Alexander Borodai, the self-declared prime minister of eastern Ukraine’s secessionist Donetsk People’s Republic, is a Russian citizen from Moscow. A trained political scientist and “conflictologist” he describes himself as a patriot; the ringtone on his phone is the Russian national anthem.
Mr Borodai took power last week with the help of the Vostok Battalion, a fighting force including many Chechens that swept squatters, looters, and other ragtag revolutionaries out of Donetsk’s occupied regional administrative building, demolished barricades outside, and erected checkpoints around the town.
The arrival of the better armed, better organised fighters signalled a new and ostensibly more orderly phase in eastern Ukraine’s three-month-old separatist revolt, in which Russian citizens now operate openly. Mr Borodai’s retinue includes swarthy armed security men and consultants with Caucasian accents or surnames.
When asked about his mission in eastern Ukraine, Mr Borodai told the Financial Times in an interview: “Our goal is to restore maximum order to the Donetsk People’s Republic – to create more effective structures of power.”
Mr Borodai is the new, proudly Russian face for a heterogeneous, often disorderly revolt in which separatists always had some degree of open or covert Russian support but things did not always go to Moscow’s apparent plan.
Andriy Parubiy, Ukraine’s national security chief, told the FT last week that rebels were being trained and financed by Russia, including at a base near Rostov-on-Don, just over the Russian border – part of a “hybrid war”, in which Russia does not intervene directly, but actively helps insurgents.
Mr Borodai’s résumé includes a stint as a political adviser for Sergey Aksyonov, the separatist prime minister of Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in April.
However, he insisted that he and other Russians now active in eastern Ukraine were private citizens and volunteers funded by private Russian donors, not Kremlin agents.
He said that the Vostok Battalion active in Donetsk was “not the same” as the military formation of the same name formed in 1999 in Chechnya, which had support from Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU.
The force in Donetsk, he said, did include some volunteers from Chechnya, other parts of the northern Caucasus and Russia, including Moscow and the eastern parts of Russia, but was “first and foremost . . . formed from locals”.
“By conviction I consider myself a Russian patriot, as are a lot of other volunteers who came here and took up guns,” he said.
“The main difference between me and the other Russian volunteers are that my professional skills and connections are more needed here; that’s why I don’t carry a gun in my hands.”
Mr Borodai does, however, carry a pistol in a holster on the hip of his jeans.
Analysts describe Mr Borodai as an emblematic figure in eastern Ukraine’s revolt, which has been less smoothly organised or co-ordinated from Moscow than the secessionist unrest that preceded Russia’s takeover of Crimea.
“Borodai is an example of a combined self-propelled and Moscow-encouraged figure,” said Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor who specialises in Russian security issues. His arrival, he said, is a sign “Russia is trying to reassert some control” in Donetsk.
The 41-year-old Mr Borodai has conservative credentials that date back to the 1990s, when he worked for the Russian ultranationalist newspaper Zavtra. The publication’s editors, once marginalised, have recently reappeared on regular state TV as their views and the Kremlin’s edged closer.
In Moscow, Mr Borodai also worked as a consultant for Konstantin Malofeyev, a Russian Orthodox private equity magnate who has gained financial and political clout in recent years as conservative beliefs gained greater influence in Russia.
When asked under what circumstances he came to eastern Ukraine, Mr Borodai said he was invited by Igor Strelkov, the Russian military commander based in Slavyansk who Ukrainian officials claim is a Russian military intelligence agent.
“I knew him from a long time ago, from the 1990s, when we fought together in Transnistria,” the breakaway Russian region of Moldova. He said he knew Mr Strelkov, who goes by the nom de guerre Strelok (“shooter”) from other “hot zones” as well.
“I know some people in the Russian political elite,” he said, when pressed on whether he was being advised from Moscow, but declined to give names.
He said he was well-versed in affairs in Ukraine, where “big business and politics are strongly connected”. In Moscow, he said, he had got to know Denis Pushilin, the head of Donetsk’s self-proclaimed legislature.
Mr Borodai said he supported Mr Pushilin’s call for Donetsk and Lugansk to be incorporated into Russia, and that of other willing eastern Ukrainian regions as well, but suggested that this might not happen soon.
“Of course, this is our maximal programme for Donbass: to join the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics to the Russian Federation,” he said.
However, with Russia facing western economic sanctions which might be expanded, Russia faced enough threats to its economic security to incorporate depressed regions of eastern Ukraine now.
“The risks to the Russian Federation’s economy will be very big if they take them in now,” he said.
Additional reporting by Courtney Weaver in Moscow and Roman Olearchyk in Kiev
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