For most of his 42-minute appearance on a radio talk show, former Russia-backed separatist commander Igor Girkin sounded like nothing more than a fanatic discussing a dream now widely dismissed as fantasy.
He spoke of hopes for the creation of a “Novorossiya” – a New Russia stretching across much of Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Odesa, and one day joining a Russian empire including all of Belarus and Ukraine.
It wasn’t until the last minute that the interview with Mr. Girkin went from surreal to chilling.
Referring to his time commanding separatists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk in 2014, a host asks him how he stopped the rampant looting.
“With executions,” Mr. Girkin said matter-of-factly.
According to Mr. Girkin, separatist “authorities” installed a military court and introduced 1941 military laws implemented by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
“Under this legislation we tried people and executed the convicted,” Mr. Girkin said.
“While I was in Sloviansk four people were executed. Two among the military for looting, one local for looting and one for killing a serviceman,” he said on the Radio Komsomolskaya Pravda, which is affiliated with a leading pro-Kremlin Russian tabloid.
One of the people killed was an “ideological” supporter of the Ukrainian nationalist group Pravyi Sektor, he said.
Key separatist commander
Mr. Girkin, also known as Igor Strelkov, was a key commander in the Russia-backed separatist forces in the early stages of the war against Ukrainian government troops that has killed more than 9,000 civilians and combatants since April 2014.
Ukraine’s government has called Mr. Girkin a Russian agent and accused him of war crimes. He resigned as a rebel commander in August 2014 amid reports that he had been wounded in battle.
Later that year, he told an interviewer that he was a colonel in the Russian FSB, or Federal Security Service – a statement that was edited out of the interview published by state-run Rossiya Segodnya.
In October 2015, the Brussels-based International Partnership for Human Rights provided the International Criminal Court with more than 300 testimonies about alleged military crimes and crimes against humanity that it said had been committed by Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine.
It said that “while crimes committed by both sides of the conflict have been documented, the collected evidence primarily concerns crimes committed by separatists because of security issues related to accessing separatist-controlled territories of Ukraine.”
In the radio appearance, Mr. Girkin said he was not concerned about the possibility of international prosecution. “I am not at all bothered by international law, because it’s a tool in the hands of winners,” he said. “If we are defeated, well then, the norms of these laws will be applied to me.”
Fighting has lessened since a February 2015 deal on a ceasefire and steps toward peace, but the Russia-backed separatists still hold large parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
Mr. Girkin, a former military re-enactor, appeared to have the support of both the hosts and those calling in. “God forbid,” one host said, referring to the possibility of Mr. Girkin being sent to an international court for prosecution on war crimes charges.
As for his feelings about Stalin, Mr. Girkin said he dislikes the dictator as he was in his younger days, but believes that he was a great statesman at the end of his life.
“You can discuss for a long time how much blood and where Stalin spilled it, but at least you can confidently say that he did it not for himself but for the sake of an idea,” he said.
Copyright 2016, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC 20036; www.rferl.org (see http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine-girkin-strelkov-executions-stalin-era/ 27497491.html).