Donetsk Separatist Leader 'We Are Not Citizens of Ukraine'
Alexander Zakharchenko is the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, which is not recognized by the international community. In a rare interview, he says his greatest hope is that Moscow will annex his territory just as it did Crimea.
The meeting takes place in an inconspicuous building on a commercial street in downtown Donetsk. There is no sign to indicate who resides behind the door where guards armed with automatic rifles are posted. After a brief walk up the stairs to the second floor, a man in a blue sweater whose right leg is wrapped in a bandage, sits behind a desk in a study. Two months ago, a sniper's bullet slammed into his lower leg. The incident occurred during fighting over the Ukrainian town of Debaltseve, which in February fell to the separatists who now control Donetsk.
The man at the desk is Alexander Zakharchenko, the "leader," head of government and commander-in-chief of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. He has the rank of major. After the separatists' victory in Debaltseve, the neighboring Luhansk rebel republic even awarded him the rank of general. Zakharchenko is a wanted man in the rest of Ukraine, where he is charged with establishing a terrorist organization. His name also appears on US and EU sanctions lists, which prevents him from traveling to the West. The fact that his office on University Street in Donetsk is so inconspicuous is a precaution. The head of the separatist republic has already survived one assassination attempt. As a result, he is unwilling to move to the former governor's administration building, where the government is now headquartered. The tall, exposed building on Pushkin Boulevard would be an easy target in an air strike.
Zakharchenko, 38, has never been involved in politics before. He worked as an electrician in a mine, earned money illegally mining coal and attended but never finished law school. Zakharchenko first became a public figure in April 2014, when he and six armed men occupied the mayor's office in Donetsk to push through an independence referendum against the new government in Kiev. The war began soon afterwards. By May, Zakharchenko was the city's commandant, and three months later he became the head of the separatist government. To date, the biggest obstacle to true peace negotiations between the rebels and Ukraine is the fact that Kiev refuses to hold direct talks with Zakharchenko. But is it even possible to understand the Donetsk People's Republic without knowing Zakharchenko and how he thinks? Probably not. SPIEGEL spent months unsuccessfully trying to secure an interview with him, until last week, when the interview was approved. Zakharchenko rarely ever meets with people from the West. "It will be tough for you to return to Germany after this encounter with a 'terrorist,'" the separatist leader said. He responded calmly and readily to our questions, though some of his responses were filled with sharp irony.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Zakharchenko, you say that the Ukrainian leadership is in the process of unleashing a new war. In fact, there has been shooting again along the cease-fire line -- at the Donetsk airport and near the port city of Mariupol. Has the Minsk agreement failed?
Zakharchenko: The airport and the embattled town of Shyrokyne, near Mariupol are symbolic places, both for us and the Ukrainian army. Kiev wants to recapture the airport as quickly as possible. It has not abided by any of the terms of the Minsk agreement. Above all, it was supposed to establish direct contact with us, which hasn't happened to this day.
SPIEGEL: So Kiev alone is to blame for the fact that there is still no peace?
Zakharchenko: Ninety-percent of the demands in the Minsk agreement apply to Kiev. We have done everything conceivable. We have withdrawn military technology and we have handed over prisoners to the other side.
SPIEGEL: All prisoners?
Zakharchenko: What do you mean by all? We turned over the last 16 Ukrainians, but then the war continued, and each side is now taking new prisoners. And Kiev is not withdrawing its heavy weapons.
SPIEGEL: You haven't done so, either. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has confirmed that your people fired missiles at the city of Avdiivka in recent days.
Zakharchenko: I can tell you why. If we withdraw our weapons and the other side fires at us, we have to respond. That's logical, isn't it? And that's why the heavy weapons are returning to their old positions.
SPIEGEL: So the war is continuing.
Zakharchenko: Because Kiev is illegally occupying part of our territory. We define "our territory" as the entire Donetsk region, within the borders that previously made it part of Ukraine.
Zakharchenko: Listen, two of my cousins are now here in the Donetsk People's Republic. They are Russian citizens, but they are also my relatives. One of them used to live in Astrakhan and the other in Irkutsk. One of them is a former career officer. Is that what you call Russian military aid? I say that my cousins have come here to help me. Kiev calls it Russian aid.
