Ukraine’s Russian rebel leader called it quits yesterday, and named his own replacement. Alexander Borodai is the self-proclaimed prime minister of the so-called Donetsk Republic. In a news conference, Borodai announced his resignation and appointed an ethnic Ukrainian as the new prime minister.
Borodai is a former Russian military commander who served alongside Igor Girkin, known in eastern Ukraine as Igor Strelkov and whose name translates as “the shooter.” It was Strelkov who allegedly used Russian social media to take credit for shooting down Malaysian flight 17 last month, until rebels realized that the plane was a civilian passenger aircraft.
Borodai and Strelkov led pro-Russian separatists fighters in Transnistria, the breakaway province of Moldova. Both men have lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union and spoken of reconstituting some form of Russian supremacy in the former Soviet republics across the region. Borodai has run several newspapers as an editor in Moscow, and several Russian media reports say that he purportedly served as a former deputy director with the rank of major-general in the FSB (KGB). Borodai has consistently denied any connection to the FSB.
The Kyiv Post has reported that Borodai recently returned from Moscow where he was supposedly conducting business related to the Donetsk Republic. Borodai introduced his replacement, Alexander Zakharchenko, by saying, “I am a Muscovite.” Borodai then explained that it was time for the movement to be led by a Donetsk native.”
As the Russian rebel leader in Ukraine quits, not much is known about Alexander Zakharchenko, the new prime minister. Zakharchenko is a militia commander, one of the few rebel leaders who is ethnic Ukrainian and leader of Oplot, a local militant group. A growing European criticism has been that most of the rebel fighters and breakaway leaders in the region are Russian citizens, imported into Ukraine to lead the separatist movement.
Borodai gave no reason for his resignation but he did take credit for founding the Donetsk Republic. At the news conference called for the announcement, Borodai told reporters that it was time for a Ukrainian to lead the movement. As world pressure on Russia intensifies, it is expected that Alexander Zakharchenko will become the public face of the Donetsk Republic.
Reports now estimate the fighting has claimed nearly 1,400 lives, both civilians and combatants, according to UN officials. The UN also estimates that more than 4,000 people have been injured since the spring. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO Secretary General, is currently visiting Ukraine, and on Thursday he warned Russia that continuing to support the pro-Russian rebels would lead to deeper isolation of Russia internationally.
Rasmussen said that Russia was at risk of, “deeper, more profound, tougher economic sanctions.” Speaking to reporters, the NATO Secretary General said that further intervention would not be in Russia’s long term interests.
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes. Many have found refuge in other parts of Ukraine, but some of those have been compelled to cross the border into Russia to seek shelter from the fighting.
Even while a key Russian rebel leader quit in Ukraine, Russia continues to deny that it is supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. Many European diplomats fear that Russia will continue to support the rebels fighting there. Ukrainian officials say that Russia wants to use the excuse of a “humanitarian” mission to station so-called peace keeping troops in eastern Ukraine indefinitely. Russia has stationed peace keeping troops in Moldova’s disputed Trans-Dniestr region since 1992. Moldova has petitioned Russia to remove those troops but Russia has refused their request.
By Jim Hanemaayer