Russians Take Charge of Ukrainian Separatists

5 MINS READAug 7, 2014 | 09:42 GMT
Russians Take Charge of Ukrainian Separatists
A woman holds a poster with the portrait of Igor Strelkov, the top military commander of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, during a rally in Moscow on Aug. 2.

Russian militant commanders are now leading the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. By taking control away from pro-Russian local activists, these leaders are attempting to make the separatist movement a more effective military and political tool for the Kremlin.

In late July, as Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Borodai visited Moscow, Vladimir Antyufeyev, a Siberian who formerly served as the security minister of Moldova's pro-Russian breakaway region of Transdniestria, was appointed as his acting replacement. The choice of Antyufeyev, a Russian citizen with ties to Russia's security apparatus, over Borodai's deputy, Andrei Purgin, a Ukrainian citizen from the Donetsk area, is the latest instance of Russian-controlled separatist leaders sidelining their pro-Russian Ukrainian counterparts.

Russia's Role in Ukraine's Separatist Activities

In the early days of the separatist movement, when pro-Russian groups began taking over buildings throughout eastern Ukraine, both pro-Russian local activists and Russian militants were active in the region. The locals organized protests, took over government buildings and recruited fighters from eastern Ukraine, ranging from young men with little experience to veterans of the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan. The local leaders were generally men in their early 30s who had been active in Russian nationalist or pan-Slavic groups throughout eastern Ukraine.

The Russian militants, on the other hand, were new in the region. They generally began arriving in early and mid-April. Some came from Crimea, where they were active in organizing the unofficial Russian forces that set the stage for Moscow's formal annexation of the peninsula. Unlike the local groups, these forces were under the command of Russian citizens. Generally, the Russian militant leaders were older men, ranging from their mid-40s to early 60s. Most had fought in Transdniestria, Chechnya or both during the 1990s, and the majority were reportedly either members of Russia's foreign military intelligence agency known as the GRU or long-time close associates of known GRU operatives. From the beginning, these forces displayed the hallmarks of professional organization and training. Their debut was in Slovyansk, where well-disciplined, well-armed and unidentified "little green men" began taking over buildings under the direction of Igor Strelkov, a member of the GRU.

United by similar goals, the young local separatist leaders and professional Russian militants developed a close working relationship, coordinating their efforts to take control of towns throughout Ukraine's east. In Donetsk province, a dual structure was implemented: Locals took some top roles, such as people's governor and people's mayor, while Russian figures who arrived in Donetsk in April took parallel top-level roles as commanders or chairmen of ministerial councils.

The success of this cooperation, however, was mixed. Initially, the Russian groups were much smaller than the local forces, and thus the more professional Russian militants had to depend on the inexperienced and less effective separatist fighters for essential tasks, such as guarding checkpoints. There were also allegations that local separatists were involved in looting and other activities that harmed the cohesion of the separatist movement. Additionally, local separatist leaders differed at times from the Russian militant leadership in both their rhetoric and political demands, making statements that did not match the Kremlin's strategy. Despite these differences, in order to attract support from the local population, the movement had to maintain a facade of local leadership.

Russia Changes Its Thinking

The growing pressure of Ukraine's military operation, combined with the lack of widespread popular support for the rebels, changed Russia's calculations regarding the structure of the separatist movement. Ukraine's anti-separatist military campaign, which gained momentum throughout May, presented a serious organizational and logistical challenge for the separatist forces. The rebels began carrying out ambushes, targeting military aircraft, safeguarding supply lines and attempting to strategically defend their positions from the advancing Ukrainian forces. At the same time, it became more apparent that while the Kiev government was far from popular among the residents of eastern Ukraine, the vast majority declined to take an active role in the armed separatist movement. While the separatists were able to recruit some fighters from the local population — likely in the low thousands — there was no widespread support for the separatist movement.

Rebel leaders, short on manpower, have been actively calling on the local population to get involved, saying they need at least 7,000-8,000 more fighters. The logistical challenges brought by Ukraine's military campaign in the region necessitated more professional coordination among separatist forces, while a lack of discipline among some local forces threatened to undermine the effectiveness of the separatist movement.

On May 29, the Vostok Battalion, a force made up of foreign fighters under the command of former local Security Service of Ukraine official Alexander Khodakovsky — but reportedly under the control of Borodai, the Russia-affiliated Donetsk People's Republic chairman — took over the headquarters of the Donetsk People's Republic. Although the local militant who had been heading the Donetsk People's Republic, Denis Pushilin, was not immediately removed from his post, he left for Moscow two weeks later and remains there indefinitely. In July, he tendered his resignation.

Similarly, one week after the Vostok Battalion stormed the Donetsk People's Republic headquarters, Strelkov, the GRU-affiliated commander in Slovyansk, removed his local counterpart, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, from his post as Slovyansk's people's mayor. A similar change took place in Luhansk, where a government reshuffle in early July resulted in the installation of Russian political operative Marat Bashirov as chair of the council of ministers and led to local activists' taking lower-ranking roles within the new government.

The evolution of Ukraine's separatist leadership is significant because it signals a shift in Moscow's goals for the separatist movement. The initial focus on involving local pro-Russian activists in the top rungs of the separatist leadership indicates an attempt to cultivate a functioning separatist entity to govern and rally support from the local population. The emerging dominance of figures associated directly with Russia and its security services signals that Moscow is prioritizing the tactical aspects of its campaign in eastern Ukraine and the destabilization of the region.

As Russia continues competing with the West for influence over Ukraine's future, and as the Kremlin considers the possibility of a direct, limited military intervention in Ukraine, the Kremlin's increasingly direct control of the separatist movement is enabling Moscow to use the separatists more effectively as leverage and could help the separatists present a more effective challenge to the advancing Ukrainian forces.

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