Zakharchenko is unwilling to discuss the revelations of Russian soldier Dorzhi Batomunkuyev, who admitted in an interview in March that he and his entire tank battalion, consisting of 31 tanks, had been sent to Donetsk on Feb. 8. He said they had painted the tanks in camouflage colors at their home barracks, and that they were later ordered to turn over all documents and phones. According to the soldier, no one gave them any marching orders, and they only realized where they were going when they saw the sign for Donetsk city limits.
SPIEGEL: Let's ignore the Russian army for a moment. How many men do you have under arms? Twenty-three thousand, as you said recently? Plus 60,000 reservists?
Zakharchenko: There are more than that by now, but it's a military secret. Those 60,000 are volunteers who have signed up at the military commandants' headquarters and would take up arms in an emergency.
SPIEGEL: It doesn't appear that you will be able to reach a political compromise with Kiev. President Petro Poroshenko describes the People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as "occupied territory." You are now threatening to take over Mariupol and Kharkiv.
Zakharchenko: I have always said that the Donetsk People's Republic is comprised of the entire former Donetsk region. We see any part that is not in our hands yet as being illegally occupied. Kharkiv isn't part of that.
SPIEGEL: The borders of the old Donetsk region are still too far away for you.
Zakharchenko: What do you mean by far? It's only 120 kilometers (74 miles).
SPIEGEL: How do you intend to capture this additional territory?
Zakharchenko: The faster, the better. And by peaceful means, if possible.
There is no sign of a peaceful settlement, with neither of the two sides willing to back down at the moment. Zakharchenko speaks quickly, and his facts and arguments are often contradictory. Like his opponent, Ukrainian President Poroshenko, the Donetsk "leader" is cherry-picking the elements of the Minsk agreement that seem beneficial to him, or he is reinterpreting it. It's a patchwork quilt of truth.
Zakharchenko keeps repeating that he is not a politician but merely an employee who is serving his country, and that it is independent of Russia. Nevertheless, a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin hangs on the wall of his office, and the Russian flag stands behind his desk chair. The rest of the furnishings are from various eras. There is a set of knight's armor in the corner and leaning against the window is a Bulawa club, a symbol of the power of Ukrainian Cossack rulers. Modern pistols are displayed on a bookshelf, along with the collected works of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The separatists' mindscape seems both confused and diverse.
SPIEGEL: Why did neither you nor the head of the Luhansk People's Republic want to the sign the agreement in Minsk in February that (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel, (France President) François Hollande and Vladimir Putin had negotiated?
Zakharchenko: Because the first versions -- and there were 14 of them -- absolutely did not correspond with anything we could accept. In the end, we signed the one that contained the most advantageous terms for us at the time.
SPIEGEL: Under pressure from Vladimir Putin.
Zakharchenko: Yes, there was tremendous pressure -- not just from Russia but also from the Europeans and from Kiev. However, we see the Minsk agreement as only a first stage of a possible settlement. The other side, however, claims that the agreement settles all contentious issues. We insist on negotiating directly with Kiev.
SPIEGEL: The Ukrainians want to see international peacekeeping troops stationed in the Donets Basin, the Donbas. Why do you reject this?
Zakharchenko: According to the United Nations, there is a series of conditions for deploying such troops. Kiev would have to admit that a real war is taking place in Ukraine, and it would also have to declare a state of war. But Poroshenko doesn't want that, because the International Monetary Fund would then refuse to provide additional loans. Besides, we are capable of solving the problems here ourselves. Foreign troops would hardly be able to stop the combat operations.
SPIEGEL: Some members of the Russian parliament, the Duma, want to see Russian peacekeepers sent to the Donbas. Would that be an option?
Zakharchenko: I just said that we need to solve our problems on our own.
SPIEGEL: The Ukrainians first want to hold the regional elections in eastern Ukraine that they are demanding. You, however, insist that the constitution must be amended and that the status of the separatist territories defined. Months could pass before that happens.
Zakharchenko: And why can't we solve these problems at the same time? Why can't the economic blockade be lifted first?
SPIEGEL: If elections are held in your territory, will the citizens who fled to other parts of Ukraine after the war began also be allowed to vote?
