Opportunists take advantage of eastern Ukraine leadership confusion

by @SabraAyres November 26, 2014 5:00AM ET

Donetsk sees rotating rebel leadership while a cast of characters claims small cities and towns around Luhansk

Ukraine Crisis
Nikolai Kozitsyn took control of the small city of Perevalsk, east Ukraine, in July. He walked through its streets on Nov. 15, 2014.
Dmitry Beliakov for Al Jazeera America

Editor's note: This is the third in a three-part series examining the political and humanitarian situation in east Ukraine. Read the first part, on daily life in Donetsk, here, and the second part, on brain drain, here.

PEREVALSK, Ukraine — The armed camouflaged men and women immediately stand to attention when Ataman Nikolai Kozitsyn enters the salmon-hued hall of the Soviet-era House of Culture he uses as one of his three offices.

At just over 6 feet 2 inches tall with a protruding belly, Kozitsyn commands a presence, and his Cossack soldiers stare straight ahead as he addresses one of his female troops.

“You’re too skinny,” he boomed. He then turned to the young woman’s husband, who stood by his side with an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder. “Aren’t you feeding her enough?”

Kozitsyn bellowed a laugh, and the dozen or so in the room laughed nervously. Most of them wore the traditional Cossack fighter’s cap, black fur with a red center. Their hats were no match for Kozitsyn’s headwear, which was about three times the height and twice the circumference.

He has been the de facto ruler of this small mining city about 25 miles southwest of the rebel-held city of Luhansk since July. He and his Cossack fighters from Russia’s Don River basin came to the aid of the pro-Russian separatists when the Ukrainian forces fighting the rebels controlling the area began to gain ground.

In a matter of months, he has turned Perevalsk into his fief. He said he has brought stability back to a city that had been ransacked by a corrupt government “calling itself Ukraine” and took credit for getting the city’s main services back up and running, including water, heat and electricity.

Cossacks stand beside their tanks in Perevalsk.
Dmitry Beliakov for Al Jazeera America
Kozitsyn is escorted by bodyguards.
Dmitry Beliakov for Al Jazeera America

Constantly surrounded by armed guards as he travels between his offices on the city’s main square, Kozitsyn said he has brought order and justice to the city of about 26,000. Four military tanks stand ready outside his offices, and there are gunmen perched on the roofs of the surrounding buildings, aimed at the square. The front line is 25 miles away, and sporadic explosions rumble in the distance.

But more important than law and order is that his men are “reviving the city’s Cossack heritage and protecting traditional Cossack lands,” he said, smiling broadly as he twisted the ends of his salt and pepper mustache. “This will again be the land of the Cossacks after the war.”

Cossacks, famed warrior horsemen, once defended the borders of Russia in the name of czars and the Russian Orthodox Church. Kozitsyn and his soldiers believe they are reuniting lost Cossack territory.

While sharing a pro-Russian vision with the rebel governments controlling Luhansk or Donetsk, he controls his fief largely apart from them.

“The Luhansk People’s Republic is just a territory with no judicial state. I talk to the guys in [Donetsk and Luhansk], but they know that we are Cossacks in Cossack lands … I’ve always said that we belong to Russia and should return these lands to Russia,” he said.

Since April, when pro-Russian separatists took over government buildings across the industrialized eastern Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, a cast of characters has come and gone in the rebel leadership.

Some have had names like “Shooter,” (Igor Strelkov) and “Devil” (Igor Bezler) and ruled by cruelty and fear among the locals and rebel fighters alike. But most have switched positions in the rebel governments so many times that it can be hard to figure out who remains in charge.

Operating just north of Kozitsyn’s territory, in the Luhansk region, Alexei Mozgovoi has declared himself the commander of Alchevsk, a city of about 120,000 people known for its massive iron and steelworks plant. In October, he ordered the execution of a man convicted of rape by a people’s court of fewer than 300 people. Mozgovoi later said women would be arrested for stepping foot in the city’s bars to protect their virtue.

East of Alchevsk lies Luhansk, the largest city in the region and the scene of some of the worst fighting. Its population was about 500,000 before the conflict began. By late summer, an estimated 300,00 residents had left to escape from the death and destruction after the city came under heavy shelling and mortar attacks for weeks on end.

