Aleksandr Khodakovsky, Secretary of the Security Council of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DNR”), recognizes that the insurgents in eastern Ukraine are “a burden for Russia,” its “only ally.” The Kremlin ensures the survival of the territories that defied Kyiv but, out of fear of international repercussions, does not take initiatives to reinforce them, such as the reestablishment of the banking system or of the railway line with Russia; the latter, the reason for the bitter fighting for the railway junction at Debaltseve in February.
“We would like deeper relations with Russia to restore our economy but, in some respects, Russia is keeping us at arms length, for bureaucratic reasons and because of the sanctions,” says Khodakovsky, 42, in a conversation with EL PAIS in Moscow. Khodakovsky commands the Vostok battalion (in Donbas) and is the former commander of the Alpha special intervention unit of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) in the region of Donetsk, until the fall of the regime of Viktor Yanukovych. In February 2014, he directed the seizure of the Trade Unions building in Kyiv, which had been occupied by revolutionaries. Returning to Donetsk, the veteran of the security services took part in the insurrection against the new leadership of Ukraine.
Khodakovsky reasons as an analyst accustomed to predicting various alternative outcomes. He claims to have a degree in history and, judging by his citation of authors, seems to read a lot. Throughout his career in the security services he saw a shrinking of the places he considered his homeland, first the Soviet Union, then Ukraine and now Donbas. “Concentrating on the development interests of the region makes me less radical on whether we should stay or not in Ukraine. Whatever form we take, as long as we are able to maintain our identity and autonomy, is acceptable. What matters is to stop the deaths and that we preserve what must be preserved. Donbas will always be an area under the influence of Russia,” he says.
Khodakovsky sees no contradiction between “being Ukrainian and Russian,” the two identities that shaped him, but he is opposed to “radical nationalism” both Ukrainian and Russian. The first emerged in the Maidan, he says, and the second tried to provoke an escalation in Ukraine. Now, “when the nationalists [Russian] come to help us and to fight, we welcome them with great trepidation, because we are not sure that the combat experience they gain is not going to be used here [in Russia] to create internal problems.” In his capacity as “internationalist,” Khodakovsky considers as “political adversaries” the “ideologists of Russian nationalism.” It is, he says, “a small group of radical people,” but “practice shows that a small group of radicals can change history.”
Khodakovsky distinguishes between Putin and Russian nationalists. “I fear that if Putin leaves the political arena some very destructive processes will develop and Russian nationalists will rise up. Russian nationalism, understood not as a culture or way of life, but as a weapon to change something,” he says.
Some Russian political media now wish that the earth would swallow Donbas and its problematic insurgents, I tell him. He admits this, adding, “That forces us to be constantly on guard.” Due to the external pressure, the Russian authorities rely on internal patriotic forces and those forces are influenced by the situation in eastern Ukraine. “In our territory is forged in part the Russian patriotism, and, on the backdrop of the confrontation with the West, some political forces, including Vladimir Putin, depend on the intensity of patriotic spirits. The popularity ratings depend on the situation in Donbas.” “Russia helps us appear human, but they also fight for their own interests. It is not altruistic. It is all calculated,” he says.
With his partners in Moscow (apparently from the Security Services), Khodakovsky has been preparing to discuss arms trafficking from “DNR” into Russia. “As a specialist, I worry about the issue of terrorism and understand that today there are many weapons in the hands of the people and a radical state of mind exists on both sides of the front. From the arena of war, attempts arise to bring weapons to Russia and we have to take steps to effectively stem that flow,” he says. The attempt to control the weapons falling into the hands of terrorists could be “one common element” according to Ukraine, where “stockpiles of weapons” will sooner or later become a problem for the state,” he says.
Politics in Russia are different from Ukraine, he states. “We are used to more freedom and more criticism. Nobody forces us to worship our leaders. I respect Putin, but the Russians seem to have a special organ in the head, responsible for the love to Vladimir Vladimirovich,” he says, and attributes it to the “technologies for influencing the population.” “It’s not the sincere love of a child for his father. It is something imposed. In Ukraine this does not happen. If we liked someone, we liked him, but we always had the feeling of inner liberty”.
