The Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) defense minister and de facto leader, Igor Strelkov, quit his position Thursday amid rumors that he was severely wounded. Ukrainian officials accuse him of being the direct link between pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and the Russian government, although Russia denies any direct connection with the separatist movement. Strelkov is also suspected of being a part of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.
His resignation comes six days after the resignation of the DPR’s former prime minister and fellow Russian, Alexander Borodai, who has reportedly stayed in the DPR to act as an adviser to the self-declared government.
“You probably already know that [Strelkov], like myself, has left his post,” Borodai told Life News. The [DPR] already has a new defense minister."
Borodai went on to say that reports Strelkov was injured recently were “total rubbish.” But Andrei Purgin, the deputy prime minister of the DPR, said he didn’t know for sure, but that it's “likely true” he was hurt in intense fighting around Luhansk.
Strelkov, who's real name is Girkin, is Russian-born and takes his nickname from the Russian word for "shooter." He's known as a Russian nationalist and fan of Russian military history. He became infamous abroad and well-liked in the DPR for his straight-laced demeanor and pro-Russian enthusiasm. He ran the DPR's military with a strong hand, reportedly ordering a handful of military-style executions of soldiers who stole from the population or otherwise disregarded orders. His likeness often made it on to recruitment posters and rallying signs in the DPR:
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Russian state media have reported that Strelkov left to pursue a new position, but did not specify where or what that position is. Strelkov reportedly served in a military capacity in the War of Transnistria, the Bosnian War, both Chechen Wars and the Crimean incident earlier this year. He also served with the FSB, the successor to the KGB.
â€” Alec Luhn (@ASLuhn) August 14, 2014
Meanwhile, Russian and Ukraine are sparring over a convoy of more than 200 Russian tractor-trailers loaded with humanitarian supplies sitting across the Russian border not far from the DPR’s headquarters in Donetsk. A small contingent of Russian military vehicles that had been accompanying the trailers crossed the Ukrainian border at checkpoints controlled by pro-Russian separatists late Thursday night local time, but it's unclear why.
.@shaunwalker7 and I just witnessed a not insubstantial column of APCs and trucks slipping across the border into Ukraine.
â€” Roland Oliphant (@RolandOliphant) August 14, 2014
NB I don't think this was "the invasion" proper. This is probably what has been happening for a while. Extraordinary to see it though.
â€” Shaun Walker (@shaunwalker7) August 14, 2014
Ukrainian officials have said they will block the Russian aid trucks for fear they carry weapons for separatists and are a pretense to a “direct invasion” by the Russian military. In recent weeks, Ukrainian forces have heavily shelled the city of Donetsk and have isolated Luhansk, the two major separatist strongholds where Russian officials hope to reach with their aid convoy.
More than 2,000 people have been killed in the fighting in eastern Ukraine since March.