Pro-Russian rebel leader Alexander Borodai said he’s preparing for block-to-block fighting to defend Donetsk as Ukraine seeks to retake the stronghold and end a conflict he says has resulted in 10,000 deaths.
“We will stand till the end,” Borodai, the Muscovite spin doctor-turned prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said in an interview today. “If the Ukrainians start an offensive, it will become a second Stalingrad,” Borodai said, referring to the World War II battle that claimed almost 2 million Soviet and Nazi lives.
Borodai, 41, reiterated his denial of involvement in the destruction of Malaysian Air Flight MH17, which was brought down in insurgent territory last week. The U.S. says the jet was likely struck by separatists using a Russian-supplied Buk missile system. Borodai said by mobile phone that the heaviest weapon in his arsenal is a Soviet-made Strela-10 mobile missile complex cobbled together from spare parts in the past few days.
A rebel commander, Aleksandr Khodakovsky, told Reuters July 22 that insurgent forces did indeed have a Buk system before the Malaysia Air disaster. Borodai dismissed the claim, saying the separatists have nothing to hide from the investigation into the disaster and turned over the black boxes for international inspection.
Suspicion of Kremlin and rebel involvement in the downing of the Boeing Co. 777 prompted the U.S. and European Union to renew threats of further sanctions against Russia for not doing enough to help end the revolt in the mainly Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine. Borodai said the only support he’s getting from Russia’s government is moral.
“We see political support,” Borodai said. “I’m regularly in Moscow for consultations and meet with politicians, so I understand that nobody’s abandoned us.”
Borodai said he’s never met President Vladimir Putin, whom he described as the greatest leader Russia’s had “in many decades.” He said the only “top Russian” he’s spoken to recently is Vladislav Surkov, a former deputy premier who developed Putin’s “managed democracy” model and is now a political adviser to the president. Borodai said he met in Moscow with Surkov, one of dozens of individuals blacklisted by the U.S., though he declined to say when or about what.
“We are getting a huge amount of support from Russia, but not from the state,” Borodai said. “Volunteers come and humanitarian aid and funding are being sent.”
Borodai rejected frequent assertions in the Ukrainian media that he’s an agent of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet KGB, saying he’s an independent player acting on his own convictions about the need for all Russians to be united in a single state.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office says Borodai faces as many as 15 years in prison for setting up a terrorist organization and attempting a coup d’etat.
“Ukraine and those who stand behind her are trying to pull Russia into a war,” Borodai said. “They’re provoking this in part by organizing a genocide in Donbas,” he said, referring to the heartland of the former Soviet Union’s coal industry, which covers the Donetsk and Luhansk regions along Ukraine’s border with Russia.
Though he doesn’t appear to work for Russia’s security services directly, Borodai has a long-standing relationship with them, according to Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor who specializes on security issues.
“Borodai is a political entrepreneur and, while he holds nationalist beliefs, he’s no unthinking fanatic,” Galeotti said by phone from Moscow.
Borodai declined to say how many men are under his command, calling it a “strategic secret,” though he did say he has more “volunteers” than guns and more are arriving each day. Since Kremlin-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from power in February, prompting Putin to annex Crimea, Russia’s state-run media network has portrayed Ukaine’s government as “neo-Nazis” conducting an indiscriminate bombing campaign against native Russians.
Ukrainian officials this month put the death toll since fighting began in April at almost 500 civilians and 200 troops. Borodai said the real figure is much higher, though he declined to say how many of his own men have been killed.
“The number of victims in this conflict from both sides is approaching 10,000, without exaggeration,” Borodai said. “We’ve lost more civilians since the Boeing crashed than died on the Boeing.”
Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, said the 10,000 figure “likely doesn’t have any basis to it.” Ukraine doesn’t have a comprehensive death toll that includes civilians and rebels, but the “terrorists” don’t have a unit responsible for monitoring casualties, “so how could they know this,” Lysenko said in Kiev.
Borodai said Ukraine’s military is using mercenaries and weapons from Poland in their offensive, a claim both countries have denied. Borodai said he realizes he’s out-gunned, but he’s banking on more robust support from Russia to keep Donetsk free from Kiev’s control.
Galeotti, the New York University professor, said that all sounds like bluster after Borodai’s forces were driven out of Slovyansk earlier this month in one of the bloodiest campaigns of the war.
“He’s too smart to believe the Donetsk People’s Republic has a longterm future,” Galeotti said. “Borodai knows that the MH17 crash has changed the calculus. The flow of high-tech material from Russia is drying up and he’s probably going to start looking for an exit strategy.”