Luhansk is ruled by Igor Plotnitsky, 50, who became head of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic after the Nov. 2 rebel elections, declared illegal by the Ukrainian government. This month he challenged President Petro Poroshenko to an old-fashioned duel as way to resolve the conflict between the rebels and Kiev. In an open letter to Poroshenko, Plotnitsky said the winner of the televised duel would be able to dictate the terms of the agreement to the loser.

According to Plotnitsky, he has authority over all the rebel-held territories in the Luhansk region, including Perevalsk and Alchevsk. That’s debatable to Pavel Dremov, a Don Cossack who has dismissed the other Luhansk leaders as corrupt crooks and told the small city of Stakhanov to the north of Alchevsk that he intends to build the city into the Cossack People’s Republic.

It remains to be seen how the situation with Luhansk’s various leaders will play out. Some speak of being part of a greater independent territory called Novorossiya, or New Russia, which includes all of eastern and southern Ukraine.

Members of pro-Russian separatist government sit at the dais at the head of a parliament session, from left, Denis Pushilin, currently the vice chairman of the People’s Soviet, Alexandr Zakharchenko, leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Andrei Purgin, first deputy prime minister, and Roman Lyagin, chairman of the Central Election Commission.
Dmitry Beliakov for Al Jazeera America
A statue of Lenin wearing the orange and black ribbon that has become symbolic of the separatist movement stands in Vuglegirsk, a village on the road between Donetsk and Perevalsk, Ukraine.
Dmitry Beliakov for Al Jazeera America

The self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, meanwhile, has seen rotating leadership in the rebel government. It chose Alexander Zakharchenko as its leader in the Nov. 2 elections, which also set up a parliament, named after the communist-era People’s Soviet.

On the opening day of the Donetsk People’s Soviet Parliament, the leadership chairs were filled by at least three people who at some point in the conflict had been considered the head of the Donetsk’s rebels.

In April, Denis Pushilin was the rebel’s head of state. His position has shifted several times since then, but on opening day he became the vice chairman of the People’s Soviet.

To his left sat Alexander Zakharchenko, a former rebel interior minister and military commander and now the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Andrei Purgin, the first prime minister under Zakharchenko, sat next to him.

If the lineup in the front of the auditorium once used by the Donetsk regional council wasn’t confusing enough, in the back of the room, seated in the spectators’ section, was Pavel Gubarev, who declared himself the people’s governor of the Donetsk region back in March. He was barred from running in the rebel-held elections on Nov. 2 because his party didn’t meet the registration rules, although many locals say he has fallen out of favor with more prominent members of the rebel government.

Moscow, which has denied providing military and financial support to the rebels, has said Kiev must now negotiate with the elected rebel leaders in peace talks to end the conflict, which has so far claimed more than 4,300 lives.

Poroshenko said Ukraine would not recognize the rebel elections. But even if Ukraine were to hold talks with the rebel leaders, it’s not always clear if the rebel leaders are talking to and agreeing with one another. It’s also not always clear which leader is in the Kremlin’s favor, a status that seems to change with the wind.

“We all know the decision are being made there, “said Dima Sukhov, pointing up to indicate Moscow. He declined to give more information about himself other than his name, saying he feared reprisals. “Sometimes it seems [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is playing out a sociological experiment on us by changing the leaders and seeing which one works best.”

Despite a Sept. 5 cease-fire, fighting has continued in the east. U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander in Europe for NATO, said this month that the region was on the way to becoming a frozen conflict.

Leonid, an 85-year-old retired miner and World War II veteran, stood outside a Perevalsk church with two empty 5-liter plastic jugs. He was waiting for the priest to open the gates so he could get in and fill the jugs with the water.

“Of course these clowns will tell you everything is fine, but it’s a lie,” he said, asking not to give his last name because he feared retaliation from the armed rebels. He hadn’t received his pension since June, and his apartment has no heat or water.

Before all this started, he got his pension, he visited his wife’s grave every Thursday, and his apartment had everything it needed. No one needed any of these so-called rebels in the city, he said.

“The Luhansk People’s Republic, the Cossack Republic, Perevalsk Republic. Who cares what they call it? They’re all one and the same — bandits.”

Correction: The previous version of this story misidentified the man sitting next to Zakharchenko. It was Andrei Purgin, now the first deputy prime minister, not Alexander Borodai. Borodai is now an advisor to the rebel government, not the first deputy prime minister.