In eastern Ukraine, anti-government protests have produced three important leaders, whose names and histories are crucial to the understanding of current events. The first two, who have overlapping responsibilities and titles, are Denis Pushilin and Vyacheslav Ponomaryov. The last is Alexander Mozhaev, a Russian citizen closely under the eye of Ukraine’s interim government.
After anti-government protesters shortly took over the city hall in Donetsk on March 6, Pushilin and Ponomaryov took over as self appointed chairmen and mayor (respectively) of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk.” While the unofficial Donbass capital is back in Kiev’s control, at least 11 small towns in Ukraine’s eastern region have been taken over by anti-government militia, with no small help from Mozhaev.
Mozhaev hails from the famous ethnic Cossack group in Russia, comparable to the cowboy image in America. The history of the Cossacks is debated among historians, some believing they are descendants of serfs, while others say they are a branch of the Tartar ethnic group. While their origin is questionable, their presence in Russia, and now Ukraine, is undeniable.
In his singular goal of improving Russian nationalism, President Vladimir Putin has used the Cossacks, who predominately live near Stavropol, as a mascot. Integrating them in some law enforcement units and declaring them an exclusive ethnicity has returned their long-lost identity in western Russia. In neighboring Krasnodar, Governor Aleksandr N. Tkachev created a group of 1,000 salaried Cossacks to patrol illegal immigration.
In a speech to law enforcement officers, he noted their required restraint of the law saying,”What you [can’t] do, a Cossack can.”
This pseudo-vigilante philosophy has Muslims in Stavropol worried, especially after Cossack chieftain Boris V. Pronin compared the activity of Muslim youth in the city to a person “[coming] to your house [and slapping] you in the face.”
Mozhaev, a proud Cossack, may be the most important name to know in eastern Ukraine. To Kiev, he is the key to strategic action in the region. The pro-West government of Kiev prepared to run military operations against the armed protesters last week, but has stalled due to threats of invasion from Russia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded to Kiev’s milita in eastern Ukraine saying, “If our interests…the interests of Russians [are] attacked directly…I do not see any other way but to respond in accordance with international law.”
The threat of Russia’s well established military has put Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov in a sticky spot. Speaking of Volodymyr Rybak, an eastern Ukrainian politican who supported a united nation and turned up dead in Slavyansk, Turchynov said the “terrorists [had]…gone too far.”
To stave off a Russian invasion under the guise of international law, the Kiev government has fruitlessly tried to prove Russian special force involvement in eastern Ukraine through Mozhaev. An ex-service member of the Soviet Union, Mozhaev says he only wishes he had the help of Putin’s troops.
The 36-year-old man who has become the militia leader in Slavyansk came to Crimea, he says, by coincidence on March 7. He claimed to have fled to the region from Russian law, after being accused of attempted murder. His story could not be independently verified and Kiev believes he simply came with a rush of Cossack fighters, who aided Crimea’s referendum last month.
After the surprisingly swift annexation, Mozhaev said he and his fighting partners “decided to go conquer some more historically Russian lands” and ended up in the hands of Ponomaryov, who welcomed them to Slavyansk. Now with an estimated troop of 2,500 soldiers, Mozhaev shows no sign of leaving Ukraine and remains hopeful for Russian help.
“Russians don’t leave [other] Russians in the lurch,” he said. “When we take Kiev, I’ll go back and…celebrate.”
Kiev’s government has produced little to no evidence of Russian special forces in its troubled eastern region. Two blurry photos is all they currently have to go on: one of a bearded man invading Georgia in 2008 with Russian GRU Speical Force gear and the other of Mozhaev in eastern Ukraine earlier this year. Looking side by side, Kiev sees the same man but it is not enough to justify a full scale attack on protesters.
What Kiev knows about Mozhaev has induced hope for a strategic military invasion of eastern Ukraine, but his name has produced just as many questions as answers.
By Erin P. Friar