Lenin took it in the guts for the Donetsk People’s Republic, the prime minister is missing in action and his nominal deputy Vladimir Antyufeev, who is running the shop, tools around town in the care of four bodyguards who ooze the ‘don’t mess with me’ ethos of the revolution.
A Ukranian missile more or less had disemboweled a Lenin bronze that stands in a square in Shakhtersk, an industrial centre east of here. But when the dust settled the father of the Russian Revolution was still standing.
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The European Union might have thought it had inflicted a similar fate on Antyufeev when it blacklisted him. But wearing his trademark ill-fitting suit, he still sweeps into nightly meetings with conflict monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to decide who can go to the MH17 crash site and the route they’ll take – including Australian investigators.
As the first Australians made a hair-raising drive through rebel territory for a tentative 85-minute visit to the site on Thursday, Antyufeev and Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, who serves as defence chief in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, called a snap press conference at which Antyufeev refused to take questions – but answered the questions he said he knew would be asked.
“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin has not phoned me and I have never met him. Neither me nor any of my [DPR] colleagues are members of the FSB [Russia’s state security organisation] and neither me nor Igor Ivanovich [Strelkov] are acquainted with representatives of the [Putin administration].”
So, Antyufeev would have us believe that despite a mother lode of evidence and notwithstanding that he and Strelkov, both of whom are Russian blow-ins, are not Moscow plants tasked with running the separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine as an arm of Russian foreign policy.
Western intelligence analysts argue that Antyufeev and Strelkov have been installed to control fractious rebel leaders as much as to direct the uprising more as a controlled Russian venture than simply going along for a ride to wherever they might be taken by local hotheads – such as the rebel missile strike on Flight MH17.
Their arrival and seeming total control of the affairs of the republic coincides with the disappearance of the republic’s prime minister Aleksandr Borodai who reportedly went to Moscow for ‘consultations’, but is not expected to return any time soon. It was on Barodai’s return from a similar visit to the Russian capital early in July that he introduced his colleagues to Antyufeev , a veteran of the Russian resistance movements in Moldova and Georgia.
The new arrival was installed as a deputy prime minister of the DPR, part of a leadership makeover which the US ambassador to Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt, told reporters had created the ‘impression of a much more hands-on Russian directive role [through] individuals who are in regular touch with authorities in Moscow.”
Russian new outlets have been reporting that Strelkov fled as the Ukrainian army intensified its campaign to oust the rebels from their Donetsk stronghold, so perhaps parading for the cameras was to counter the rumours.
Ukraine intelligence claims to have voice intercepts in which Borodai describes the situation in Donetsk as ‘a total mess…absolutely rotten’ and disparages the rebel effort as a ‘dick with a head shaped like Donetsk.” Another tape allegedly is of the displaced local leaders of the uprising tearing strips off Strelkov, with one of the describing him as a ‘f***ing mad colonel.’
The balding 63-year-old Antyufeev is cut from different cloth.
Also known as Vadim Shevtsov, he reportedly has a long track record with Russian separatist movements in the former Soviet Union and has a legendry reputation as a tough, disciplined apparatchik.
In a rare interview with Reuters, he said he had ‘fought national fascism’ alongside Russian separatists in the Transnistria region of the former Soviet republic of Moldova and later, in the breakaway regions of Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, also a former Moscow satellite.
Siberian by birth, he told Reuters he had come to Ukraine because Russians were being killed by forces of the Ukrainian government.
“I know what it is to fight for the rights of the people…I know what hot spots are,” he said in his Donetsk office, the few adornments to which include a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He didn’t hold back on the discipline issue – “I’m the authority. I have no problems…if they do not understand that, that’s their problem. I’m an professional in making [people] understand.”
A Moldoval analyst described Antyufeev in these terms: “He’s no romantic who came to fire a few shots. He knows what his tasks are, just as he did in Transietia. Antyufeev knows how to operate in such situations, how to suppress opposition and dissent [and] create an atmosphere of fear in which people will support any actions by the separatists.”
Borodai has told reporters that he didn’t work with Russian security, but that he has many intelligence contacts from his past activities as a ‘professional political expert.’
He and Strelkov first met in the sessionist-wraked Chechnya, when Moscow imposed its will on breakaway Islamists in brutal wars through the 1990s. The have confirmed that they too worked in Transnistriaand more recently in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula on the Black Sea which Moscow in March.
Moscow denies that it has shipped in this new leadership team or that it is arming the rebels, two developments that western intelligence services happened at the same time and supposedly to further a bid by Moscow to keep Ukraine within the Russian sphere of influence.
And despite criticism from some among the displaced local leadership of the separatist movement, but in chance interviews with two key locals figures this week, the Russian leadership of the separatist movement was defended as perfectly normal, a development that Fairfax Media was told was rooted in Catherine the Great’s conquering on this region, dubbed Novo Russia, in 1762.
“These lands became inhabited mostly by Russians who build the area up village by village … and later Lenin brought the new republics into the Soviet Federation,” said Vadislav Breege, who heads the international affairs committee of the DPR military.
Invoking an old Ukrainian saying that Russians who were unhappy with Kiev’s rule should ‘pack a bag and take a train to Moscow,’ he said that metaphorically, that was the objective of the separatist movement.
But how could he and the locals accept so obviously a transplanted Moscow leadership for their separatist uprising?
There was no difference between what was unfolding in the east of Ukraine and the American Declaration of Independence which, he noted, insisted on the right of self determination. “We have done the same – it’s why the face of the world’s most famous separatist is on the $US100 note.”
Breege’s argument was backed by a member of the separatist parliament, Miroslav Rudenko, who insisted: “We all are ethnic Russians – as the United States emerged it was the Frenchman Lafayette who played an important role; and we are the same as the Americans who settled Texas under Spanish rule and then pulled Texas into the US.”
Antyufeev and Strelkov were to the Donetsk republic what Lafayette was to the United States – and they had been appointed by the parliament, these two insisted. And it followed that Donetsk was Moscow’s Texas.
So we should expect the absent Prime Minister Aleksandr Borodai to return from his Moscow sojourn? ‘Da, da…” they said in unison. ‘Yes, yes…”