On Feb. 2, U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe ruled in Manhattan federal court to confiscate $5.4 million belonging to sanctioned Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeev. The ruling may set a precedence and pave the way for funds to help rebuild war-torn Ukraine.

Malofeev and his one-time security director, Igor Girkin, played a crucial role in Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Today, they each harbor a vision of Russia being ruled by some latter-day Tsar.

First stage of annexation

In late February 2014, the Crimean peninsula was cut off from air communication with the outside world. No aircraft other than what belonged to the Russian Federation military were allowed to land.

At 9:30 am on Friday, Feb. 28, a female voice at the reception of the director of the KrymAeroRukh, an aviation company responsible for air traffic control services, said that the entire management of the company was absent from work.

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“They’re just not there,” the voice on the phone said.

Half an hour later, I arrived at the airport to see for myself. At that moment, the control tower was already full of men in military uniforms and balaclavas hiding their faces. With them was a man dressed in civilian clothes; on his sleeve there was a St. George’s ribbon, a sign of pro-Russian militias. He was an undercover officer of Russian military intelligence.

By his own admission, Igor Girkin – also known by his alias Strelkov, or “shooter” – was in charge of those who were blocking access to the peninsula that morning. Girkin was the head of security for Russian oligarch Kostantin Malofeev.

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The oligarch behind the occupation of Crimea

One month before these events, on Jan. 30, 2014, in the middle of a heavy snowstorm, a plane carrying Malofeev landed in Crimea.

It also brought in several representatives of the security services, including Girkin and a group of Moscow politicians accompanied by several Greek monks from one of the monasteries on Mount Athos.

“Suddenly, the pilot came out of the cockpit, crossed himself, received a blessing... and we landed! And when we opened the plane door, there was such a wind that hats were blown away,” Malofeev recalled in an interview with the BBC.

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A few months earlier, talks had begun in Crimea about the future redistribution of roles in the government among local elites.

Several Russian special service agents prepared the ground for a military invasion. People without credentials shuttled between the various political factions, selecting their loyalists.

Slowly and carefully, the machine of the Russian secret service launched a reconnaissance and sabotage operation to prepare for an invasion.

Girkin became a head of security for Konstantin Malofeev — one of the most brilliant raiders of modern Russia, whose influence extended far beyond its borders.

Two heads of one eagle

In 2014, at the same time that Malofeev’s security director was engaged in extrajudicial killings in the Ukrainian Donbas, representatives of LIC 33 (Louvrier Investment Company) in Bulgaria announced the purchase of local assets that, from a modern hybrid warfare perspective, could be classified as “strategic.”

Igor Strelkov, who is also known as Igor Girkin, the top military commander of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic", delivers a press conference on July 28, 2014 in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. AFP.

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Among the companies that fell under Russian control were the country’s leading telecom operator and Bulgaria’s largest TV and radio company. According to Louvrier Investment, all these assets were purchased for one euro.

Russian-Belgian businessman Pierre Louvrier and owner of LIC 33 made no secret of his connections with Malofeev, posing with the director of his security service in a photo.

Years later, around the same time that the Dutch prosecutor’s office would finish its investigation into the Russian-organized attack in Donbas that downed passenger airline MH-17, Malofeev himself would become a person of interest in a money-laundering case in Bulgaria, where he was linked to the chairman of the local pro-Russian movement, accused of spying for Moscow. As a result, Malofeev was banned from Bulgaria for 10 years.

Malofeev’s interests extend far beyond the nominally Orthodox countries of the Black Sea basin. Funds connected with Malofeev operate in Africa, where Russia is trying to gain access to mineral resources and where Russia sells about half of its total share of exported weapons.

In addition to arms, Vladimir Putin says Russia wants to increase its presence in local agricultural products, aircraft and pharmaceuticals markets. For African politicians, Malofeev was the primary companion at Putin’s summit in Sochi, Russia.

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“The Orthodox oligarch,” as Malofeev is sometimes called, was also implicated in numerous Russian cases involving securities manipulation, the creation and robbery of a cryptocurrency exchange, and the organization of Russia’s second largest troll factory dedicated to spreading fake news.

Russian air-borne priests

On the morning of April 12, 2014, armed men in balaclavas and camouflage –purchased with money from Malofeev – surrounded the police department of Sloviansk, in Ukraine’s Donbas. They brought tires and planks to build barricades. They also hung the Russian tricolor on the building.

One of the two key people supporting Girkin during his tour in the Donbas was Malofeev. Novaya Gazeta described Malofeev as “an Orthodox Russian businessman, owner of the Tsargrad TV channel, and member of Sergei Glazyev’s circle.” Glazyev was an adviser to the Russian president on “regional economic integration.”

