From Moscow to Donetsk, Russia's resurgent revanchists are turning against each other. Are Ukraine's pro-Russian firebrands too hot for Russia?
- By Michael WeissMichael Weiss is the editor in chief of the Interpreter, an online journal that translates and analyzes Russian media. Follow him on Twitter: @michaeldweiss.
In the week since eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists withdrew from Slavyansk on July 5, ceding control of their de facto capital to Ukrainian armed forces, their allies in Russia have begun to turn on them. The rebels repaired to Donetsk, some 70 miles to the south, where they burrowed into the civilian infrastructure and, more or less, vowed to use residents as human shields against a feared Ukrainian invasion.
"Who lost Slavyansk?" has become the question on the lips of every proponent of the revanchist project to establish and expand "Novorossiya," the once Russian-conquered lands of the Black Sea region, of which east and southeast Ukraine are crucial constituents. Accusations of betrayal and cowardice leveled against the separatists have been met by counter-accusations that Russian President Vladimir Putin egged on a movement he did not sufficiently support militarily and now seeks to abandon. But the merry-go-round of recriminations is exposing interesting disclosures and hypotheses for what the Kremlin is now playing at in eastern Ukraine.
Most of the furor and speculation centers on the heavily scrutinized figure of Col. Igor Strelkov. Strelkov, whose real name is Igor Girkin, is a Russian national and the self-styled "defense minister" of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), a position that entailed leading the rebel troops in operations across eastern Ukraine. Many suspect that Strelkov, who was born in Moscow, is an active or reserve officer in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. (The European Union sanctioned the colonel in April on charges he worked for the GRU.) He’s said to have fought in Serbia, Chechnya, and Transnistria. Documents recently discovered by reporters at the abandoned separatist headquarters in Slavyansk indicate that Strelkov had also presided over a system of Stalin-like summary justice.
Over the past few months, reactionary Russians lionized Strelkov as a stalwart enemy of the "fascist junta" in Kiev and the ringleader of the separatist cause. A popular online meme had him fronting a Photoshopped version of the movie poster for 300, the adaptation of the pulp comic book about Sparta’s small but formidable defense against the conquering Persian army. (It’s likely an image that Strelkov himself would embrace. Historical re-enactment is Strelkov’s hobby, and he has played Leonidas, the Spartan commander, before.)
But how quickly Greek heroes transform into treacherous wimps.
Within days, some of the colonel’s friends had given up on him. The left-wing Russian ultranationalist theater director and Soviet nostalgic Sergey Kurginyan denounced the "surrender" of the city as a "war crime." He dismissed Strelkov’s perennial complaint that Russia was not supplying the rebels with weapons or materials. In a speech in Moscow, Kurginyan declaimed: "All of that pathetic fable that ‘they’re not helping me,’ ‘they’re not helping me,’ ‘they’re not helping me.’ Recently, he began to receive everything. You understand? Everything that is needed for a warrior."
Pavel Gubarev, the "people’s governor of Donetsk," was having none of this criticism of his defense minister. Firing back at Kurginyan, Gubarev posted to VKontakte (Russia’s version of Facebook): "Any person who criticizes the Commander-in-Chief during war time is a criminal. All the more because this person has no grasp at all on the REAL facts of the ground war, and is relying on certain mythical ‘facts’ known to him alone. And on the whole, it is hard to accept military criticism from a theater director. Most likely these are other people’s thoughts which were whispered to Kurginyan by enemies of Novorossiya." Gubarev went on to elaborate at a rally in Donetsk on July 6 that the "tactical retreat" was in order to "protect Slavyansk’s civilian population" and was "the necessary and brilliant move by General Strelkov."
But on July 8, Kurginyan held his own "press conference" in Donetsk. A bizarre spectacle, even by Russian standards, this affair featured the ultranationalist activist berating the cowards and turncoats under Strelkov’s command without seeming to realize that he was talking directly to two of them: Gubarev himself and Igor Bezler, a pro-Russian military commander based in Gorlovka, a town just to Donetsk’s northeast. In the course of denouncing the turncoats of Slavyansk, Kurginyan made a further admission in relation to Russia’s supply of weaponry to the separatists — which Bezler, a GRU lieutenant colonel and one of the most gruesome rebel leaders in Ukraine, confirmed.
