‘Colonel vs. Major’: Separatist Defense Minister and Vostok Commander Patch Over Differences

July 15, 2014
Aleksandr Khodakovsky, commander of Vostok Battalion

Last week, Russian ultranationalist Aleksandr Dugin, mentor to the pro-Russian separatists in southeastern Ukraine who has orchestrated mass support on social media, was denouncing as a “mutineer” Aleksandr Khodakovsky, head of the Vostok Battalion in southeastern Ukraine.

Dugin posted on his VKontakte page that Khodakovsky was only running a rump Vostok with only 50 loyal men as other fighters fled to fight directly with Col. Igor Strelkov in Donetsk. Khodakovsky was said to be holed up at the Makeyevugl coal plant in Makeyevka. That fueled further speculation about “payoffs” from Rinat Akhmetov who owns a number of coal mines and steel plants and has walked a fine line bargaining with the pro-Russian separatists as well as Ukrainian military to keep his properties from being shelled. Khodakovsky was also said to have organized the security for a rival ultranationalist from Moscow visiting the region, Sergei Kurginyan, who had denounced Strelkov.

In an interview with Aleksandr Boroday 6 July, Novaya Gazeta journalist Vladimir Dergachev described Khodakovsky as “no less a mysterious figure than Kurginyan” and claimed he had helped to prevent the assets of Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov from being “nationalized” by the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR).

Boroday denied any role regarding Akhmetov’s assets or any insubordination.

But then Dugin must have gotten the memo, because he then backed off his denunciations, and said things were being smoothed over between DPR Defense Ministery Col. Igor Strelkov and the Vostok leader.

He then praised the Russian newspaper Vzlyad which had interviewed the parties and portrayed the DPR leaders as patching things up, even as they remained rivals. The article is titled “Colonel vs. Major,” as Strelkov is said to have the rank of colonel, and Khodakovsky to have the rank of major.

With the separatists fled Slavyansk and decamped to Donetsk, Vzglyad sources had reported a conflict in the DPR leadership; they said fighters were leaving Vostok, and only separatists loyal to Khodakovsky from his days in the SBU remained. Interfax even reported that Vostok had not sworn an oath of allegiance to Strelkov. The denunciation of Strelkov by Sergei Kurginyan appeared to exacerbate these splits and it seemed as if “Moscow” was distancing themselves from the colonel.

But according to Andrei Purgin, vice premier of the DPR, “there is a conflict of approaches and not a conflict of personalities.” Khodakovsky believes that “the consequences of military actions can be minimized,” Purgin explained, “but that’s impossible, since there’s a war on,” says Purgin, who added that he believed Boroday would bring the two rivals together. The Interpreter has translated an excerpt from Vzglyad:

“‘The conditions are difficult. For various technical reasons contradictions are inevitable but all of this is being smoothed over. People realize that they are working for one common goal. So it is here: a collective body will be created and even if there are some frictions, people will be forced to work together,’ promised Purgin.”

Another DPR representative interviewed by Vzglyad, Andrei Rodkin explained that Khodakovsky is blamed for the failure of the Donetsk airport storming in May, which led to the deaths of 43 separatist fighters, 33 of them from Russia; according to one story, they fell under “friendly fire” as they fled the airport. Khodakovsky has explained it differently; the failure of the Ukrainian Kirovograd 3rd spetsnaz regiment to keep to what he believes was a pledge to withdraw — instead they fired on his men. The Marinovka checkpoint was another battle planned by Khodakovsky that led to separatists’ deaths and loss of vehicles.

“‘As for the insinuations around the Vostok battalion, I emphasize that this division is fighting, and fighting very effectively, in particular in the area of the Saur-Mogila hill, where virtually the whole Azov punitive battalion was destroyed by our artillery,’ Rodkin maintains. Let us note that according to the DPR, the Ukrainian air force bombed the position on Saur-Mogila.”

In a long press conference with Boroday July 10, Strelkov explained that Vostok was still led by Khodakovsky, that he had met with him twice in April and had found a common language , and that he was still subordinate to him as defense minister, although he gave a complicated explanation of how this line of command was working: “units of Battalion Vostok that serve on the frontlines are in operational subordination to the staff of the militia” but in future “will continue as part of the Ministry of State Security.”

On July 11, clearly-marked units of Vostok were seen charging into Donetsk with multiple armored vehicles with some Caucasian men, some of them with what appears to be the flag of South Ossetia (at 3:04); Chechens have fought with Vostok in recent months but were said to return home or to be killed; now it appears others from the Russian Caucasus may have joined.

Khodakovsky, who described himself as head of Vostok early in the conflict, was formerly an officer of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and commanded the Alfa spetsnaz in Donetsk. He was reported to have gone to Kiev during the Maidan protests to drive protesters out of the trade union building. Strelkov has been variously described as a GRU colonel recently admitted he was an FSB agent who fought in both Chechen wars and Transdniestria and was also reportedly part of the Crimean campaign.