“Armed insurgents gathered outside the city,” the mayor of Sloviansk, Nelya Shtepa said. “After that, by agreement with our orthodox father, Father Vitaly, they accommodated themselves at his Orthodox center… About 150 fully armed people left this Orthodox center and were joined by 300 people invited by Father Vitaly – former Afghan War veteran, who joined these insurgents. These 300 men were given full authority by the insurgents, and today they do whatever they want in the city.”

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Konstantin Malofeev (Pic: Wikicommons/Lous Whinston)

In addition to the Orthodox center reported by the mayor, the Sviatohirsk Cave Monastery also became a base camp for those who took part in the armed takeover of the city, according to residents of Sloviansk.

“My personal guard consisted of spiritual sons, monks, and hieromonks of Sviatogorsk Lavra. Entirely. Every last man,” Girkin claimed years later.

According to Kyiv Post sources, later confirmed by others, the Orthodox Sviatohirsk Monastery was used as a concealed barracks to infiltrate Russian agents disguised as monks.

The monastery became one of the centers for active support of the Russian forces in southeastern Ukraine.

A few years later, Radio Liberty quoted a conversation fragment between two people whose voices are indistinguishably similar to those of Malofeev and Girkin. This conversation was about another terrorist attack organized with the participation of the Russians, which occurred in the summer of 2014.

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 “Give me Strelkov [aka Girkin] on the phone, urgently,” the voice resembling Malofeev’s said.

“Hello, Konstantin Valeryevich!” Girkin answers “The enemy has retreated in all directions with heavy losses. Konstantin Valeryevich, for my part, I ask you to clarify who we killed…”

“I can only give official information that it is the head of the Ukrainian Anti-Terrorist Center.” Malofeev responded. “So you’ve hit the right person.”

After Girkin thanked him, Malofeev said, “So long! And I would also like to say that you celebrated Palm Sunday well.”

“I tried my best! Thank you!” was Girkin’s response.

A few months after the events in Sloviansk, I attended a Sunday service in one of the local churches of the town with a hidden camera to film the sermon of a local priest, who had welcomed Girkin and his people a few months before. He preached against Muslims “slitting Christian throats, as if they were sheep, to this day,” and “Catholics, those impure antichrists,” who “cause us suffering” and undermine the “one government.”

The Yugoslav War as testing ground

In the summer of 1992, the Russian military, initiating a volunteer movement to protect their “Orthodox brothers, also appeared in the Balkans. Igor Girkin, still unknown at that time, was among these soldiers.

“I saw Girkin not far from the town of Zenica, near the village of Žepče, to be precise,” Johannes von Dohnanyi, a German military correspondent, told Kyiv Post.

This group of Russians, by all accounts, was on a different mission than the Serbian soldiers. My source spoke of this group as a Soviet-style reconnaissance mission,” von Dohnanyi added.

Years later, when Girkin showed up in Ukraine, the Bosnian publication Klix would publish photos referring to the same time period.

Girkin was reported to have been in the area of Višegrad during the mass murder of several thousand Muslims. He would later recall in his “Bosnian Diary” that he had come to Bosnia to fight the “Muslim savages” because he felt obliged to take the side of the Orthodox.

Since his time in Bosnia, Girkin’s notions about Orthodoxy and monarchy gradually developed into a rigid ideology, putting him in line with a host of Russian ultra-nationalists and allowing him a surprising measure of leeway to criticize the Russian army and even Putin in the current war against Ukraine.

The monarch’s back office

Konstantin Malofeev, who organized the transfer of Girkin to the Donbas, is also involved in a project to revive Russia’s autocracy.

“Only an empire headed by a monarch, a tsar, God’s anointed one, can be a real guarantor of Russia’s sovereignty,” Malofeev declared at a meeting of Dvuglavy Orel (Double-headed Eagle), the Society for the Development of Russian Historical Enlightenment.

According to Radio Liberty, the participants in the founding meeting of that organization “expressed hope that these elections will be the last, and that by 2024, our national monarchic form of government will be restored in Russia.”

An article about the mission of the double-headed Eagle published at that time in a pro-government newspaper in the North Caucasus claims: The Double-headed Eagle unites supporters of the rehabilitation of the Russian monarchy who call themselves Orthodox Imperialists.

In Moscow, the Double-headed Eagle is registered at the same address as the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI). Until 2009, the RISI was de facto a part of the Russian FSB. Its head was a retired foreign intelligence general.

Over the years, the RISI was involved in multiple projects abroad, including the signing of a memorandum of understanding with an institute in Greece, founded by the Greek defense minister who, after a party at the Malofeev-owned Tsargrad Hotel, began to resist NATO expansion to eastern Europe.

Reuters even revealed RISI’s interference in the American presidential elections of 2016, which brought Donald Trump to power.

The founder of RISI, according to its website, is Vladimir Putin.

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