"Russian technical assistance has been supplied by the citizenry, not by the government," Kurginyan said. "Yes, in the beginning, it went horribly. And you did really receive very bad stuff, one out of four not working and so on. But in the last two to three weeks, the situation drastically changed for the better." To this came Bezler’s crucial reply: "We’re talking here about only three tanks and three BTRs [armored personnel carriers]. For Slavyansk."
Kurginyan went on to say that while it was true that Russia’s material support for the rebels was lackluster prior to July 3 — two days before their routing in Slavyansk — since then, the disbursal of lethal aid has improved dramatically and will improve even more: "One of my tasks is to convince Russian civil society to get you more Fagots [anti-aircraft missiles], Kornets [anti-tank missiles] and Iglas [anti-aircraft missiles]."
The press conference ended with Gubarev and Bezler storming out on Kurginyan. But what was disclosed beforehand certainly wasn’t lost on Kiev.
A few weeks ago, the government of newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko alleged that Russia had sent armored vehicles, including at least three T-64 tanks, into Ukraine. The U.S. State Department confirmed the charge, and NATO lent added credence to it, citing satellite footage. Kiev also claimed that Russia was sending anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles that were being used to shoot down Ukrainian helicopters and military transport planes. Moscow strenuously denied it had supplied any such weapons.
Kurginyan’s assertion that any heavy-duty hardware dispatched into eastern Ukraine came from Russia’s "civil society" and not the government was an obvious falsehood — unless NGOs have access to armored vehicles and MANPADS. But here, at last, was Bezler himself conceding that the separatists had received tanks and BTRs from Russia, and a Russian representative reassuring him that "more" anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles were on their way. These acknowledgements constituted a "gotcha" moment for Andriy Lysenko, the spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, who concluded that this press conference verified what Ukraine has been saying all along about Putin’s clandestine war.
Given the absurdist nature of the event — orchestrated by a theater director no less — many wondered whether Kurginyan’s lines were spontaneous or scripted propaganda.
On first glance, by admitting publicly to the weapons transfers, Kurginyan and Bezler played directly into the hands of NATO, the United States, and Ukraine, while also making Putin look like a liar. But from Donetsk, the propaganda value is clear, too: it hints at Moscow’s escalation of support to the separatists, who need a morale boost after their defeat at Slavyansk.
There is evidence to support both theories. On July 11, the Ukrainian government said that at least 30 of its soldiers were killed in a Grad rocket attack south of Luhansk, close to the border with Russia. (The body count was later revised to 19.) Ukrainian officials suggested that the rocket may have actually been fired from within Russia. Videos have also emerged showing DPR militants toting 9K35 Strela-10 vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft missiles in Donetsk — advanced systems that are not, according to RIA Novosti, among those confiscated by separatists from the Ukrainian military. If confirmed, these events would suggest that Russian support is escalating.
Andriy Parubiy, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, offered his own interpretation of what the press conference signified — at a talk hosted this week by the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C.. The disparagement of Strelkov, he said, was the result of an internal spat between separatist factions vying for Putin’s attention and succor. Strelkov "had received large amounts of money from the Kremlin and was not appropriately sharing it with the various other leaders," Parubiy said. "This tension has become highlighted as it seems that Russia may be quietly ignoring pleas for more help from separatists holed up in Donetsk."
Russian journalist Evgeny Gilbo, an expert on nationalist and separatist movements, thinks that the public airing of mutual resentment was an elaborate hoax. Kurginyan and Strelkov, he wrote, are now "shuttling around Donbass [the region encompassing Donetsk and Luhansk] in attempts to consolidate the resistance groups." The endgame is to limit the separatists’ ambitions to the staking out of an "independent Novorossiya, friendly and loyal to the [Russian Federation]."
In either case, it would seem that Strelkov is still very much large and in charge in Donbass. But other interpretations of recent events suggest that the fortunes of Ukraine’s erstwhile Leonidas are on the wane.
For one thing, figures close to the Kremlin are fed up with him. Eduard Bagirov, one of Putin’s former campaign managers, knows something about staging pro-Russian provocations in European countries. In 2011, he was arrested in Chisinau, Moldova, for organizing pro-Kremlin demonstrations and was then subsequently placed under house arrest, from which he fled in the trunk of a car. Bagirov posted to Facebook this week that Strelkov was a petty upstart compared with Putin: "I will never have a positive attitude to a person who tries to undercut Putin with obvious provocations or provocative statements. Really, I’m wildly furious at this rudeness."
Bagirov suggested that Strelkov wasn’t really fighting for Moscow at all, but for himself or possibly the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, a reactionary and ultranationalist "opposition" party that has shipped at least one armored truck to the separatists already. "[F]or me," Bagirov wrote, "Russia is more primary than Donbass; in general I believe that Donbass is not our Russian Crimea, and under no circumstances does Russia need this crap at all, and we are not at all obliged to fight there at all."
If one of Putin’s former campaign managers now believes that this once-prized territory is now expendable to Russia’s broader goal of founding Novorossiya, then it may be that the Kremlin’s mainstream constituency is beginning to tire of the war.
Another eyebrow-raising development, this one in Russia, was the sacking of Alexander Dugin from his post at Moscow State University in late June. The Rasputin-bearded Dugin, the country’s foremost philosopher of "Eurasianism," has been the most ardent cheerleader not just for the separatist cause, but for Russia’s outright invasion and annexation of eastern Ukraine. Now, though, he’s out of a job at the most elite Russian university, a termination that couldn’t have happened without political pressure from the top. Dugin’s fall from grace could mean that yesterday’s useful pro-war ideologue has suddenly become today’s dangerous subversive. Dugin was fired before the fall of Slavyansk, but he remains one of the separatists’ most outspoken admirers.
Other voices in the Russian media have begun to defend Strelkov as a hero who was betrayed by the Motherland. Some have even cast him as viable political alternative — not to Poroshenko, but to Putin. Egor Prosvirnin, an ultranationalist who edits the website "Sputnik and Pogrom," went on a popular talk show this week to suggest that Strelkov would make a better opposition presidential candidate than either Alexey Navalny, the de facto leader of Russia’s opposition, or Boris Nemtsov, the former first deputy prime minister under Putin who then became a long-standing critic of the regime.
Nemtsov, while not quite agreeing with Prosvirnin’s endorsement, nevertheless agreed that Strelkov represents a direct threat to Putin’s power. "Putin perfectly well understands that after the end of the war (and it will inevitably end) Strelkov and his comrades-at-arms will return to Russia," he wrote on Facebook. "They will return very angry, since they believe and rightly so, that Putin has betrayed them. He did not take Donbass into its fold, he did not send in forces. He provided some help, but not what had been expected. Except for the journalists, he abandoned those killed in Donetsk and Luhansk and did not help the families of those who died. Putin is a traitor, cad, and fraud."
Bathing Strelkov in such a patriotic light, in contrast to the ne plus ultra of patriotism who resides in the Kremlin, isn’t likely to do the military commander any favors in the long term — especially if he starts to embrace his good press.
No episode of speculative Kremlinology would be complete without mentioning Russia’s "grey cardinal" — Vladislav Surkov — the mastermind of Russia’s response to the Maidan protest movement and an architect of its ongoing shenanigans in eastern Ukraine. (He was sanctioned by the United States in March, much to his disdainful amusement.)
According to Boris Rozhin, editor of the Russian newspaper Golos Sevastopolya and a well-known blogger, Surkov is behind the campaign now directed against Strelkov. Surkov, Rozhin says, is surreptitiously trying to broker a deal with Kiev and the West to end the war entirely by peacefully transforming Donbass into something similar to Moldova’s Transnistria — a Russian-controlled exclave on Ukrainian soil. Kiev’s supposed interlocutor with Surkov for this grand bargain is Rinat Akhmetov, the oligarch and mining magnate of Donbass accused of paying off the separatists earlier in the rebellion to keep the peace. Akhmetov then appeared to hedge his bets in May, calling on Ukraine’s new government to "fight, fight, fight" his own ostensible clients.
As Rozhin argued on his LiveJournal blog: "The problem of the DPR is essentially that Akhmetov still has a major influence on the leadership of the DPR and the Donetsk elites. Moscow is taking this point into account and trying to come to an agreement with him (through Surkov and a number of other officials)." But, says Rozhin, Strelkov’s last stand at Donetsk is undermining any hopes of reaching an agreement. If a protracted battle breaks out in Donetsk, Ukraine’s second-largest industrial city, Akhmetov’s properties, factories, and assets now stand to be powdered in a devastating and lengthy war of attrition, giving Surkov little to barter with. For a deal to go through, Strelkov’s intransigence must be stopped.
This conspiratorial scenario — with Russia’s Ginsberg-and-Tupac-loving political technologist at the center of Ukrainian decision-making — may seem far-fetched, but it has at least one prominent proponent in Dugin. The Eurasianist guru not only sees Surkov’s invisible hand trying to restrain Strelkov but has developed this accusation into a new us-versus-them dichotomy in the Russian domestic argument about Ukraine. By Dugin’s lights, Strelkov and his troops in Donetsk now constitute the "party of war," while Surkov, whom Dugin also blames for his dismissal from Moscow State University, heads up the "party of defeatists."
Strelkov faces other challenges too, including competition for the role of Russia’s most-favored separatist leader.
Alexander Khodakovsky, a "defector" from the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and the former head of its Alfa division in Donetsk, is in charge of the Vostok Battalion, a separatist group that bears the same name of a disbanded Chechen unit overseen by the GRU. Last month, the battalion seized the DPR’s administrative building from the ragtag amateurs who had first overtaken it and were presumably under Strelkov’s command. As Mark Galeotti observed on Foreign Policy recently, the Vostok Battalion’s presence in Donbass is the starkest signal yet of Putin’s desire to impose GRU supervision on the Strelkovites, using battle-hardened commandos from the Caucasus and Russia’s revivified military intelligence apparatus. Khodakovsky has already split with Strelkov, describing him as more of an equal than superior and as a summer solider who can return to Russia whenever he wants. "There cannot be a single leader giving orders," Khodakovsky said on July 10 in Makiivka, the town just beyond Donetsk where the Vostok Battalion is now holed up. "Because if Strelkov suddenly decides what he wants is — in the interests of protecting the lives of Donetsk citizens and the lives of militiamen — to abandon Donetsk, then we will not follow his orders."
Gazeta.ru reporter Vladimir Dergachev has suggested that Khodakovsky is Akhmetov’s favored rebel: "[H]e prevented the nationalization of Akhmetov’s assets, it is his people who guarding Kurginyan himself [in Donetsk]." Dergachev made these remarks in an interview with Alexander Borodai, the self-proclaimed "prime minister" of the DPR, on July 6, while Borodai was in Moscow seeking greater aid from the Kremlin. Borodai denied that Khodakovsky was tied in any way to Akhmetov; he denied that Surkov was of the "party of doves"; and he denied that Strelkov was still anything other than "the leader for the whole republic."
Whatever is really going on behind the scenes, a schism is undeniably emerging in Russia over how to proceed in Ukraine.
Putin put Russians on a paranoid and jingoistic war-footing for months with a 24-hour news cycle of denunciations of the "gay Nazis in Kiev taking orders from the State Department," the manufacture of alleged Ukrainian atrocities (based on images that were often of Russian atrocities in Chechnya and elsewhere), and Soviet-levels of disinformation and propaganda. Lowering the temperature on a national fever isn’t easy. While Russian polling data suggests that as much as two-thirds of the population opposes military intervention, and the state-run media has begun treating the conflict more as a bloody stalemate than sure path to victory, the neo-imperialists are now furious at the man who led them on.
Dugin has said that "Russian patriots are close to turning away" from Putin, though his estimate and definition of what a Russian patriot is may be questionable. Mikhail Aleksandrov, a researcher at Moscow State Institute for International Relations, says that not going to war in Ukraine might prove "catastrophic" for Putin because his "support by a significant part of society was based on his defense of national interests" and he himself made protecting the "Russian-speaking populations" of Ukraine just such an interest.
As ever, Moscow’s foreign policy is inextricable from domestic politics. The gravest threat to Putin has always been from his right, the blood-and-soil nationalists who, over the course of almost 15 years in power, he has encouraged, underwritten, criticized, and tried to contain at home — often simultaneously. But now some of those challengers are running around Ukraine with tanks and anti-aircraft missiles. At home, they are screaming for blood. How do you keep Dugin and Strelkov down on the farm once they’ve seen Novorossiya?