Igor Strelkov, the commander whom officials in Kiev have described as a Russian intelligence officer, gave a picture of the fighters he brought to Slovyansk, who since early April have transformed the city into the epicenter of eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russia unrest. The new government in Kiev has described Slovyansk as the “most dangerous city in Ukraine.”
“The unit that I came to Slovyansk with was put together in Crimea. I’m not going to hide that,” Mr. Strelkov told the Moscow-based Komosomolskaya Pravda tabloid in a video interview released Saturday. “It was formed by volunteers—I would say half or two-thirds of them citizens of Ukraine.”
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Ukraine’s State Security Agency had earlier described Mr. Strelkov as an active-duty officer of Russia’s elite Main Intelligence Department. Mr. Strelkov didn’t directly address the Russian reporter’s question about possible Russian military-intelligence involvement in his mission. The commander also didn’t speak about himself or his background. Moscow has denied its involvement in the unrest in eastern Ukraine.
Most of the men in the command possess war experience, including former service in the Russian or Ukrainian militaries and tours in Chechnya, Central Asia, the former Yugoslavia and Iraq, according to Mr. Strelkov. He said some “even managed to visit” Syria.
The slim, middle-aged commander with a trimmed mustache has risen to become one of the most important figures in the rebellion in Ukraine’s east, emerging as the de facto military leader of a pro-Russia uprising that has threatened to split the country. His tight operation of highly skilled militants offers a serious challenge to the new pro-Europe authorities in Kiev.
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“The motivation of those who arrived with me [from Crimea] and joined up is broader,” Mr. Strelkov said. “They say: ‘We don’t want to stop with that accomplishment. We want to go further and free Ukraine from the fascists.'”
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A man also named Igor Strelkov, working with an elite intelligence regiment of Russian paratroopers, had been involved in a 2001 “kidnapping” of a Chechen man during the Russian war in the breakaway republic, according to Chechnya’s human rights ombudsman’s website, which said the incident occurred near the village of Khattuni. It couldn’t be determined if it was the same Mr. Strelkov.