Trouble in the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’

July 28, 2014
Col. Igor Strelkov and Aleksandr Boroday in Donetsk at a press conference 10 July 2014


There are reports that Igor Bezler or Bes (Demon) has fled his stronghold of Gorlovka yesterday as the city suffered significant damage and deaths in a battle between separatists and the Ukrainian armed forces. There are rumors that Col. Igor Strelkov may have fled, but we have no confirmed information about him or other rebel leaders.

Obviously, ever since Strelkov fled Slavyansk and tried to take over Donetsk, there has been a drive not only to prevail against Ukrainian forces but to prevail in power struggles within the “militia” as the Russian-backed forces euphemistically call themselves.

Last week on 25 July, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) uploaded an intercept of a long conversation between Aleksandr Boroday, the self-declared prime minister of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” with Aleksandr Chesnakov, former deputy secretary of the United Russian General Council and director of the Center for Current Politics. Although Chesnakov left the party last year, the SBU said that United Russia has been directly involved in helping the pro-Russian separatists which they say “proves direct involvement of Russia in inspiration and escalation of the armed conflict in Donetsk and Lugansk regions.”

In the conversation, Boroday creates a neologism out of an old Russian term, bemoaning the semikommandirshchina — “seven commander rule,” a term improvised from the Russian word semiboyarshchina, which was the “seven boyar rule“.

By an eerie coincidence, it was July 17 — the same date as the downing of the Malaysian airliner MH17 — in 1610 when seven boyars, or Russian princes, toppled Tsar Vasily Shuisky and forced him first into a monastery and ultimately to prison in Poland where he died. At that time it was the Polish advance into Russia in the Time of Troubles that led the boyars to rid themselves of an unpopular and ineffective ruler.

When Boroday used the term, he both meant the rivalry among different separatist leaders and their implied threat to President Putin as they get out ahead of his covert support of their armed insurrection. Earlier we had seen Strelkov complain about Putin’s behavior similar to Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in not supporting nationalists sufficiently — ending up dead in a jail cell in the Hague.

Writing in the Daily Beast, Anna Nemtsova cites an essay by Strelkov’s associate Ivan Druz’ with the same message:

“Putin, thank God, is much more intelligent and decisive than Viktor Fyodorovich [Yanukovych]. That’s clear. And some of his decisive measures instill hope that the tragedy of Ukraine will not become a tragedy for Russia and Putin’s personal tragedy. As DPR Defense Minister Igor Strelkov justly said, by taking Crimea, Putin essentially began establishing order throughout Russia, and he cannot back down from this. However, it is also clear that a significant and influential part of his entourage is trying to come to an agreement with the Kiev pro-Western terrorists. Although the examples of Yanukovych, Qaddafi, Milosevic would seem to make them wider. But no, history teaches us that it teaches nothing.”

Some believe Putin’s enabling of the separatists to cause the tragedy of MH17 could be Putin’s downfall, and there has been a lot of discussion lately of a “palace coup,” as Paul Goble has covered here in Windows on Russia.

Boroday complains bitterly in the intercepted phone call, calling the situation in Donetsk “a total mess” and “absolutely rotten”. The DPR is now like “a dick with a head shaped like Donetsk” with “quite weak prospects, to be honest.” He complains about relations with Aleksandr Khodakovsky, head of the Vostok Battalion, and explains that he is the only one that Khodakovsky will talk to now, as the other leaders like Strelkov and Bezler don’t trust him. This conversation came two days after Khodakovsky’s admission to Reuters that he had heard the Lugansk separatists had a Buk, a claim he subsequently retracted. Boroday says he doesn’t trust him “very much and alludes to a “bunch of different crappy factors” — these may be a reference to the association with Rinat Akhmetov or his failures in battle.

Separatists guarding Akhmetov's house in May 2014. Photo by Evgeny Feldman.

Separatists guarding Akhmetov’s house in May 2014. Photo by Evgeny Feldman.

Of course, the anti-Strelkov forces see this situation differently, as this meme with contrasting lists circulated by the blogger Colonel Cassad, claiming that Khodakovsky has held on to the strategic Saur-Magila mound and Strelkov has retreated from a number of battles — but omitting reference to the chief beef against Khodakovsky, that he lost the battle of the Donetsk Airport by attempting to make a deal with Ukrainian troops that fell through. (To get a feel for what is involved in defending Saur-Mogila, see Noah Sneider’s report from the area in the New Republic; Ukrainian forces reported took over Saur-Mogila this morning, 28 July).

