After almost two months of battling with Ukraine’s armed forces, on the night of 4-5 July, 2014, the pro-Russia militias under the command of Igor Girkin aka Strelkov retreated to Donetsk from the cities of Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, Kostyantynivka, Artemivsk and Debaltseve. Not all the supporters of separatism welcomed Strelkov’s appearance in Donetsk. Among them was the city’s leading separatist military commander, Aleksandr Khodakovsky of the Vostok Battalion. In an article by Richard Balmforth and Maria Tsvetkova of Reuters, Khodakovsky is quoted as saying:
'Frankly speaking, we didn't believe them when we got phone calls saying they were leaving Slovyansk,’ he told a small group of journalists including Reuters. ‘I hope Strelkov did not come here in order to go away,’ he said. ‘There will not be one single commander here ... because if Mr Strelkov suddenly chooses to leave Donetsk, with the aim of preserving the lives of the people of Donetsk and the lives of the volunteers, then we will not follow his order,’ Khodakovsky said.
Khodakovsky has yet to subordinate himself to Strelkov, who claims to be the commander-in-chief of all separatist forces in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). As Ukraine’s armed forces are already into the suburbs of Donetsk, it will be interesting to see how the split between Strelkov and Khodakovsky will affect the DPR's survival. As Khodakovsky finds himself outgunned by Strelkov’s men, he and his Vostok Battalion have relocated from Donetsk to the adjoining city of Makiivka.
Aleksandr Khodakovsky, commander of the Vostok Battalion. Photo via author
This was not Khodakovsky’s first conflict with fellow separatists. His Vostok Battalion had forced out the Horlivka militia from Donetsk. It also drove out the DPR militia from its headquarters in Donetsk.
Before the insurrection in eastern Ukraine, Khodakovsky had strong ties with the then government of Ukraine. Prior to March of this year, he headed the elite SBU (state security service of Ukraine) commando unit in Donetsk. In that capacity, he took an active part in President Yanukovych’s attempt to overcome the Maidan protesters in Kyiv. What was his exact role in the protests has yet to be determined.
In the DPR government created on 16 May, Khodakovsky held the post of minister of state security. However, he told journalists that the DPR was an irrelevant political structure, as the most important goal was to make Ukraine part of Russia: ‘In practice, we are not fighting for ourselves (for the DPR), but for Russia.’ He is quoted as saying in a 2 July article by Katerina Sergatskova: ‘Personally for me it is not clear at all what it is, I did not personally pay much attention to it. The main thing is to fight the enemy, and it doesn’t matter in what form.’ His contempt for the DPR extends to its political leaders. He spoke dismissively of Denis Pushilin, the DPR’s public face, and the head of the republic’s supreme council, as ‘Just a figurehead,’ to Reuters’ journalist, Gabriela Baczynska on 1 June, 2014.
What they do keep secret is how many Russian citizens are fighting on their side.
While there are personality conflicts and tactical differences among the leaders of the separatist movement, they are bound together by the belief that Ukraine should be part of Russia. They do not hide the presence of Russian citizens in their ranks or their receipt of military and financial support from Russia, and its oligarchs. What they do keep secret is how many Russian citizens are fighting on their side, and the amount and type of military hardware they obtain. They have loudly complained that Russia is not providing enough men and materials, and have repeatedly appealed to President Putin for Russia to intervene directly.
Denials of the presence of Russian fighters or the supply of military hardware come mostly from President Putin and his officials. Putin and his spokesmen have repeatedly said that the fighting in the Donbas is an internal affair, and that Russia has only a limited influence on the separatists.
Khodakovsky’s Vostok Battalion is one of a number of separatist militias in Donetsk. The others are: Oplot (commanded by Aleksander Zakhchrenko); the Russian Orthodox Army (Mikhail Verin); Kalmius; Rus; and Zarya. Until the appearance of Strelkov and his militia, Vostok was the leading military unit in Donetsk.
Until the appearance of Strelkov and his militia, Vostok was the leading military unit in Donetsk.
The name Vostok Battalion first came to public notice at a separatist rally in Donetsk on 9 May, when two Kamaz lorries with ‘Battalion Vostok’ written on their side appeared carrying armed militants.
