Igor Strelkov, Russian military hero of the war in Ukraine, steps out of the shadows to fire salvo at chairman Putin and predict upheaval in Russia

Two years ago, Igor Strelkov was the most notorious personality of the war in east Ukraine. A former Russian security forces officer, with a clipped grey moustache and a penchant for historical re-enactments, Strelkov led the takeover of the city of Slavyansk in April 2014, which portended the armed conflict across the region.

In Kiev, he was seen as a bloody and ruthless war criminal a Kremlin agent sent by Moscow to wreak havoc in Ukraine. In Russia, he was portrayed as a valiant military hero, resulting the local rebel forces-out in their efforts to combat Kiev. He could be found striding through the corridors of the Donetsk rebel headquarters, with a Stechkin pistol in a vintage wooden holster at his hip and flanked by heavily armed bodyguards.

Two years later, he cuts a very different figure, during an interview with the Guardian at his small Moscow office. In civilian attire and somewhat chubbier, he spent the encounter stroking his huge Maine Coon cat, Grumpy, which lay on the table in front of him. Strelkov has in recent weeks turned his rhetorical fire on the Kremlin itself, even if he no longer has an army with which to back up his terms.

Putin and his circle have recently taken steps which I believe will almost inevitably lead to the collapse of the system, Strelkov said. We dont know yet how, and we dont know when, but we are certain it will collapse, and more likely sooner than later.

Pulled out of east Ukraine by the Kremlin in August 2014, reportedly because the Russian authorities felt he was too much of a liability, Strelkov entered a strange twilight zone, prevented from returning to the conflict or featuring in state-controlled media. After nearly two years of sitting quietly, the erstwhile poster boy of the pro-Russia cause last week released a declaration strongly critical of President Vladimir Putin, and predicting upheaval and bloodshed in Russia in the near future.

Strelkov, whose real surname is Girkin( Strelkov is a pseudonym derived from the Russian for the Shooter ), believes Putin dithered at the crucial moment in 2014, for dread of breaking off ties between Russia and the west for good. A revolutionary nationalist who believes Russia should seize all the lands where ethnic Russians live, and who describes Ukrainians as Russians who speak a different dialect, Strelkov said it was fatal that Putin stopped after annexing Crimea.

He crossed the Rubicon, but then stopped unexpectedly and illogically. He didnt retreat, but didnt go forward either. He has no ideas and seems to be waiting for a miracle. Hes stuck in the middle of a swamp.

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Igor Strelkov with his cat, Grumpy. Photo: Shaun Walker for the Guardian

Strelkov, who studied history and models himself on the White officers who fought the Bolsheviks during the Russian civil war, has been put on international sanctions lists for his role in the Ukraine war. Last week, Polish MP Magorzata Gosiewska presented a report on alleged war crimes committed by Strelkov to the international criminal court in the Hague, and hopes an inquiry will be launched.

Strelkov does not deny having people shot for looting, but claims the executions were legal, as they were carried out according to a Soviet statute on wartime justice.

I was the only person to hold trials, and not only shoot people. It was a troika of magistrates with a military prosecutor and a lawyer, and there were innocent verdicts as well, he said.

In military situations without strict discipline and without the vengeful sword of justice, the situation would not be controllable. When I was commanding, there was none of that. Every soldier knew that if he committed a crime, he would be punished as harshly as an adversary, if not more harshly. This helped a lot with discipline.

It is unclear to what magnitude Strelkovs actions in Ukraine were coordinated with the Kremlin. During the annexation of Crimea, in which Strelkov took portion, the Russian military operation was carefully choreographed. However, some suggest that when the action moved to east Ukraine, he was working more in a freelance role, in touch with contacts and curators in Moscow, but not actively directed by them. Having fought as a volunteer in Transdniestr and Bosnia in the early 1990 s, he served during both Chechen wars as an officer in Russias FSB security services. He claims he retired from active duty after a personal conflict in 2012, declining to elaborated.

I was to a large extent an independent figure, he insisted of his role in east Ukraine. He said he utilized all his contacts to demand a full-scale Russian invasion, but it soon became clear this was not forthcoming. Russia has denied all involvement in Ukraine, though Putin in December admitted there were people who carried out certain tasks in the region. Strelkov himself declined to comment on the level of Russian official involvement, saying only that you may draw your own conclusions.

There is overwhelming evidence of Russian fiscal and military support for the rebels as well as of Russian regular troops entering the conflict at key moments, and some rebel sources have claimed that the was withdrawn by the unpredictable Strelkov was one of the preconditions set by the Kremlin ahead of sending troops covertly to inflict a crushing defeat on the Ukrainians during the battle of Ilovaysk.

Ever since Strelkov was told to leave Ukraine in August 2014, the Kremlin has put him on the stop listing; the unofficial listing of those it is impermissible to give airtime to on nation television, which includes most of the liberal opposition.

Im an inconvenient figure for them, they dont know what to do with me: am I a hero or a terrorist? They cant apprehend and incarcerate me because it would be seen as bowing to the west to call me a terrorist. But to give me honors is also inconvenient for them, so Im in this strange gap.

An associate complained that nobody wanted to speak to the former Donetsk commander; even journalists who conveyed an interest subsequently called back to say they had been told it was better not to speak to him.

The authorities dont want independent legislators or people who guess freely, whatever camp they belong to. They dont even want free-thinking supporters, told Strelkov. The manifesto released last week is a mixture of both astonishingly liberal promises about freedom of speech and free elections, together with imperial rhetoric of expanding Russian lands and protecting Russians in former Soviet nations.

We might seem like marginals but it didnt take the Bolsheviks more than 1 % of the population to change things in 1917, said Egor Prosvirnin, who runs a nationalist blog and also signed the declaration together with Strelkov and a number of other nationalists. Things could change very, very quickly.

Strelkov and his group of nationalist bloggers and fringe political figures do indeed appear to be marginal figures. But nationalism is a powerful political force in Russia, and many wonder if the flames that were fanned in east Ukraine in 2014 will be easy to put out , now that the Kremlin is attempting a diplomatic solution that would still devote it a say in Ukrainian affairs.

The Kremlin is very scared of nationalists, because they use the same imperial rhetoric as Putin does but they can do it much better than him, told Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner and opposition legislator. Thats “why theres” patriots in prison, even those who supported Putin. They went to kiss his feet, and he kicked them away.

Others say that a figure like Strelkov, after his brief months in the limelight in 2014, is doomed to remain peripheral from now on, addressing small groups of nationalists in his discussion tours around the country, but unlikely to win broad appeal. Strelkov said he does not plan to stand for elected office, but supposes his time could come again.

We do not plan to launch a revolution to depose Vladimir Putin. Having taken part in five wars, I know very well what it is like when authority and social infrastructure collapses in big cities. Nobody wants that, including me. But regrettably, it could be inevitable.

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