Divisions appear among Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists

The Associated Press | Thursday, Jul. 10 2014

DONETSK, UKRAINE — Deep strains emerged Thursday in the ranks of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow insurgents as dozens turned in their weapons in disgust at Russian inaction and bickering broke out between rebel factions.

In the past two weeks, Ukrainian government troops have halved the amount of territory held by the rebels and have grown better equipped and more confident by the day. Once fearful of losing further pieces of Ukraine to Russia, they have shifted their strategy to containing the insurgents, whose pleas to join Russia have been ignored by President Vladimir Putin.

Pushed back into Ukraine’s eastern industrial city of Donetsk, the pro-Russia militias appear to be focusing their efforts now on hit-and-run operations, bombing transportation links and bracing for more assaults from government forces.

Signs of a rift within the rebellion became evident Thursday when the head of the influential Vostok battalion announced he would not submit to the authority of the military leader of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, Igor Girkin.

Mr. Girkin, a Russian better known by his assumed name Strelkov, has attained hero status among supporters of the insurgency. Ukrainian authorities have identified him as a former Russian military intelligence agent active in taking over Crimea before Russia annexed it in March.

Yet he has also been criticized by some for leading the rebel withdrawal last weekend from the eastern city of Slovyansk, 110 kilometres north of Donetsk, reportedly to protect civilian lives.

Vostok commander Alexander Khodakovsky alluded to that.

“There cannot be a single leader giving orders,” he declared. “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.”

Mr. Khodakovsky was speaking in Makiivka, a town just outside Donetsk, where his men relocated after a reported falling-out with Strelkov.

The ill will also appears to stem from a feeling among the rebels that Russia has done too little to help them.

“Strelkov is a military officer of non-local domicile, while we are locals and will not, therefore, allow the people of Donetsk to remain without our support and protection,” Mr. Khodakovsky said.

Strelkov could go back to Russia whenever he wanted, he noted.

Ukraine says Moscow is arming and supporting the rebels, charges it has denied.

In another sign of deteriorating morale among the rebels, several dozen militia fighters garrisoned in a university dorm in Donetsk abandoned their weapons and fatigues in their rooms Thursday.

“Russia abandoned us. The leadership is bickering. They promise us money but don’t pay it. What’s the point of fighting?” said 29-year old Oleg, a former miner.

Oleg, who declined to give his surname for fear of being punished for desertion, said he had served in the militia for a month and planned to go home to Makiivka.

Strelkov has admitted substantial difficulties enlisting the support of the locals in eastern Ukraine.

“In truth, the number of volunteers for the several million-strong population of Donbass, for a mining region where people are used to dangerous and difficult work, has been somewhat low,” he told a rebel-run TV station this week. “It is very difficult to protect this territory with the forces at our disposal.”

At a news conference, the prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic dismissed talk of infighting.

“These are lies and disinformation. There are no disagreements. We are now organizing our joint work,” Alexander Boroday said.

He said 70,000 Donetsk residents have been evacuated from the city and more will follow. He did not elaborate.

While rebels hold Donetsk, the city’s international airport, which has been closed since early May, remains in government hands. Militia forces mounted an artillery assault on the terminal Thursday.

“Our aim was not to capture the airport. The enemy sustained serious casualties,” Strelkov said.

His claim could not be independently verified.

Rebels regularly conduct lightning attacks on checkpoints, and earlier this week they blew up three bridges leading into Donetsk to hinder the movement of Ukrainian troops.

While waging what increasingly resembles guerrilla warfare, Strelkov has said he wants to transform the rebels into a regular standing army with a unified command. The rebel leadership also said this week it will pay its soldiers monthly salaries equivalent to between $500 (U.S.) and $700.

The plans to create a professional army also reflect the inability to recruit more volunteers.

“I know many of them from school. I support them, but I am not going to fight,” said 39-year labourer Artyom Yermolyuk. “What awaits them when this is all over and the Ukrainian authorities are here?”



Russian Seizes Authority Over Ukraine Rebels
NYT | JULY 10, 2014

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — Late one afternoon last month, as separatist militia fighters and Ukrainian forces exchanged fire, a small-time thief by the name of Aleksei B. Pichko left his home on the southern edge of Slovyansk and headed for an abandoned residence at 17 Sadovaya Street. He had been drinking, and wanted to “see what could be stolen from there,” according to documents recovered at the rebel headquarters after their retreat over the weekend.

Mr. Pichko, 30, never returned. An order signed and stamped by the rebels’ powerful commander, Igor Strelkov, detailed Mr. Pichko’s fate: death by firing squad for pilfering a pair of pants and two shirts.

“They told me they took him to the S.B.U.,” said his mother, Maria Pichko, referring to the headquarters in this former separatist stronghold. “I don’t know anything more.”

The death sentence makes reference to a Stalin-era Soviet law, and in it Mr. Strelkov warns ominously that crimes “committed in the zone of military activity will continue to be punished ruthlessly and decisively.”

Mr. Strelkov, a native Muscovite whose real name is Igor Girkin, is a figure as mysterious as he is fearsome. On Thursday, he made his first public appearance after months of fighting, attending a news conference in the provincial capital of Donetsk alongside Alexander Borodai, another Russian citizen leading the uprising here.

