During the past decade and a half, extremist non-state actors in Russia have become a central element of the violent transnational right-wing extremist milieu. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and particularly its re-invasion of the country in 2022 have afforded these actors far greater opportunities to operate and increase their influence than before. This blog is the seventh in a series in which CEP highlights some of the key actors, and analyzes their extremist ideology, modus operandi, and transnational role.
The Club of Angry Patriots is a Russian extremist, nationalist social movement established on April 1, 2023, by prominent right-wing extremist figures Igor Strelkov, Pavel Gubarev, and Maxim Kalashnikov. This organization is highly critical of the current Russian administration, citing perceived inadequacies in the conduct of Russia’s war against Ukraine and an alleged incapacity to achieve decisive outcomes in the ongoing conflict. Ivan Vsevoldovich Girkin (AKA "Strelkov", meaning "shooter"), is central to the club’s existence. He is a known figure among hardline Russian nationalists. He took part in the annexation of Crimea, and claims to have started the war in Ukraine in 2014. Until his arrest on July 21, 2023, he had been a vocal critic of the Russian government, especially its military failures in Ukraine.
This first of this two-part blog entry focuses on Girkin's actions until Russia's re-invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Part 2 addresses his subsequent activities, including the establishment of the club, its membership and structure, and the club’s actions following Girkin's arrest in 2023.
Girkin was born in Moscow, Russia, on December 17, 1970. He allegedly studied at the Moscow State University for History and Archives (the university merged with the Moscow Urban University of the People in 1991). Already during his studies he displayed an obsession with military history and joined a small yet vocal cohort of students advocating for a restoration of the Russian monarchy. In the 1990s, Girkin contributed to the extreme right-wing Russian newspaper Zavtra ("tomorrow"). The editor of this publication is the anti-Semitic Russian nationalist Alexander Prokhanov. During this time, Girkin, under his alias "Colonel in the Reserves", also wrote for the Abkhazian Network News Agency, a pro-Russian publication endorsing Abkhazian separatism in Georgia. Under this pseudonym, Girkin allegedly wrote alarmist pieces about how the numerical decline of ethnic Russians necessitates radical measures to protect the state from radical Islam, even if such methods involve violations of human rights.
Prior to taking part in Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Girkin fought in several conflicts. The hacker collective Anonymous International released emails in 2014 which it claims demonstrate Girkin’s eight-year-long service in Russia’s internal intelligence service, the FSB, from 1996 to March 2013. This information was corroborated by Vyacheslav Ponomarev, a pro-Russian militia commander in eastern Ukraine. Girkin himself publicly stated that he served in the FSB as a lieutenant until March 2023. Reportedly, Girkin worked for the Directorate for Combating International Terrorism. According to Komsomolskaya Pravda journalist Andrei Rodkin, Girkin and he also went to Moldova in 1992 to volunteer as fighters with the pro-Russian forces in the Transnistria War. Girkin also fought in Bosnia between 1 October 1992 and 26 March 1993 according to his diary, which was first published in the magazine “Spetsnaz of Russia” in April 1999. According to retired Bosnian army officer Aziz Tafro Girkin participated in combat in Višegrad as a member of the First Cossacks division in the Army of Republika Srpska, before being redeployed to the Sarajevo region. In Bosnia, Girkin was allegedly implicated in the purported ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Višegrad in the spring and summer of 1992.
Girkin has also been identified as directly responsible for a minimum of six cases involving the forced disappearance and presumed murder of residents in the mountainous Vedensky District village of Khatuni and adjacent settlements of Makhkety and Tevzeni in Chechnya between 2001 and 2002. During this timeframe, Girkin was affiliated with the 45th Detached Reconnaissance Regiment, a special forces unit within the Russian airborne troops stationed near Khatuni. Two sisters of one of the kidnapped and likely executed men, Uvais Nagayev, later engaged in suicide terrorist attacks. One of the sisters, Aminat Nagayeva, blew herself up on board a Tu-134 "Volga-Aeroexpress" airliner, resulting in the loss of 43 lives.
