Zakharchenko and Surkov ally returns to Moscow
Last week, Zakhar Prilepin left his post as deputy commander of an armed formation in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) for his home country of Russia. Prilepin was widely recognized in both Russia and the West as one of Russia’s greatest living writers, though his public image was greatly affected from his activities in eastern Ukraine and his controversial political positions that have aligned him with far-right, ultra-nationalist, and fascist elements within Russia and Ukraine.
Prilepin had long been a supporter of the “republics” in the occupied areas of the Donbas, both through his Russian nationalist activism in Eduard Limonov’s “Other Russia” Party, which sent dozens of its members to fight in eastern Ukraine, and his personal friendship with Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s point man in handling eastern Ukraine and representing Russia in the Minsk accords. His role in the DNR was not limited to just being the deputy commander of a small formation, or the highest-profile celebrity within occupied Ukraine; rather, we must carefully consider his positions within the context of his friendship with Surkov and role as a key advisor to DNR leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko.
The exit of Prilepin from the stage of the Donbas and back into Russian public life spurred heavy discussion within both Ukraine and Russia about the future of the DNR and its two most high-profile handlers, Zakharchenko and Surkov.
Prilepin’s Arrival to the Donbas
While Western publishers and translators have reduced, if not outright halted, cooperation with Prilepin due to his actions in Ukraine, Prilepin saw his role as a separatist commander as a continuation of a Russian literary tradition of authors and philosophers participating in armed conflict, “from Derzhavin and Denis Davydov to Chaadaev and Pushkin,” as he wrote in a recent book.
In February 2017, Zakharchenko welcomed Prilepin to the ranks of the DNR Armed Forces as a Major:
Zakhar Prilepin has acted courageously and honorably, following the traditions of great Russian literature. I personally handed him the shoulder straps [rank] of a major in the Armed Forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
Захар Прилепин поступил мужественно и честно, следуя традициям великой русской литературы. И я лично вручил ему погоны майора ВС ДНР.
— Александр Захарченко (@AlexZaxarchenko) February 13, 2017
Prilepin’s Activities in the Donbas
Prilepin largely worked as a “political instructor” within a reconnaissance group directly loyal to Zakharchenko, the 4th Reconnaissance and Assault Battalion of the Special Forces (Spetsnaz) Regiment of the DNR Armed Forces. This regiment was a four-unit formation intensely loyal to Zakharchenko, which also included the Pyatnashka Battalion, whose leader recently died in fighting near Avdiivka. Prilepin acted as the deputy commander of the group, with fellow Other Russia activist Sergey Fomchenkov as the commander. For more information on the leadership structure of this group, see a previous @DFRLab investigation here.
Since arriving as a military commander, Prilepin acted as more of a figurehead or celebrity than military strategist, though he occasionally fought in trenches near the front-line, as seen in the video above. Since November 2017, he has hosted a show on Russian television channel NTV, while half-dressed in military fatigues, outlining his thoughts on Russia, Ukraine, war, history, and other broad topics.
Outside of his seemingly endless number of media appearances andbet interviews, Prilepin acted as a key advisor to Zakharchenko, who consolidated his power over the occupied areas of the Donbas, even in helping Moscow enact a transition of power in Luhansk.
Zakharchenko, Surkov, and Prilepin are all closely linked in both professional and personal aspects. While there is some level of free will and volatility in the Donbas, the most important decisions — such as the ultimate leadership of the puppet republics — were largely decided by Presidential aide Vladislav Surkov. Surkov personally approved Zakharchenko’s ascension to the leadership role of the DNR back in 2014, as seen in his leaked email inbox. As long as Surkov calls the shots for Russia’s management of the Donbas, Zakharchenko can feel safe in his leadership role, despite weak threats from other military leaders in Donetsk, namely from Aleksandr Khodakovsky. Prilepin, too, is close to Surkov. The two both grew up in the Russian town of Skopin, which has fewer than 30,000 people, and both consider themselves among the literary elite of the country, with Surkov writing under the pseudonym “Natan Dubovitsky”.
The most obvious joint project of the triumvirate of Zakharchenko-Surkov-Prilepin was the aborted “Malorossiya” initiative, which sought to unite Donetsk and Luhansk. The separatist leaders in Luhansk, however, had no idea about this political project, killing its ambitions before they started. Donetsk insiders blamed the failed idea on a “group of writers”, specifically Prilepin, who echoed the language used by Surkov to describe the breakaway states in the Donbas as part of greater Ukraine, rather than their own countries.
Prilepin’s recent exit from the Donbas was ostensibly because of the reorganization of his reconnaissance military group into the “Tactical Rocket Troops” in the DNR Armed Forces. “We are now,” as Prilepin said, “rocket-men. Frankly, this is not my specialty.” Prilepin also pointed to the fact that fighting has slowed down greatly, and he expects a freeze in hostilities in the lead-up to the March 2019 Ukrainian elections.
Not much is known about the “Tactical Rocket Troops”, the organization that the fighters of Prilepin’s battalion were assigned to populate. However, from contextualization and recent arms production, we could ascertain a few details.
Firstly, the name of the Tactical Rocket Troops is reminiscent of the Soviet and Russian Strategic Missile Troops, a branch consisting of several ballistic missile formations. The technology made available to DNR did not allow for this strategic level capability, but tactical level rockets were apparently within the reach of local production capabilities. The underlying premise of establishing a Tactical Rocket Troop was dubious, and it was not made clear how this kind of structure should offer any advantages over units like the artillery brigade “Kalmius”. Still, the likely mission of the Tactical Rocket Troops would be to amass overwhelming artillery fires against Ukrainian positions at single points, whether for tactical or punitive purposes, as we saw with the strikes following the death of Pyatnashka leader “Mamai”. These strikes used the newly-developed Cheburashka multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS).
Since its announcement in May, it was not entirely clear whether the Tactical Rocket Troops were real or just a PR stunt. This doubt came from how in most videos, the people operating the artillery systems were wearing insignia from the DNR’s “Military-Industrial Complex” (VPK). With this reassignment, however, we may see a more formal structure forming within the coming months. However, it appeared that Prilepin’s battalion was recently active in its original role on the front lines, and it was unclear when this transition would take place.
The systems associated with the Tactical Rocket Troops so far could be split into two main categories of lower-caliber/high-volume Cheburashka-type rockets, and the higher-caliber/low-volume Snezhinka and Kitaets-type rockets. The Cheburashka and Snezhinka had an equally long claimed range of 9600 meters, this was a modest range for modern artillery systems, but due to the tactical nature of the units, the need for explosive power was the deciding factor.
The timing of Prilepin’s departure from Donbas was difficult to assess, as he has famously jumped from one political project to another in the past two decades. Prilepin’s departure dovetailing with the death of “Mamai” and public struggles in the DNR between current leader Zakharchenko and Denis Pushilin, a former Ponzi scheme operator and the DNR’s first Chairman of its legislative body, have breathed life into rumors of Zakharchenko’s weakening grip on power in Donetsk. Most recent reports indicate that Zakharchenko may have been seriously wounded near Avdiivka, as he has skipped out on a number of public appearances.
However, there are few reasons to suspect Prilepin’s exit had any ulterior motives, as internal squabbles and mysterious deaths of military commanders were common occurrences in the DNR. In all likelihood, Prilepin will be back in the Donbas soon for more media appearances, or, as WarGonzo’s Semen Pegov predicted in an editorial on RT, he’ll be back “in 12 hours” if a major offensive breaks out.
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