Having lost Slovyansk, Mr. Strelkov has moved to assert his authority over the fractious separatist militias that are gathering in Donetsk and Luhansk, the other major city in the rebellious east, rallying them for an urban war that would be both bloody and destructive — not to speak of suicidal, in the eyes of many analysts.

“The enemy is putting Donetsk under siege,” Mr. Strelkov said, unsmiling, with his hands folded. “The situation overall is tense, but the militia are ready to defend Donetsk. They are counting on holding their positions on the edges of the city and on preventing the enemy from coming inside the city.”

An ultranationalist and reactionary, Mr. Strelkov fits an increasingly familiar profile in Russia, one that has emerged strongly with the re-election of President Vladimir V. Putin. Messianic and militaristic, they combine a deep belief in Russia’s historic destiny with a contempt for the “decadent” West, while yearning for the re-establishment of the traditional czarist empire.

“Strelkov is almost a caricature of the Putin era,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services at New York University.

A former intelligence agent, Mr. Strelkov fought in the post-Soviet conflicts in Transnistria, Serbia and Chechnya. Yet, his ideological rigidity precedes any connections he has to Russia’s security services, stretching back at least to his days at the Moscow State Institute for History and Archives. There, Mr. Strelkov obsessed over military history and joined a small but vocal group of students who advocated a return to monarchism.

“This is a person who lives in the beginning of the 20th century,” said Aleksei Makarkin, who studied with Mr. Strelkov in college. “He was like this even back then.”

Were it not for the Ukraine crisis, he might have followed his passions mostly in obscurity. But he joined in the Russian takeover of Crimea and after that moved on to eastern Ukraine — with or without authorization from Moscow —where he consolidated control over the rebel military wing by imposing a system of dark and ruthless justice.

Kiev and its Western allies have said he is an active Russian agent, but they have offered no proof, and Mr. Strelkov has often seemed to follow his own counsel, rather than Moscow’s dictates.

“When he moved into eastern Ukraine, I suspect, it was him taking his own initiative,” Mr. Galeotti said. “We saw him doing things that didn’t fit Russia’s direct game plan,” such as holding hostage for weeks military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

With the Kremlin now talking about peace and ratcheting down the volume on its anti-Kiev propaganda, Mr. Strelkov may be facing a bleak future. He has been openly critical of Moscow for failing to provide more aid to the rebels, and has been criticized for it lately by Russian officials. But many analysts fear that Mr. Strelkov could go rogue, making it difficult even for the Kremlin to bring the warring parties in eastern Ukraine to the negotiating table.

From the documents left behind in his headquarters, it is obvious that he ran his own iron-fisted show in Slovyansk. In the fetid basement of his headquarters in the local security services building, which served as a dungeon for some of his dozens of hostages, a ceramic bowl full of prison food remained, uneaten and curdled. Socks still hung to dry from wooden sticks wedged into the wall. A plastic bottle collected drippings from the ceiling — water the detainees likely used to wash themselves with a single shared bar of soap.

Alongside Mr. Pichko’s file were documents detailing two other trials by “military-field tribunal,” which include handwritten witness statements addressed to Mr. Strelkov. In one case, a man accused of shining a flashlight to inform Ukrainian troops of rebel positions was acquitted. In another, however, Mr. Strelkov ordered the execution of two militiamen who allegedly kidnapped a local man and looted his home.

In all three, Mr. Strelkov emerges as a man willing to take extreme measures.

“They shot him for two shirts,” Ms. Pichko said on the dirt road outside her home, tears welling. “It’s not right.”

As Mr. Strelkov spoke on Thursday, rebel forces were engaged in an assault at the Donetsk airport, where black smoke rose into the evening. A Ukrainian military spokesman said that the attack was repelled, but reported the deaths of three soldiers elsewhere in the east — one killed in an ambush outside Luhansk and two by a land mine in a village near Donetsk. And along the border with Russia, Ukrainian forces seized control of a crossing at Chervonopartyzansk, according to the presidential administration.

Rebel leaders announced that they would be evacuating “tens of thousands” of people from certain neighborhoods of Donetsk in the coming days. Mr. Borodai declined to say which neighborhoods, but said the evacuations would be voluntary, and were necessary to prevent a “humanitarian catastrophe.”

At the news conference, Mr. Strelkov appeared resolute, despite the Ukrainian military’s new momentum and the apparent change of strategy in the Kremlin. He revealed that he had indeed served in the Russian F.S.B., the successor to the K.G.B., up until March 31, 2013, but that he had left the service. Western governments say that he is controlled by Russia’s military intelligence service, the G.R.U.

Either way, there can be little doubt that he relishes the battlefield, and that he will be highly reluctant to give it up. He wrote about his attachment to war in his memoirs of the fighting in Bosnia, published in 1999.

“After the first euphoria — we’re alive! — came the sensation familiar to most professional fighters: the desire to risk it again, to live a ‘full’ life,” he wrote. “It’s the so-called ‘gunpowder poisoning syndrome.’ ”

Sabrina Tavernise contributed reporting from Donetsk, Ukraine, and David M. Herszenhorn from Moscow.



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