Sitting behind a desk on the 11th floor of the city’s administration building, flanked by two Cossack gunmen, the newly-appointed deputy prime minister of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic is fresh in from Moscow, where he has spent the last two years in hiding due to multiple international warrants out for his arrest. He is well groomed, articulate, and possesses an extremely unusual but impressive resume.
“I was invited by the government of the DPR to… revive law enforcement,” explains Vladimir Antyufeyev, picking his words carefully. "I think it is my previous experiences that brought me to consideration for this position,” he adds with a wry smile.
From Transnistria to Abkhazia, over the last two decades Antyufeyev has played an instrumental role in the political architecture of nearly every breakaway republic in the post-Soviet space.
In 1991 Antyufeyev, then a senior officer in the Latvia-based branch of the special police unit OMON, cut his teeth in what was to be a long career of political agitation by helping to organize a KGB-led attempt to overthrow the newly independent county’s government. The bid failed, and Antyufeyev and his employees fled Latvia a mere “two hours before they would have arrested us all,” he tells VICE News. But the Soviet idealist was undeterred.
Later the same year he adopted the pseudonym Vladimir Shevtsov, and took the position of Head of the Ministry of State Security in Transnistria — an unrecognized republic on a slither of land sandwiched between the River Dniester in Moldova and Ukraine’s eastern border. He held the post for the next two decades, before being ousted in 2012 after backing the wrong presidential candidate.
"It was unfortunate," he said. "But, anyway, I think that I had accomplished my task over there. I single-handedly created from the ground a security structure, and it was the most effective one in the region."
The rebel republic’s deputy PM, who describes himself as a “political scientist,” says he also worked in Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Crimea. “My employment history is no secret, I was awarded medals by the state in these countries, and I am proud of it,” he tells VICE News.
Siberian-born Antyfeyev is just the latest arrival from Moscow in war-torn eastern Ukraine. The key positions of defense minister and prime minister of the rebel People's Republic — the political and administrative helm of the armed insurgency in the country’s east — are also held by Russian nationals: Igor Girkin and Alexander Borodai.
Girkin, better known by his nom-de-guerre “Strelkov” — meaning “Shooter” in Russian — arrived in the rebel republic in mid-April. A war re-enactment fanatic, with a fondness for playing the role of the White Guard general Mikhail Drozfovsky, who was killed in a battle with Bolsheviks in 1919, Girkin has openly admitted he was a Russian intelligence officer until one year ago.
Self-styled Prime Minister Borodai, a Muscovite like Antyufeyev, also worked in Transnistria and says he knows Strelkov from Crimea, Chechnia, and other “hotspots.” Both have written articles for the Russian nationalist newspaper Zaftra — a publication that has grown hugely in influence during Putin’s third term.
“This is the classic playbook of the Kremlin, to parachute in its own people to guide locals and augment existing resentments,” Brian Whitmore, Senior Eurasia Editor at Radio Free Europe, tells VICE News. “We have seen this strategy deployed many times before, in Transnistria, Abkhazia, and so on, but this time it is dialed up to 11, and these figures [Girkin, Borodai, and Antyufeyev] are the absolute personification of this strategy.”
Photo by Harriet Salem
Unlike prior conflicts in the post-Soviet space, however, the Ukraine crisis has attracted the world’s attention, shining an unwelcome spotlight on the Kremlin’s meddling. “The difference this time is that the strategy has not stayed below the radar. This time, the international community is looking at what’s happening and there is no longer a plausible deniability, such as a pretense of sending peacekeeping troops,” explains Whitmore.
A further complicating factor for the Kremlin — and in stark contrast to previous proxy wars fought by Russia within the borders of its domineered neighbors — the Ukrainian government, which was brought to power on the back of revolution, has refused to back-down to the bullying.
Since taking the reigns of power in May, the country’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, has intensified the anti-terrorism operation in the country’s east. “These terrorists and bandits will be punished and destroyed," vowed Poroshenko, who has overseen the introduction of conscription and a military tax aimed at raising a further $1 billion in funding for the army.
The result has been a fierce and escalating war that has displaced at least 230,000 people from the region, and killed more than 1,000, according to the latest figures released by the UN.
It is in this context, with its escalating violence on the ground, including the downing of the MH17 flight to Malaysia, that Moscow is now desperately struggling to regain control over the situation without losing face.
“It’s clear that Russia didn’t have a clear and comprehensive blueprint for east Ukraine and the situation has quickly spiraled,” Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and expert in security in the post-Soviet world, tells VICE News. “The loose idea appears to have been a short-term operation. To stir up chaos and bring Kiev to the negotiating table. But when that didn’t happen and insurrection gained a momentum of its own, Russia has had to think about how to re-exert its influence and limit the damage.”
Part of the solution has been to increase the flow and sophistication of the weaponry flowing to the rebels across Ukraine’s eastern border. The pro-Russia fighters operating in the region, once only equipped with a pilfered ragtag of arms looted from granddad’s attic and seized from SBU stock rooms, now have a vast array of weaponry including tanks, armored personnel carriers, surface-to-air missiles, mortars, and multi-rocket launch systems.
But more sophisticated arms have created a need for greater control of those using them. Moscow cannot risk the international outrage of a repeat of the MH17 disaster, which according to Washington was most likely shot down by inexperienced rebel fighters who mistook the passenger aircraft for a military target.
Indeed, as evidenced by a series of Russian soldiers’ "selfies" posted to Instagram, those entering into eastern Ukraine's conflict zone from Russia are increasingly no longer just Cossack adventurers, but trained military technicians able to operate complex equipment. They are state funded, and a lot more controllable from Moscow.
“The likes of Antyufeyev are the other side of this same coin — the political technicians,” says Galeotti. “They are the instruments of the Kremlin, the enactors of policy that comes from the very top. They are here under Moscow’s direction, with the goal of trying to bring order to the chaos. People like Antyufeyev are clearly not stupid — he has an amazing instinct for self-preservation and substantial experience in this kind of task."
The exact orders and directions of the Kremlin are not yet clear, however.
According to NATO, Russian troops have been re-massing on Ukraine’s eastern border for the last month, and now number more than 15,000. Military intervention would be politically and economically costly for Putin, but not as much as failure, which is “not an option,” warns Galleotti.
“It's not the preferred option, but unfortunately [a Russian invasion] is certainly not yet off-the-cards either,” he adds.
Back on the 11th floor, Antyufeyev is coming to the end of an impassioned rant about how Ukraine is an "artificially constructed country" existing only at the benevolence of Russia's guarantee of its territorial integrity.
“Let me finish by telling you a story," he says, launching into a lengthy rendition of one of Pushkin’s famous fairytales — this one about a greedy fisherman’s wife and a magic goldfish that granted her desires, until she wanted so much that everything she had wished for was taken back.
“Her house was once again a cracked-through rickety hut. And I suppose this is what will happen with Kiev now, the mother of all Russian cities,” finishes Antyufeyev, with an ominous smile. “At the end of this story, all returns to as it once was.”
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @Harriet Salem