#MinskMonitor: Abandoned Checkpoints and Power Struggles in Donetsk

“Vostok” founder Khodakovsky shows vulnerability of city, defying Zakharchenko

(Source: YouTube / Patriotic Forces)

The feud between the “leader” of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), Aleksandr Zakharchenko, and the former leader of the Vostok Battalion, Aleksandr Khodakovsky, continued this week when Khodakovsky shared a video online highlighting the vulnerability of the Russian-led separatist stronghold of Donetsk.

The description for the video posted by Khodakovsky, entitled “Welcome…”, detailed the reasons why the Donetsk-based military unit commander filmed a tour of the city:

“I promised to conduct an excursion from the [Donetsk] city center up to the front line for a general understanding of the [current] picture — today, I threw together a clip that will let you get acquainted with the situation…”

What did this video show, and why did Khodakovsky apparently publicly highlight military vulnerabilities of occupied Donetsk?

Route and geolocation

We can follow Khodakovsky’s route to locate the checkpoints that he visited thanks to his ongoing commentary, along with using satellite imagery and street-level photographs to cross-reference the exact spots.

The first location that Khodakovsky pointed out was an abandoned checkpoint near the north exit out of Donetsk. He noted that there was no longer anyone manning the building (with a red roof, in the bottom reference image) at this checkpoint.

Sources: YouTube / Patriotic Forces (Top) and Google Street View (Bottom).

When we mapped this location onto LiveUAMap’s visualization of the current front lines (in which red shading indicates non-government-controlled territory), we see that the location (in a yellow box below) is near the exit of the city, just east of the Donetsk Airport.

(Source: LiveUAMap)

As he continued northward, Khodakovsky claimed, “a group of trenches that were dug by our fighters — this is all that separates Donetsk and the city center from infiltration by the enemy.” He added that the Ukrainian forces “could reach the city center in the course of 15 to 20 minutes.”

In between the empty checkpoint at the edge of the city, Khodakovsky kept mentioning that the road was empty and unmanned, thus vulnerable to a Ukrainian assault.

Part of this empty, supposedly vulnerable space was further north along the highway, where Khodakovsky noted that an improvised cable stretches between houses in the village of Spartak and a Donetsk railway station.

Sources: YouTube / Patriotic Forces (Top) and Google Street View (Bottom).

Later, Khodakovsky reached an overpass for the E50/M04 highways in between Donetsk and government-controlled Avdiivka. He pointed to his left — west — and said that there were “enemy” (Ukrainian) positions just a kilometer or so in that direction. The screenshot below is from a second camera filming Khodakovsky’s route.

Sources: YouTube / Patriotic Forces (Top) and Google Earth (Bottom).

When consulting the approximate front line on LiveUAMap, we see the area west of the highway, as noted by Khodakovsky, is controlled by government forces. There are a number of entrenchments in this area and known Ukrainian outposts between Avdiivka and Donetsk. The yellow square below marks the location from which Khodakovsky from pointed out the Ukrainian positions to the west.

(Source: LiveUAMap)

Towards the end of the video, Khodakovsky exited the vehicle at a Vostok checkpoint underneath the overpass just northeast of the yellow square and pointed out Ukrainian military positions across the field towards the west.

The approximate route of that Khodakovsky took from Donetsk to its environs can be seen below.

https://www.google.com/maps/d/embed?mid=1IrPiTVpDngY-ts46HEU9VVpxdgnvCMcB

Feud continues

The motivation for Khodakovsky’s “tour” was not terribly hard to deduce. He and current DNR “leader” Aleksandr Zakharchenko have been feuding for years, and Khodakovsky has been accused of plotting a coup against the current “leader” of the self-proclaimed republic.

(Source: UAWire.org)

Unlike early leaders of the “DNR”, such as Russian citizen Aleksandr Borodai and Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, both Zakharchenko and Khodakovsky were actually born in Donetsk. While Zakharchenko and Khodakovsky have both worked closely with Russian political and military leaders, the two are natural candidates for Russia to install as leaders of the “DNR” due to their military experience and their local roots to eastern Ukraine.

As the past four years have shown, a number of men in the Kremlin — namely, Vladislav Surkov — are the only ones with the authority of making the final decision regarding who can act as a leader of the non-government-controlled territories of the Donbas. However, the Kremlin is not an all-powerful force deciding every matter in Donetsk, as the ongoing power struggles and assassinations in the self-styled “republic” have made evident. Rumors have persisted for years that the Kremlin has been unhappy at times with Zakharchenko due to the rampant — or, more-rampant-than-acceptable — corruption of the current puppet regime. Khodakovsky has positioned himself as an alternative to Zakharchenko, and, despite the common fate of separatist leaders who are not in lock-step with the ruling regime, continues to publicly question Zakharchenko’s ability to defend Donetsk, as seen in this most recent video.

We will continue to monitor the military situation in Donetsk and any escalation in the feud between the military strongmen in Donetsk, especially if the situation shows signs resembling the recent “coup” in the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR).


Follow the latest Minsk II Violations via the @DFRLab’s #MinskMonitor.

For more in-depth analysis from our regional experts follow the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. Or subscribe to UkraineAlert.