Donbas loved the ex-president, Yanukovych. “He was bad, but he was ours,” he says, and recognizes that that leader stopped paying state subsidies to the eastern cities, which the electorate considered guaranteed, to give to the West, where he had to win over voters. His son, Alexander, was a monopolist intermediary between consumers of coal and the coal mines to impose prices lower than cost. “The Maidan stood up against this rotten elite” and there were “many groups” and also “many idealists”.
Today, Donbas finds itself “between two different coordinate systems”: the “Ukrainian nationalism which has emerged, strong and aggressive” and “difficult Russian world where we don’t understand many things because we are like children who return like the prodigal son and we find ourselves with some who welcome very well and others as if they would have preferred not have us back.” “The result is that we are neither one nor the other, but we are many [2.4 million people in DNR today] and we have to continue to live and find our way forward.”
The Minsk agreements for a peaceful resolution “work in general,” he thinks, although fluctuations occur due to the logic of the front. The insurgents would like to expand their territory to the limits of the Donetsk region, but “we understand that the consequences of that would be very hard from a geopolitical point of view, because Russia is experiencing difficulties because their decisions regarding Crimea and because of their support for us. We are not interested in weakening our only ally. If Russia says that we must reduce our activity and give up some of our plans, we will give up on those plans, despite the importance for us, because our primary goal is to maintain the alliance with Russia.”
Khodakovsky affirms that Moscow and the “DNR” act by consensus, the first as “senior partner” and the second, “junior partner”, the latter being weaker and with less access to the Kremlin leaders than had the problematic territories of the 90’s, such as Igor Smirnov, the leader of Trans-Dniester. “In the next two or three years, call the situation what you will, Donbas will have the characteristics of an independent region, even if considered as part of a decentralized Ukraine,” he says.
Khodakovsky has four open fronts: Russia keeps its distance and treat them like an unwanted child whose existence it is impossible to ignore; Ukraine blocks the breakaway region and thus frustrates the hopes of overcoming the conflict through economic cooperation; The population of the “DNR” suffer because “the situation of neither peace nor war goes on too long” and lives like an “outcast”, kept at a distance from Moscow. One senses also the internal nuances between those who are ready to repeat the corrupt schemes of the past and those who want to overhaul the system. The problem would be the same as that of Kyiv, between the revolutionaries of Maidan and the bureaucrats and oligarchs who reproduce the old schemes, but with a difference: “Ukraine still has within itself the old society, but in our region the old society has been completely destroyed and we have the chance to build something better. The clay has not dried yet. We can model it. We aspire to it.” But it is not easy. Khodakovsky’s attempt to launch a local television channel to encourage dialogue and to talk to the people with normal language has been frustrated by supporters of the rhetoric of war (including their Russian patrons) fearful of losing control of public opinion. The leader of the DNR does not want to comment. “While the military phase is on-going, it is necessary to keep the public mobilized,” he says.
Khodakovsky says he was not involved in organizing the referendum of May 2014 in Donbas, which many believed to vote for joining Russia. “I never urged for us to be integrated with Russia because for me it was clear that Russia could not repeat what had been done in Crimea, for reasons of international economic policy and, above all, military.” “We should have told people not to expect that Russia would receive us and that the circumstances were entirely different. I understood that to encourage something that would not come to be was criminal, but unfortunately some politicians who encouraged the hopes of the people and instilled in them the idea that was achievable.”
On cooperation with Russia, a formula for stable economic cooperation has not yet been achieved, there hasn’t even been a decision on the delivery of Russian passports to the inhabitants of Donbas, after the Ukrainian authorities take away the seals and official paper. Organizing a large volume of rail transport is not possible because it is “endangering the grand plans”. Nor is it possible to form the banking system. “There are things that they can do, that everyone knows about, but that they cannot show.” By way of allusion, I suspect that this affects the payment of taxes by some businessmen who also pay them in Kyiv and the tacit or explicit agreements that allowed the oligarchs of the past and the Yanukovych family to maintain its assets in eastern Ukraine.