However, after the appearance of Vostok at a separatist rally in Donetsk on 25 May, journalists reported that it was a Chechen unit, apparently based on the fact that it bore the same name as the battalion sent by Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Russia Chechen Republic president, to fight against Georgia in 2008. However, on closer examination, the battalion seen in Donetsk on 25 May had an ‘All-Russian’ composition. Besides fighters from Ukraine, it included many Russian citizens who had served in Russia’s ‘hot spots’ like Chechnya, Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Igor Girkin, aka Igor Strelkov at a military re-enactment in Russia. Photo via VK.com
As far as can be determined from photographs, Vostok had about 300 fighters at its appearance in Donetsk on 25 May. It included 120 fighters who came from Russia to Donetsk the day before. Among these Russian citizens were a 33-strong Chechen unit, the 4th ‘Wolf’ Platoon of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Chechen Republic. Vostok also had a platoon of Ossetians, who numbered at least 16. Among the ethnic Russians in the battalion, there were many former soldiers from the 45th Spetsnaz Regiment of Russia’s airborne troops.
On 26 May, Vostok’s composition changed radically after it suffered heavy losses in a gun battle with Ukrainian troops at Donetsk airport. The separatists reported that they had lost 102 men, while the Ukrainian military put the number at 150. At least thirty-two of those killed were Russian citizens, of which 12 were former or serving paratroopers from the Russian 45th Spetsnaz Regiment.
Reports differ over how many Chechens perished in Donetsk, ranging from one to almost all of them. Since the airport battle no Chechens have been seen in the Vostok Battalion. This suggests that they were either killed, returned home or were transferred to other separatist battalions. When asked by a Russian journalist what happened to the Chechens, Khodakovsky replied: ‘As for the Chechens, they were really here. At the moment there are none. There were 20-something men, less than 30. Now there are none. We asked them to return to their historic homeland, so as not to confuse the local population.’
Members of the DPR militia walk past a burnt out Ukrainian transport near Shaktersk. (c) RIA Novosti/Andrei Stenin
Soon after the defeat at Donetsk airport, Khodakovsky confronted the separatist government and its Donetsk militia. On the morning of 29 May, as the so-called prime minister Borodai and the speaker Pushilin were at the hospital morgue making arrangements for the shipment of 32 bodies to Russia, the Vostok Battalion surrounded their headquarters, disarmed their militia, arrested some of them, evicted the rest from the premises, and dismantled the barricades in front of the building, saying it was a fire hazard. Vostok accused the government militia of robbing the Metro superstore near the airport while its men were fighting and dying there. Another source said the militia was being punished for stealing the valuables of the Vostok fighters killed at the airport. In any case the incident was a humiliation for the separatist government.
On 5 June, Khodakovsky led a 200-strong unit to seize the Marinivka border post. He told London's Sunday Times journalist Mark Franchetti, who accompanied the unit, that the mission was to take the border crossing from guards who were ‘demoralised, disenchanted with the government in Kyiv and ready to abandon their post without a fight.' Instead, the border guards along with Ukrainian soldiers, opened fire and pinned the attackers down for four hours, forcing 80 of the separatists, including Khodakovsky and Franchetti, to retreat into Russia; and the rest back to Donetsk.
The border guards along with Ukrainian soldiers opened fire and pinned the attackers down for four hours.
Khodakovsky did not reveal to Franchetti the real purpose of the mission, which was not only to seize the border post but also to take delivery from the Russians of MANPADS, (Man portable air defence systems). Instead, during the fighting, the Ukrainians captured the MANPADS.
The missiles were for downing Ukrainian government airplanes at Donetsk airport. Pro-Russia separatists had used such MANPADS on many occasions to shoot down helicopters and airplanes. For example, on 14 June, the separatists are said to have used MANPADS to shot down an IL-76 near Luhansk airport, killing all 49 Ukrainian military personnel on board.
The MANPADS captured at Marinivka border crossing were stored at the military base of the Russian Air Defence Unit, Number 33859, located in Yeysk, Krasnodar Region.
Three weeks after the Marinivka incident, Khodakovsky came into confrontation with the separatist commander of Horlivka, Igor Bezler, aka ‘Bes’ (Demon). Bezler is another loose cannon in the separatist movement, who also has not recognised Strelkov as the commander-in-chief of all the fighters in Donetsk region.
Igor Bezler, aka Bes or 'Demon.' Photo via Polit.ru
On the morning of 1 July, about a hundred of Bezler’s men stormed the Donetsk regional police headquarters. In the process, they killed a police officer, wounded fifteen other policemen as well as five civilians, and took hostage the Donetsk regional police commander, Konstantin Pozhidayev, and his staff.
Bezler wanted the staff of the Donetsk regional police headquarters eliminated because they formerly were loyal to Ukraine’s government. In reality, the Donetsk police had disarmed themselves, declared their neutrality, and limited their activities to fighting crime. Surprisingly, Ukraine’s government continued to pay their wages. The pragmatic Khodakovsky wanted this arrangement to remain in Donetsk as it gave him a loyal police force at no cost.
