Kiev/Donetsk, Ukraine, July 27 (Reuters): As Ukrainian troops gained ground in eastern Ukraine in early July, separatist leader Aleksander Borodai, a Russian national, left for Moscow for political consultations.
After what he described as successful talks with unnamed people there, he returned to the rebel stronghold of Donetsk to introduce a new senior figure in his self-proclaimed republic, a compatriot seasoned in the pro-Russian separatist movement in Moldova and a war between Russia and Georgia.
Vladimir Antyufeyev was named “deputy prime minister” by Borodai on July 10, one of several native Russians to have taken charge of the separatist rebellion.
Joining Borodai and rebel commander Igor Strelkov, Antyufeyev’s arrival underlines a change at the top of the separatist movement, highlighting Moscow’s involvement in the conflict, western officials say. The Kremlin denies any involvement.
“There has been a dramatic change in the leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic over the past weeks, which certainly gives the impression of a much more hands-on Russian directive role,” said Geoffrey Pyatt, the US ambassador to Kiev. “These individuals are in regular touch with authorities in Russia.”
Ukrainian-born rebel leaders have been eased out, causing rifts among increasingly nervous separatists since a Malaysian airliner was downed over rebel-held territory just over a week ago.
Antyufeyev replaced Donetsk native Alexander Khodakovsky as the top security person in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Denis Pushilin, another local once titled the republic’s president, was dismissed.
Khodakovsky remains a top commander but has taken an increasingly independent line, telling Reuters that separatists had the type of anti-aircraft missile system that Washington says brought the plane down, killing all 298 people on board.
A Ukrainian official in the southern Azov Sea city port of Mariupol, which Kiev reclaimed from rebels last month, said Russians were taking over the entire rebel operation.
Washington says the influx of Russians into the upper ranks of the separatists is matched by an increased number of heavy weaponry coming across the Russian border into Ukraine, a response to advances made by the Ukrainian army on the ground.
Though Borodai insists the separatists’ weaponry comes from depots they overran while seizing territory, he admits “volunteers” from Russia keep on reinforcing the rebels’ ranks. He calls his Russian volunteers and says their presence in the Donetsk region, is proof of the Russian nation’s support for the separatists’ cause.
The Netherlands, Australia and Malaysia have ruled out sending an international armed mission to secure the site in eastern Ukraine where Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17 crashed, the Dutch Prime Minister said today.
“We concluded there was a real risk that an international mission would immediately be involved in the conflict in Ukraine,” he said.
Forensic experts were prevented by heavy fighting on Sunday from getting access to the crash site to recover the remains of the airliner passengers.