SLOVIANSK, Ukraine – Five years ago, a unit commanded by retired Russian colonel Igor Strelkov took control of the Ukrainian city of Sloviansk, an operation that spelled the beginning of a pro-Russian insurrection in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region and gave rise to a bloody war with forces loyal to Kiev.
“We had the support of almost the entirety of the population,” Strelkov, who was born Igor Girkin, told EFE in an interview. “Ninety percent of the people in Sloviansk wanted to join Russia and, also, everyone spoke Russian, not Ukrainian.”
Strelkov, who was accompanied by around 50 men during the rebellion, acknowledged that he had originally planned to light the fuse of the revolt in the Black Sea city of Odessa, which is strategically more attractive for the pro-Russians.
He said the population there had not been so inclined to join the rebellion.
“We were 54 men. There were several veterans from the war in Chechnya, but the majority were former soldiers from the Ukrainian army reneging against Kiev,” he said.
Less than a year after leaving Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB, formerly the KGB), Strelkov and his praetorian guard stormed the police department in Sloviansk on April 12, 2014, with the intention that the city would become the operational headquarters and an arms distribution hub for pro-Russian militias.
The city is an important transport hub in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine some 624 kilometers (388 miles) east of Kiev, the capital.
“I didn’t have any contact with representatives of the Russian authorities,” Strelkov said, although he acknowledged that he was unaware of who was dishing out orders to his group’s financier, the Russian oligarch, Konstantin Malofeev.
Sloviansk has changed a lot since then.
Although the pro-Russian sentiment of the local population still simmers below the surface, the city itself is now squarely under Kiev’s control.
“I feel like we are living under occupation,” said 59-year-old Alexsandr, who declined to give his surname. “Some people shout ‘Glory to Ukraine’ but they are in a minority. The majority are unhappy with both the political and economic situation. This Ukraine is not ours,” he said.
The flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (a proto-state that continues to exist alongside the neighboring Luhansk People’s Republic, where the insurgents are also in control), which once flew from the official buildings in Sloviansk, has been replaced by Ukrainian national flags.
Security measures in Sloviansk are strict.
The city is located just a few kilometers from the frontline dividing Ukrainian Army units and nationalist militias from their pro-Russian enemies.
Nastia, a 20-year-old who is five months pregnant, said many of her friends had gone to live in Russia, either to fight against the Ukrainian forces or to find work.
“Nobody wants to rebuild. The only ones who don’t leave are the ones who don’t have passports,” Nastia said.
Sloviansk, a city known for its spas, would not have graced the history books had Russia not annexed Crimea three weeks prior to the pro-Russian uprising in Ukraine’s east.
Strelkov had previously worked as an advisor to Sergey Aksyonov, who is now the prime minister of the internationally-disputed Republic of Crimea.
“It was clear that after making such emphatic progress in Crimea, we had to keep going until the end. I was sure Moscow would understand,” Strelkov said. “You can’t start a dialogue with ultranationalist Ukrainians, you can only crush them on the battlefield.”
He said that once Russia’s annexation of Crimea was complete, pro-Russian organizations in eastern Ukraine began to turn to Aksyonov to coordinate the revolt against the pro-European authorities who had taken power in Kiev.
Ukraine’s politics started looking West following the 2014 Euromaidan revolution that ousted Russophile president Viktor Yanukovych.
“Everyone was traveling to Simferopol to ask us to ensure that Crimea was just the first step toward Novorossia (New Russia). We had very ambitious plans, we wanted the entire eastern region of Ukraine to join Russia,” he said.
The retired commander, who is wanted in Ukraine for terrorism charges, said the plan was risky, and that while the pro-Russian militias had the strength to pull it off, they would nonetheless have needed the Kremlin’s backing.
“It had to be like in Crimea. We acted and Russia supported us and defended us,” he said. “If we had been given access to all the necessary resources, we would have succeeded.”
Strelkov, whose actions provide irrefutable evidence of Russian intervention in Ukraine, said he was convinced that Russian president, Vladimir Putin, could have avoided the war if he had recognized the 2014 independence referendums in the Donbass.
“If Russia had given an ultimatum to Ukraine, I am sure that there would have been no war since the Ukrainian troops would have left the Donbass,” he said.
Putin had advised the referenda be postponed.
“I think the West told Putin that they would not allow the same thing that happened in Crimea happen in the Donbass,” Strelkov, who was briefly defense minister for the Donetsk People’s Republic, said.
A Russian-backed referendum in Crimea in 2014 saw the population vote to become a member of the Russian Federation. The ballot gained little international recognition.
In his opinion, the Kremlin’s position with the Donbass made little sense, given that even after Russia applied the breaks to the conflict in the region, Western sanctions against Moscow only intensified.
The ongoing war in the Donbass, a cultural name given to the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, has claimed over 10,000 lives, according to the United Nations.
Several shaky ceasefire attempts have all but collapsed.
“The war between Ukraine and Russia for the Donbass is inevitable,” Strelkov said.