Contrast between Strelkov and Khodakovsky via

Contrast between Strelkov and Khodakovsky via

Boroday describes holding a meeting with businessmen to introduce a 5% tax to support the war — what Putin already contemplates introducing in Russia, as if he were already an extension of the Russian Federation — and he even makes reference to expecting a call from the Russian presidential administration. But he fulfills his order even as he realizes “there are no economic prospects” and the businessmen are worried because of constant shelling. He complains of running out of money — he had to pay Strelkov his 1 million hryvnias ($85,000) — but Chesnakov assures him he can draw down more.

Chesnakov has another order for Boroday — and invokes the name of Archimandrite Tikhon — Putin’s personal father confessor — with whom he is traveling. He urges him to get Strelkov to express his loyalty to Putin and affirm him as the “commander-in-chief” and as a great leader — the seven boyars’ issue — although he can’t directly fulfill his orders because he is in “another country.” He stresses the importance of Strelkov performing this gesture – oddly, just as Kurginyan did in his press conference that caused the Pavel Gubarev and other separatists to walk out. Boroday yesses him as if he is merely there to fulfill Moscow’s command.

The second half of the SBU tape contains a conversation between separatists “vice prime minister” Andrei Purgin and Denis Pushilin, who was recently forced to resign from the DPR. Purgin criticizes Col. Strelkov as a “f**cking mad colonel” for telling the mayor (who he forced to leave) “let’s stop public transport and blow up 9-storey buildings on the outskirts.” Pushilin complains that Strelkov has stopped normal trade in the city so people were going hungry and wouldn’t let the coal be delivered, even stopping the mines; Reuters has reported that the separatists have confiscated all the explosives from the mines, forcing them to a halt.

“He’s a f**cking great fighter, but shit, it turns out fewer enemies die than the civilian population he’s supposed to be liberating,” says Pushilin — which about sums up the entire premise of the DNR. Pushilin complains of Strelkov sitting and receiving petitioners for 10 hours like a Soviet bureaucrat, and getting involved in trying to run banks. Pushilin wishes he would stick to fighting and stay out of economic affairs.

“He’ll ruin a million-strong city for the sake of killing ten thousands Ukes,” wails Pushilin. And that sounds like what is happening now in Donetsk.

Boroday also held a press conference regarding the MH17 recovery effort and gave an interview to BBC.

Boroday denies flatly that he and the separatists kept international inspectors out — calling it “a lie” and claimed he found it a “horror show” to allow bodies to remain in the open for days.

But one has only to see the tweets and press interviews from Michael Bociurkiw during the crisis, and watch this video that shows how a rebel leader waving a gun and telling OSCE officials that the area is unstable and they can’t stay to understand that it’s Boroday who is evading the truth — he even concedes in the interview that they couldn’t guarantee full security.

Max Seddon of Buzzfeed evoked the Soviet-style culture of the separatists when he explained how they met for hours with the Malaysians when they were finally allowed in, and then insisted that they agree to recognize the DPR and LPR — something not even Russia has done! — before being allowed to receive the black box from the airplane wreckage.

In his BBC interview, Boroday claims the separatists get all their weapons and military vehicles from raids on Ukrainian storehouses or in battles. He also claims “we didn’t get a Buk” — although there is ample evidence of the presence of Buks in the region and pro-Kremlin media has reported repeatedly that separatists have themselves announced that they used Buks to down Ukrainian airplanes — including on the day of the MH17 tragedy when they bragged about downing what they thought was an AN-26. Boroday dismissed this as “Photoshop.”

“We get support from the Russian people,” says Boroday, side-stepping the question from the BBC reporter as to whether he gets aid from Russia formally. Boroday denies he was an officer of the FSB or any other intelligence agency, although he admitted “many acquaintances” in the agencies. He then mentions a “very good friend” who is a “former” intelligence agent — Strelkov, whom he has known for 20 years, even while he was still employed in intelligence. Boroday portrays such connection as “normal” for “any state’s elite” in a corporative sense — just as their are business people and government officials, there are intelligence agents with whom one deals if one is in the elite. Despite such ties, Boroday denies that the Russian government has any influence over him.