Girkin delivered his first substantial public critique of the Russian government in an interview on January 22, 2015, less than a year after serving as one of the Russian commanders during the annexation of Crimea. During that interview, he opposed the official Kremlin narratives concerning the conflict and stated that a majority of Crimeans, including the local administration, law enforcement, and army, opposed the Russian annexation. In the same interview, he called the independence referendum fake, and admitted to forcing members of the Verkhovna Rada of Crimea to vote for the annexation.
In 2014, Girkin was the commander of pro-Russian militants in and around Sloviansk in the Donbas, Ukraine. In an interview for the right-wing publication Zavtra on November 21, 2014, Girkin voiced further criticism of the Russian government, citing its failure to offer protection from Ukrainian shelling of the pro-Russian separatists, and expressing dissatisfaction with the insufficient material support provided. In the same interview, Girkin assumed personal responsibility for starting the war in Ukraine, after he crossed into Donbas from Crimea with his own militia. Girkin claimed that his militia comprised volunteers from Russia, Crimea, and various regions of Ukraine such as Vinnytsia, Zhytomyr, and Kyiv, as well as numerous fighters from the Donetsk and the Luhansk regions. According to his account, approximately two-thirds of the members were Ukrainian citizens. Despite Girkin’s criticism of the Russian government, the Ukrainian secret service published intercepted phone conversations between him and individuals believed to be his Kremlin handlers. Indeed, on April 29, 2014, the European Union imposed sanctions on Girkin, identifying him as a GRU agent suspected of coordinating armed activities and serving as a security aide to Sergey Aksyonov, the Russian head of Crimea.
Girkin further countered Kremlin narratives when he argued that there was no evidence to prove that protesters in Donetsk aimed to pursue "federalization" for Ukraine during the May 11 referendum in 2014, or that Kyiv deployed the military to oppress Russian speakers. On his now defunct website, Girkin labeled several members of the Russian government as traitors, including Vladislav Surkov, a personal advisor to Putin. He accused them of undermining the “Novorossiya project”. This project is the aspiration of Russian ultranationalists to restore the nominal historical territory of the Russian empire by incorporating Donbas and Crimea.
It is evident that Girkin was motivated by his extremist ideology when he fought in Crimea. On July 28, 2014, he issued an order prohibiting the use of offensive language among his fighters. In this directive, he characterized his unit as an "Orthodox Army" and painted its enemies as "haters of Christians." Girkin asserted that these individuals, who he claimed had "seized power in Kyiv," commanded Orthodox Ukrainians to target their own churches, mock religious icons, and show contempt for the Orthodox clergy. A few days later, he released a video stating that his militants stand in defense of the "Faith of Christ", responding to what he called the Western-initiated campaign aimed at dismantling the "Orthodox-Slavic world". Additionally, Girkin would repeatedly invoke the Novorossiya project in interviews, making no effort to hide his neo-imperialist ideology.
Girkin’s extremist ideology translated into brutality on the battlefield. In a 2016 radio interview, Girkin admitted to executing looters according to Stalin-era laws. Furthermore, the Ukrainian government alleges that Girkin orchestrated the abduction, torture, and killing of local Ukrainian politician Volodymyr Rybak and 19-year-old college student Yury Popravko on April 17, 2014. Most shockingly, roughly two months after he declared himself supreme commander of the Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DPR) armed forces, Girkin was found guilty by a Dutch court for shooting down flight MH17 with a surface-to-air missile as it was flying over eastern Ukraine in 2014. According to Girkin, this led to his dismissal as defense minister of the DPR by the Kremlin on August 14, 2014. DPR separatists sympathetic to Girkin, such as Anton Raevsky (AKA "Nemetz", the German), would claim that the FSB was targeting Girkin and his allies because of their inability follow Kremlin directives.
Already in 2014, hardline Russian nationalists were looking towards Girkin as a worthy alternative to President Vladimir Putin. Girkin himself has stated that the Russian political scene is full of lies and electoral manipulation, but that war may upset the status quo. On July 21, 2023 Girkin was arrested in Moscow and currently awaits trial. Nevertheless, he remains the most prominent symbolic representative of the ultranationalist factions in Russia whose anti-Western, Russian Orthodox ideology is gaining traction. Their extremist ideologies clash with Putin’s pragmatic nationalism and present a threat to his rule and to political stability in Russia.