However, the Donetsk battalions of Vostok, Oplot and Kalmius surrounded Bezler's men in the regional police headquarters. They threatened to exterminate them if they didn’t leave Donetsk. The confrontation was only resolved when Bezler ordered his militia back to Horlivka. The freed police chief and his staff relocated the Donetsk regional police headquarters to the Ukrainian government-controlled Mariupol, Donbas’ second city.
Khodakovsky vs Strelkov
Khodakovsky’s dispute with Bezler was soon followed by his most serious dispute with another separatist to date. It followed Strelkov’s decision to retreat to Donetsk on the night of 4 July. Khodakovsky challenged Strelkov’s authority in Donetsk by giving the godfather of new Russian imperialism, Sergey Kurginyan, a platform in Donetsk on 7 July, to accuse Strelkov and his fighters of betrayal and cowardice for retreating from Slovyansk.
As Kurginyan’s presentation got underway, under the protection of the Vostok Battalion, he was confronted by a fighter from Slovyansk, Yuri Yurchenko, accompanied by Strelkov’s chief staff officer, Mikhailov, and the self-proclaimed Donetsk governor, Pavlo Gubarev. Gubarev called Kurginyan a ‘professional provocateur;’ and in reply, Kurginyan called him a ‘twerp.’
Kurginyan further accused Strelkov of attempting to compromise Russia even though it had provided the separatists ‘with everything,’ from fighters to weapons. He accused Strelkov of leaving in Slovyansk a cache of weapons, including 12,000 Kalashnikovs, tanks and armoured vehicles. Strelkov’s chief of staff Mikhailov denied this, and said 90% of the weapons were removed.
Afterwards, Gubarev, who in the past had considered Kurginyan as his Russian hero for his project of recreating the USSR as a ‘Red Russian Orthodox’ union of republics, told the press that Kurginyan's appearance was:
‘Hostile and provocative, and commissioned by forces that wanted to disgrace the militia of New Russia (the separatist name for Luhansk and Donetsk Republics). The fact that today the provocateur broadcasts from Moscow showed how dangerous it was for him to stay in Donetsk, where he could have been arrested or worse.’
While Khodakovsky provided a platform in Donetsk for Kurginyan to denounce Strelkov as a coward and a betrayer, many pundits wondered if Kurginyan was representing Putin's views on Strelkov? Maybe the Kremlin, having supplied him with plenty of anti-tank weapons and ground-to-air missiles that allowed his militia to down several Ukrainian helicopters and airplanes, had expected Strelkov to fight to the end in Slovyansk.
Many pundits wondered if Kurginyan was representing Putin's views on Strelkov?
After Kurginyan’s denunciation of Strelkov, Gubarev claimed that all the other commanders, including Bezler, but not Khodakovsky, had pledged allegiance to Strelkov. He also claimed that Vostok fighters were deserting in droves to Strelkov’s militia. But this was contradicted by a close aide to Kurginyan, Alan Mamiyev, who said that it was the other way around.
At a DPR press conference on 11 July, Strelkov attempted to dismiss the clash with Khodakovsky. He said that Gubarev’s statements of a rift were his own; and he added that his militia and the Vostok Battalion were coordinating their military actions. ‘Prime Minister’ Borodai added that the differences with Khodakovsky had been resolved.
Since the press conference, Khodakovsky has resigned as DPR’s minister of security. At the press conference a new minister of security, Vladimir Antyufeyev (aka Vadim Shevtsov), was presented with a title of deputy prime minister responsible for security. He had been the Minister of State Security for Russia’s enclave of Transnistria. On the basis of his track record in the breakaway region, where the Moldavian government accused him of ordering assassinations, his job will presumably will be to end all internal opposition to Strelkov. The first person on his hit list probably will be Khodakovsky followed by Bezler.
(Left to Right) Strelkov, Borodai and Antyufeyev at a press conference. 10 July 2014. via YouTube.com
Russians with a state security service background have taken over the DPR.
Antyufeyev’s appointment creates an image problem for the separatists. Russians with a state security service background have taken over the DPR. Antyufeyev, like Strelkov and Borodai, is a Russian citizen. All three have served in the Russian state security services: Antyufeyev served in Latvia before Moldavia; Strelkov left the FSB in March of this year; and Borodai was in the FSB until 2002. All three fought in Moldavia to create the Russian separatist enclave of Transnistria, as they proudly told the journalists at their press conference on 11 July. Meanwhile, the Donetsk native, Khodakovsky, has been left outside the ruling circle, as was the other local, Gubarev, who despite supporting Strelkov, has not been given any position in the DPR. The Donetsk People’s Republic has become a Russian enclave.