we got]."

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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer. 

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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