Zakharchenko: There are fewer of them than of the refugees who went to Russia. Until the war began, the Donetsk People's Republic had a population of 4.8 million. More than a million now live in Russia, and perhaps 2.3 million are still here. Another 700,000 are now in the territory of the Donetsk People's Republic occupied by Ukraine.
SPIEGEL: You expect them to support you. The Kiev government is supposed to take full control of the border with Russia right after the elections. Will you ever accept that?
Zakharchenko: In reality, the point is that we will take over control. In accordance with the Minsk agreement, we have formed a border service, and the development of border posts will be completed within the next three weeks. Crossing the border illegally will no longer be possible then.
SPIEGEL: If you are the only ones controlling the border, Russian military technology will continue to flow freely into the country.
Zakharchenko: Have you ever seen them at the border yourself?
SPIEGEL: You don't let us go there, and not even the OSCE, with a few exceptions. But the battle for Debaltseve in February would not have been possible without Russian help.
Zakharchenko: I commanded 587 men when Debaltseve was captured. Believe me, I didn't see a single regular Russian military unit. And I was wounded there myself.
SPIEGEL: Many rebel groups are fighting independently on your side. Do you even have any control over these armed units anymore?
Zakharchenko: According to Minsk, we were required to disarm units that were not part of the people's army or the territorial defense battalions. This was done without any excesses, and these people were incorporated into the Interior Ministry or other battalions.
But the world in his republic isn't nearly as orderly as Zakharchenko tries to portray. His men in the Defense Ministry do see the disarming of rebels acting independently as a problem. The program only began in April, they say, and in the first five days alone, 65 men were arrested for refusing to give up their weapons voluntarily.
SPIEGEL: Have you ever considered a federation with Ukraine a possibility?
Zakharchenko: I did a year ago. But that's over now.
SPIEGEL: You now want Russia to recognize your republic. But that would "immensely complicate" a resolution of the conflict, says German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Zakharchenko: Germany should recognize us even sooner. It would make like easier for the people here.
SPIEGEL: Conditions have been poor in your republic since the economic blockade began. What are you doing to combat the problem?
Zakharchenko: We have started paying out pensions, we are slowly getting coal production up and running again and the railroad will be operating again soon. Be it coal or metal, we will return to 2014 production levels.
SPIEGEL: Is the money for the pensions coming from Russia? Is that why they are being paid in rubles?
Zakharchenko: We supply coal to Russia, and we are paid in rubles. But do you think Ukraine could survive without our coal? It is buying through all kinds of circuitous routes. The EU is also interested, including Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and especially Spain. That means we get rubles, hryvnia and dollars.
SPIEGEL: Who do you think should pay for the reconstruction of the Donbas?
Zakharchenko: Ukraine, of course. It destroyed everything here.
SPIEGEL: Ukraine is practically bankrupt.
Zakharchenko: We don't care if Ukraine is bankrupt. We are not citizens of Ukraine. We will present them with our bill. Perhaps German money will also help.
During the interview, Zakharchenko repeatedly mentions the "fascists" in Kiev. He is critical of the fact that Poroshenko's government is receiving 500 million ($550 million) from the "iron chancellor," Angela Merkel. He insists that his People's Republic is in fact entitled to the money, as compensation for its war losses. But the German money is being "stolen" in Kiev, he argues. It is obvious that the leader of the People's Republic is entirely reliant on Russia. The ruble has already found its way into Donetsk, where the Russian currency can be used to pay for gasoline at filling stations. Ruble cash registers can also be found in supermarkets and items on restaurant menus are priced in rubles.
Still, there is a touch of melancholy in Zakharchenko's final answer. The interview has already been underway for an hour, and at times it has turned into a heated argument. In the end, a long argument ensues between the separatist leader and the reporter over whether the uprising on Maidan Square in Kiev was a coup d'état and the current Kiev government is a "fascist junta." Zakharchenko still insists that his republic is fighting fascists, and says that Russia feels the same way.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, your former prime minister, Alexander Borodai, regrets that Russia doesn't support the desire for independence by the people in the Donbas in the same way it supports Russians in Crimea. Do you agree?
Zakharchenko: That's his personal opinion. But if there were a "Russian spring" here, as there was in Crimea, I would vote for it with both hands.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan