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.

Alexander Zakharchenko (center)

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 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.

(Note from Wildwald: You will find some editor's note during the Interview.
That is how they like to "educate" us here. Not that we would read it independent minded.)

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

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.

Map of Ukraine and the Separatist territories

SPIEGEL: There are suggestions that Russia is still supporting
you with troops and military technology. A badly injured Russian tank
driver confirmed this in an interview. It's hypocrisy to continue
denying it.

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

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

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

woman carries her shopping past a burned out market stall near the main train station in Donetsk

....fighting continues in the region.