From Russia with zeal: Ukraine’s new rebels

A growing dominance of Russian nationalists and the shooting down of flight MH17 have widened cracks in Ukraine’s rebel movement
Daniel McLaughlin
Irish Times | Jul 26, 2014

On a sultry night this week in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, a car and a minibus pulled off a deserted main road into the empty car park of one of the city’s best hotels.

The van’s doors slid open and men in fatigues carrying Kalashnikovs took up protective positions around the car as its corpulent grey-haired driver heaved himself out and led his tall blonde companion to the hotel restaurant.

As the striking couple dined, their bodyguards waited in the minibus, and were caught by surprise when another group of even more heavily armed men, wearing camouflage and balaclava masks, surrounded their vehicle with guns raised.

Under the muzzles of their assailants’ rifles they were lined up with their hands on the roof of the van; in the restaurant one of their comrades weaved through tables of journalists to whisper to his boss that they had a problem.

Bona fides were eventually established and the gunmen parted peacefully, driving away through the silent streets of a fearful city whose fate is as unclear as the identities and true intentions of the pro-Russian separatists who will decide it.

That night it seemed the standoff could be part of a split in rebel ranks, as a top commander claimed the militants had the kind of missile that Ukraine and its US allies believe shot down flight MH17, killing all 298 people on board.

Alexander Khodakovsky, who leads a battalion called Vostok (or East), contradicted the denials of all other rebel leaders by saying a unit was moving a powerful Buk surface-to-air missile in the area where – and at the time when – the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 disintegrated over eastern Ukraine.

He said the region where the aircraft came down, between Donetsk and the Russian border, was “occupied by our, let’s say, partners in the rebel movement, with which our co-operation is somewhat conditional”.

Khodakovsky insisted to the Reuters news agency that he was loyal to the separatist movement, even though he might “think otherwise, say otherwise or have an alternative view” to other commanders. “This causes real discomfort to my soul,” he said. He later denied saying the rebels had a Buk, but Reuters released a recording confirming his quotes; his whereabouts are now unclear, with some local media claiming he is in Ukrainian custody.

Khodakovsky led the “Alpha” anti-terrorism unit, Ukraine’s security services, in Donetsk, until the revolution that ousted Viktor Yanukovich in February. He was in Kiev during protests that left more than 100 demonstrators dead, most by sniper fire, and culminated in Donetsk-born Yanukovich and his allies fleeing to Russia.

Suspicious

Khodakovsky denies playing any part in the shooting of protesters but opposed an uprising seen by many in eastern Ukraine as a western-backed coup that is hostile to them and their deep cultural and economic ties to Russia.

People who know Khodakovsky say he cares deeply about Donetsk and is convinced he is defending his home city and region from hostile forces. But they also say he is suspicious of the Russians who have replaced locals as rebel leaders, even as Moscow rejects accusations of co-ordinating the insurgents and sending fighters and advanced weapons to help them.

Khodakovsky was dismissed as the rebels’ security minister this month after being blamed for Vostok’s defeat in two heavy battles, and the separatist defence chief Igor Strelkov relocated his forces to Donetsk.

Strelkov withdrew his men and armour from the town of Slovyansk, about 100km from Donetsk, after a concerted artillery campaign from Ukraine’s forces, and has since sought to tighten his authority over all aspects of rebel security.

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/from-russia-with-zeal-ukraine-s-new-rebels-1.1878267

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