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In Eastern Ukraine Conspiracies Believe in You

Military leader of Donetsk separatists Igor Strelkov delivering a YouTube request for volunteers to fight the "Ukrainian aggressors."

Military leader of Donetsk separatists Igor Strelkov delivering a YouTube request for volunteers to fight the “Ukrainian aggressors.”

Two days after the May 17, 2014 election of a Russian national as the Prime Minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, four investigative articles came out drawing connections between the man, Alexander Borodai, and the leader of the pro-Russian militants in the region, as well as a certain Russian billionaire who might be involved in sponsoring unrest in Ukraine.

The main piece, written by independent journalist Oleg Kashin, describes the basic conceit — it appears that both Borodai, a political campaign expert, and Igor Strelkov, DPR's successful military leader and historical reenactor [Global Voices Report], have in the past worked for Konstantin Malofeev, the Russian Orthodox businessman whose League for Safe Internet is partly behind the recent wave of censorship on the RuNet. Kashin maintains he saw both men in Crimea during the annexation there, and believes that Malofeev's money was involved.

After this point Kashin's analysis diverges from the other three writers. They draw similar conclusions based on publicly available data, like the mysterious website that claims to have hacked Strelkov's email account (in one of these emails Strelkov admits to working as head of security for Malofeev). However, while they think that Moscow, acting through Malofeev, is currently calling the shots in Donetsk like it did in Crimea, Kashin thinks that the two “agents” have gone rogue and are making things difficult for various local interests in Donetsk all on their own. Alexey Navalny sounded off, supporting the opposing viewpoint from under house arrest, noting that corruption charges against Malofeev were dropped earlier in the year, perhaps in return for some kind of cooperation with the Russian government.

Malofeev does seem to be at least partially involved, at least according to a leaked Ukraine security forces recording of a phone call that supposedly took place between Strelkov and a “Konstantin Valeryevich” back in April. During the call “Konstantin” congratulated Strelkov on a successful military operation of the day before, and told him to report to Aksyonov (the Crimean leader). If it is true that a Russian billionaire is privately sponsoring a separatist movement in a foreign country, it appears that he does not see a particular need to hide his involvement. 

Pro-Russian blogger el-murid (who usually specializes in analyzing the Middle East) thinks that Borodai's appointment as PM signals a successful coup on the part of the militants led by Strelkov — someone who can cut through the vacillations of the increasingly indecisive Donetsk separatists. Stanislav Yakovlev, a member of Vladimir Milov's DemVybor party, is of the opinion that there is no way the two men, Strelkov and Borodai, would still be alive if there wasn't a “much more serious” force behind them. Otherwise, says Yakovlev, they would have been taken out by local Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov long before the situation got out of hand the way it has.

Meanwhile, perennial RuNet troublemaker Maksim Kononenko called attention to the fact that four articles about Borodai, Strelkov, and Malofeev all came out on the same day — May 19, 2014. Kononenko implies that such coordination could only be part of some PR campaign, or perhaps a coordinated leak to multiple sources. Of course since much of the details were in the public domain, waiting to be found, it is likely that what happened was a coincidence. As one Facebook user put it, “everyone began to google, and once they were done, they wrote an article,” so no wonder all four came out at the same time.

Strelkov himself likely pays no heed to these speculations. According to his field dispatches he has been busy putting hundreds of Ukrainian troops and dozens of vehicles out commission, while sustaining very light losses (one Russian blogger recently estimated that separatist forces have killed or wounded over 700 federal Ukrainian troops, a number the Ukrainian authorities would certainly dispute.) He has also recorded a YouTube video in which he laments a lack of volunteers, and the coming end of his resistance. At least according to his latest dispatch, the strategy appears to have born fruit: Strelkov now claims that he has several hundred people in reserve, for what he views as an inevitable final confrontation. Let us hope that confrontation does not come.

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