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Wagner defector exposes Russia’s Donbas ruse, false-flag ops in bombshell interview

Igor Salikov has just arrived to the Hague to testify against Putin. Here is a glimpse at what he may be saying,
Salikov osechkin
Igor Salikov (left) talks to Gulagu.net founder Vladimir Osechkin (right)
Wagner defector exposes Russia’s Donbas ruse, false-flag ops in bombshell interview

On 18 December 2023, an airplane from Africa landed at the airport in Amsterdam. Inside was Igor Salikov, an officer of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) and a former fighter of the Wagner PMC, who arrived in the Netherlands to testify about Russia’s war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and to obtain political asylum in the country.

Claiming that he had been fighting in Ukraine since 2014 and after Russia’s invasion of 2022 witnessed war crimes near capital Kyiv, Salikov says that he refused to follow orders to kill Ukrainian civilians. Therefore, he was forced to flee Russia and hid from the special services in different countries.

Since the summer of 2023, he has been cooperating with the Prosecutor General’s Office, and some of his testimony has already been confirmed.

On December 10, he wrote a testimony to the International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan, who issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and official Maria Lvova-Belova for an alleged scheme to deport Ukrainian children. The ICC confirmed this, but refused to comment on whether Salikov’s testimony would be used in the investigation.

Having been involved in Russia’s war against Ukraine since 2014, Salikov witnessed Russia’s covert takeover and hybrid warfare in eastern Ukraine. In a bombshell interview with with Gulagu.net founder Vladimir Osechkin, he tells how chief puppetmaster Vladislav Surkov carefully constructed the fiction of a “Donbas uprising,” how he and other Russian proxies were allowed to use only legacy Soviet equipment to avoid giving Russia away, and how Russia conducted shelled its own territory to frame Ukraine, constructing the Big Lie of a “Donbas genocide.” We bring you a summary.

Who is Igor Salikov

The Dutch TV channel EenVandaag reported that it has a written statement by Igor Salikov to the ICC expressing his desire to provide testimony. Prior to this, the channel had interviewed him via Skype.

Salikov, 60, said he served in the Russian army for about 25 years and holds the rank of colonel. After the wars in Syria, Africa and Ukraine as part of the Wagner PMC.

In his statement to the ICC, the former Russian military officer noted that PMC Wagner’s orders usually came directly from the Russian Defense Ministry, and sometimes “even from Vladimir Putin’s presidential administration.”

“I saw how people from the special services transported a large number of children without parents across the border to Belarus,” he added.

According to him, “entire convoys of FSB officers in cars and minibuses” were involved in the removal of children to Belarus.

Salikov stated that he wants to contact the ICC because he has “lost faith in Russia’s cause,” and added that last year he refused an order from his Wagner commanders to shoot civilians in an occupied Ukrainian village near capital Kyiv. “They told us to gun down a group of unarmed villagers accused of assisting partisans. When I refused this criminal order, I was threatened and coerced but still refused to follow commands I knew were illegal,” Salikov said. “After that, I could no longer serve in good conscience.”

According to Salikov, it was common for Wagner mercenaries to be ordered to carry out unlawful killings and other war crimes against civilians under Russian occupation.

Two-hour interview with Gulagu.net founder Osechkin

The interview was conducted at an unspecified time by Vladimir Osechkin, whose project Gulagu.net has exposed torture in Russian prisons, and who since Russia’s full-blown invasion in 2022 has been helping Russian servicemen who don’t want to fight against Russia to escape the country, although not without controversy.

Osechkin and Salikov are heard conversing as long-time acquaintances. The human rights defender tells Salikov multiple times that if he wants, they can still avoid publicity, as there will be no going back. It appears that Salikov’s arrival in the Netherlands was determined as the moment for publishing the interview.

Salikov’s alleged letter to Karim Khan shown at the end of the interview says that the ex-officer told Osechkin details about Russia’s war for over a year, and that the human rights defender helped him form a testimony for the ICC.

Screenshot from Salikov’s alleged letter shown at the end of the interview

Introduction and Background

Salikov introduces himself as someone with insider knowledge and experience working for Russian special forces units, intelligence agencies like the GRU, and private military contractors like the Wagner Group.

He saw private military operatives as essentially legalized bandits carrying out state orders. Salikov started working in the private mercenary sphere in the mid-1990s.

“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, I ended up in the criminal world for some time,” Salikov explained. “That’s where people with my professional background were in demand in the 1990s.”

Like many disenfranchised special forces veterans after the USSR’s fall, he found work in the private military sphere:

“These irregular combat formations originated from the same framework used for state-sponsored foreign interventions during the Soviet era.”

As conflicts erupted worldwide, Salikov took part in missions guarding infrastructure, escorting convoys, and supporting local partners – often alongside other elite Russian veterans.

“We were essentially legalized mercenaries – regimented militias executing the Kremlin’s foreign policy aims under a thin veil of deniability,” he said.

Connections to Dmitry Utkin and Wagner Group

In 2010-2011, Salikov crossed paths with Dmitry Utkin, an ex-GRU Spetsnaz commander who founded the Wagner Group PMC. Utkin was then a veteran of the GRU Spetsnaz Brigade based in Ulyanovsk Oblast.

“We worked together on an operation to help a businessman regain assets seized by criminals in Moscow Oblast,” Salikov recalled. “But Utkin clashed with my team, mostly former Alpha Group guys, so our collaboration ended after that job.”

Russian president Vladimir Putin pictured with Dmitry Utkin ("Wagner") on the far right and other commanders of the Wagner private military company that fights on orders of the Russian military in Ukraine and Syria, but is not a part of it formally. This image is believed to date from December 2016.
Russian president Vladimir Putin (C) pictured with head of PMC “Wagner” Dmitry Utkin (L). This image is believed to date from December 2016.

In late 2013, Salikov heard from contacts that Utkin joined a group of mercenaries recruited by the Moran Security Group, a Russian private military firm active in Syria. This unit, known as the Slavic Corps [Slavyansky Korpus], was supposed to provide security for oil facilities. But they got caught up in fighting after being deceived about their mission.

When the mercenaries returned to Russia on charter flights in October 2013, Russian security services detained and interrogated the fighters, arresting the leaders. Salikov heard Utkin was able to avoid arrest after this incident.

Recruiting fighters for Ukraine

According to Salikov, recruitment of Russian mercenaries to fight in Ukraine started around April-May 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea and started fomenting military unrest in eastern Ukraine, seeking to mask its involvement in both places.

The covert recruitment took place as Russia portrayed the armed men in Ukraine’s Donbas region as local militias who took up arms against Kyiv over the victory of the Euromaidan revolution.

This effort fell under the direction of the FSB, which built teams from former Russian military professionals and ex-soldiers who had entered the criminal underworld after the turbulent 1990s. Many came from special forces, intelligence, and Spetsnaz backgrounds.

“The FSB organized everything through the border guard intelligence directorate, selecting operatives and overseeing our training at secured sites before sending detachments across the border,” Salikov revealed.

The FSB provided training at secured facilities and supplied the latest Russian military weapons from its stockpiles, including machine guns, grenade launchers, rifles, and ammunition. Operatives were organized into small detachments of around 30-40 troops.

Phony uprising in the Donbas

Salikov discussed his motivations for participating in the Ukraine incursion.

“I believed I was helping restore order. I considered it an internationalist duty to assist our Ukrainian brothers who seemed to be embracing the wrong path after Euromaidan.”

In May 2014, he deployed as part of an advance team that slipped into Luhansk Oblast with intelligence officer Aleksandr Borodai:

“Our main objective was providing armed support for the referendum on declaring independence. We possessed huge quantities of Russian weapons but attempted to disguise the intervention as an organic uprising by locals against Kyiv.”

After separatist referendums created a veneer of legitimacy, Salikov received orders to disrupt Ukrainian army supply lines.

“My detachment reentered Ukraine in June 2014 and captured strategic high ground near Siversk to interdict border access,” he said, noting they only used old Soviet armor and artillery initially to mask Russia’s hand.

Entering Ukraine in spring 2014

Salikov says he consciously decided to go to Ukraine in April-May 2014, believing he was helping restore order and fix mistakes made after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He considered it an internationalist duty, invoking rhetoric about shared history and helping Russian-speaking Ukrainian brethren who seemed to be embracing the wrong path after Euromaidan, a testament to the success of Russian propaganda whose images of “Ukrainian Nazis” had prompted others like Salikov to fight in Ukraine.

Salikov also cited nostalgia for his childhood in Crimea and pro-Russian sentiment in Eastern Ukraine.

The GRU officer entered Luhansk Oblast in May 2014 as part of an intelligence and sabotage unit led by Alexander Borodai. This team crossed the border from Russia with the aim of staging a referendum and establishing the Luhansk People’s Republic as a breakaway territory.

They possessed large quantities of Russian weapons but attempted to disguise the intervention as an organic uprising by locals against the new Kyiv government. The immediate objective was seizing Ukrainian military checkpoints and the Donetsk airport.

Surkov the puppet master

According to Salikov, Vladislav Surkov served as the Kremlin’s master puppeteer throughout the clandestine Ukraine campaign. The influential presidential aide handpicked proxies like Borodai to lead the breakaway republics and ran the political side of the incursion – events that are described in detail in the Surkov Leaks, a treasure of hacked emails from the Putin advisor.

Read more about the Surkov Leaks in a RUSI report coauthored by Euromaidan Press’ editor-in-chief Alya Shandra: The Surkov Leaks: the inner workings of Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine; What Surkov’s hacked emails tell about Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine.

Surkov hand-picked figureheads like Aleksandr Borodai to head the so-called “Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics” (“DNR,” “LNR”). He would give direct orders to these leaders on a regular basis. All military moves were coordinated through Surkov as well.

Salikov joined the special forces directorate under the “Prosecutor General’s Office of the DNR,” a newly-created institute of the Russian proxy statelet whose leader Surkov appointed in May 2014.

His military unit participated in military operations to prevent the Ukrainian armed forces from securing the Ukrainian border, which would have ensured the defeat of Russia’s proxy “DNR/LNR.”

Зображення, що містить текст, знімок екрана, дизайн

Автоматично згенерований опис During July-August 2014, the Ukrainian army launched an effective operation against the Russian-separatist forces in Donbas. Cross-border military attacks in conjunction with a direct invasion changed the tide. Photo: from the article “The advance and retreat of Ukrainian troops. How the Donbas frontline changed over June-September 2014

A major turning point in the war were Russia’s orders at the end of May 2014 to seize the Donetsk airport, which was then under Ukrainian control and continued to receive military cargo. For eight months, Ukraine had fought off attacks on the airport from various Russian-led military formations.

Maintaining plausible deniability

Salikov stressed the Kremlin expended great efforts during the first months of the conflict to obfuscate its command and control over developments in Ukraine.

Russian forces on temporary duty in Donbas disguised themselves as local partisans and only used Soviet-vintage weapons available in Ukraine’s existing arsenals.

This included rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and armored vehicles. The goal was to maintain plausible deniability about a Russian hand behind the unrest.

“In the first months, there was an attempt to simulate supposedly Ukrainian forces operating with Ukrainian weapons, without the invasion and participation of Russian special services, soldiers, officers, mercenaries. Everything was disguised [to portray] these groups as […] rebellious patriots who did not agree with the Euromaidan revolution that took place in Kyiv and were simply expressing their civic position,” Salikov said, explaining that the weapons used by the “self-defense units” that Russia said were rebelling against the central government of Ukraine were said to have been locally sourced and “dug up somewhere in warehouses, in mines.”

As Salikov noted:

“Surkov demanded regulations were followed to the letter, like only utilizing old munitions already present in Ukraine to avoid anything that could identify the weapons as Russian.”

Russia’s plausible deniability managed to fool the world. Western media insisted on referring to Russia’s proxies in Donbas as “separatists,” despite Ukraine’s insistence they are not. This stubborn misconception is currently being reevaluated by some journalists, but the damage has been done.

After the snap referendums in May 2014 helped Russia cement control in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, more advanced weaponry began to steadily flow across the border in an operation codenamed as “Voentorg.”

Curiously, Russia’s staged “plebiscites” were at risk of collapse: those executing them were suddenly offered less money than promised, prompting a call to Surkov that Salikov overheard.

Missions to disrupt Ukrainian supply lines

In addition to staging the referendums, Salikov participated in military operations to sever Ukrainian logistics and supply lines. His intelligence detachment crossed back into Ukraine in June 2014 with orders to capture strategic high ground near Siversk and blockade access to the border.

They were equipped with legacy Soviet tanks and artillery so the hardware couldn’t be easily traced back to recent Russian military stocks.

For instance, Russian tanks transported to the Ukrainian border could be only T64s, produced in Kharkiv during Soviet times. Only D-30 howitzers, available in Ukraine, were transported as well.

Salikov’s field commanders received their directives from the FSB’s Special Operations Center.

Infighting between pro-Russia groups

According to Salikov, significant infighting broke out between various armed groups on the ground vying for power and money in the territories seized from Ukraine.

He cites figures like Igor Bezler, commanding separatist forces in Horlivka, who essentially operated as independent warlords. Some detachments pursued criminal schemes and even clashed violently with rivals or Russian volunteers.

Salikov says Moscow bet on provocateurs and criminal elements to spearhead the insurrection, thinking they’d be easier to control. But many resisted compliance with the nominal republican authorities.

The clashes were conditioned by competition for Russian money. Each week, Russian proxy Aleksandr Zakharchenko divided “$2-3 million” with the others, leading to conflicts about the allocation of money.

False flag ops to blame Ukraine

In early 2015, Salikov was aware of false flag operations carried out to blame the Ukrainian military for strikes against civilians and sow confusion. For example, he says artillery systems placed in no man’s land outside Donetsk were used for shelling of residential buildings.

Salikov discloses these deception operations were organized by FSB officer Sergey “Kupol” Ivanov and “DNR” leader Alexander Zakharchenko as a way to create ongoing tensions and showcase victimization. Proxy agents masked their origins while conducting such attacks.

These false-flag operations became a cornerstone for Russia’s propaganda narrative about Donbas, culminating in Putin’s Big Lie about an alleged “Donbas genocide” used as a pretext for invading Ukraine in 2022.

Even now, Russians who support the war against Ukraine cite alleged Ukrainian bombing of the Donbas population as a justification for Russia’s full-blown war.

Motivations for defecting from Russia

Salikov repeatedly expressed scathing criticism of Russia’s authoritarian system under Vladimir Putin’s rule, portraying it as a dysfunctional dystopia.

He suggested the Russian people have become morally deformed by the onslaught of disinformation, saying:

“They poisoned the people, made them into freaks, worse than the Nazis.”

He argued profound political reforms are needed in Russia before any real change can occur:

“We need to start by figuring out what kind of f*cked up country this is, who it belongs to, and who f*cking ruined it.”

Salikov also condemned the Russian Orthodox Church for its subservience to the regime:

“Look what they’ve turned it into, those f*cks. Now they’re spreading this bullsh*t.”

He defected in hopes of spurring a renewed push for democratization and justice in Russia, seeing the current system as tyrannical and corrupt:

“Russia is simply shit. At first it seemed that we could fix, but f*ck it, I don’t know how it can be fixed, but I should try. I don’t know how to raise my kids there.”

In Salikov’s view, Russia has devolved into a lawless land of propaganda-poisoned people under the thumb of oligarch kleptocrats who have ruined the country.

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