‘Managed Spring’: How Moscow Parted Easily with the ‘Novorossiya’ Leaders

December 9, 2014
Supporters of Russian-backed separatist leader Col. Igor Strelkov at a demonstration in Moscow in the summer of 2014. Sign: "Our Name is Strelkov!" Photo by East News.

Novaya Gazeta’s correspondent Pavel Kanygin, among the best chroniclers of the Russian-backed separatist leaders in the Donbass, published a good round up on December 8 on the fate of the Russian-backed separatists, titled “Managed Spring,” in a reference to the concept of the “managed democracy” of President Vladimir Putin.

He covers Colonel Igor Strelkov (Girkin), commander of the forces of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR); “Bes” or Demon, Major General Igor Bezler; Ataman Nikolai Kozitsyn, a Cossack commander; and Aleksandr Khodakovsky, a former officer in the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and now the head of Vostok Battalion in the “Lugansk People’s Republic” (LPR). Where are the “heroes of Novorossiya” now, asks Kanygin, referring to the term the fighters used to describe an imaginary realm based on historic Russian imperial lands — or just parts of Donetsk and Lugansk regions they control.

The “turbulent “Volodin spring” of the Crimea and the East of Ukraine has ended in the quiet ‘Surkov autumn,” says Kanygin, referring to Vyacheslav Volodin, the first deputy chief of the Kremlin staff and Vladislav Surkov, head of the division for Commonwealth of Independent States of the former Soviet Union (CIS), Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Kremlin. Surkov’s department has recently undergone a shake-up, with dismissals, resignations and some new staff, and admonitions about “losing Kharkiv” and other Ukrainian cities where Russia tried to instigate riots and takeovers by pro-Russian forces. Says Kanygin (translation by The Interpreter):

The Kremlin has finally rejected the idea of the independence of the DPR and LPR. And as our source, close to the ‘Novorossiya’ project notes, wishes to “push the republics back into Ukraine on conditions of some kind of autonomy.”

Three Novaya Gazeta sources simultaneously — in the presidential administration, in the government, and directly in the DPR and LPR — confirmed: we can forget about an independent Novorossiya. Vladislav Surkov is involved with the “pushing back” of the eastern regions. And also, under Surkov’s direction, Igor Udovichekno, the new deputy head of the administration’s division for social-economic cooperation with the CIS, Abakhazia and South Ossetia; he took the place of Boris Rapoport. Rapoport’s resignation is also connected to the change in moods inside the Kremlin. As the “Novorossiya Popular Front” put it, “Slava [Surkov] decided that Rapoport was not coping, although we were working on the whole fairly well.” It should be noted that Rapoport had enjoyed great authority among the leaders of the separatist movement and was considered their “ideological advocate.”

Strelkov has been Surkov’s greatest critic, and in recent weeks has been giving critical interviews to any media that will listen. He openly blames Surkov for the failure of the “Russian spring,” as the separatists dubbed their Donbass offensive. Surkov is also believed to be the main force behind the purge of all the Russian leaders, as one after another they’ve all been dismissed in recent months, ostensibly because they were “too independent” or even “rogue.” Bes had even reached the point of declaring a “Gorlovka-Yenakiev People’s Republic” in Gorlovka and neighboring towns and defied the DPR leadership, even negotiating directly with Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy and exchanging POWs. Bes got the Privat-bank ATMs to work in Gorlovka and was also said to change tactics with Ukraine in recent months, conceiving of “an autonomous Donbass inside a united Ukraine.”

Kozitsyn, too, had declared a “Cossack People’s Republic” in the western districts of Lugansk Region where his people were busy raids and robberies. He was infamous for having two portraits on the wall of his office: President Vladimir Putin, and Surkov, but it didn’t save him; he has now disappeared from the scene, soon after a Novaya Gazeta reporter spoke with him. A source in the “Novorossiya” camp said he is still alive, although his men were getting savaged by Oplot, the battalion once run by DPR leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko.

Screen shot from Vice News video of interview of Nikolai Kozitsyn  in November 2014.

Screen shot from Vice News video of interview of Nikolai Kozitsyn in November 2014.

According to Kanygin’s sources, the operation to remove the prominent separatist leaders was run by Gen. Sergei Surovikin of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff. Bezler was sent off to the Crimea “with honors”; Kozitsyn’s people were charged with stealing coal and re-selling it to Ukrainian business, which is why the ataman seems to have gone into hiding.

Regarding Strelkov, a source in the presidential administration said, referring to him by his name and patronymic, “Igor Ivanovich is attracting attention to himself in vain. The past cannot be returned.” Kanygin says Strelkov still has a following in the Donbass though; the commanders who have become infamous with the Donetsk Airport Battle, Givi and Motorola, are still loyal to him.

The purge of the Muscovite separatist leaders is being done for the sake of “confirming unified leadership” of Zakharchenko, who was said to be promoted with Surkov by Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. Kanygin says the Oplot fight club Zakharchenko used to run was founded in Kharkov by Party of Regions member Aleksandr Bobkov, and among the founders was another Donetsk boss Sergei Arbuzov, who was the head of the government of Ukraine under deposed leader Viktor Yanukovych. Now Arbuzov is in Moscow. Oplot is said to be financed “by people close to Akhmetov,” says a source, ever since Oplot fighters were put to work guarding Akhmetov’s properties and keeping them safe from their more aggressive separatist fellows.

Despite having installed Zakharchenko, the Moscow “curators,” as the managers of “Novorossiya” are called, don’t respect him, but had to put someone in place from the region.

Surkov’s appointees are living large in Donetsk, urban life under their rule has acquired certain traits of Moscow decadence. For example, oysters have appeared in restaurants, which weren’t there before the war. Dreamy conversations about the imminent introduction of the ruble have begun. Even so, disenchantment in Zakharchenko is already sensed in the staff; he is called an incompetent manager.

As for Khodakovsky, Kanygin’s sources says his influence began to wane with the seizure of the Donetsk Airport by Ukrainian forces in May 2014; he is viewed as a compromise figure acceptable to Kiev, given his notion of “Donbass inside a united Ukraine,” even though he corrected this later to say “a pro-Russian Ukraine.” Some of Khodakovsky’s men crossed over to Strelkov after his flight from Slavyansk to Donetsk, where Khodakovsky’s influence “is melting,” says a source, especially after he said he didn’t recognized the DPR last summer. Khodakovsky was also seen cooling his heels in Bezler’s waiting room for two hours last summer while Bes spoke to the media — which meant he was no longer a priority. Meanwhile, Oplot is gaining strength. Kanygin concludes:

As can be seen, field commanders playing at popular leaders always ends dramatically. Moscow bids farewell easily to its numerous Novorossiya leaders, despite their loyalty and fain. And finds new ones with the same ease.