KYIV -- Not long ago, Aleksandr Borodai was a little-known political consultant with nationalist leanings.
Back in 1993, he was among those defending hard-liners barricaded inside the Russian White House in their showdown with President Boris Yeltsin. He wrote regularly for the ultranationalist newspaper “Zavtra” and in 2011 co-founded the "patriotic" online television channel Den-TV.
Despite being a Muscovite and a Russian citizen, Borodai last month was named the de facto prime minister of the self-styled "Donetsk People's Republic," a separatist region in eastern Ukraine. The move transformed him from an obscure nationalist on the fringe of Russian political life to a key figure at ground zero of the biggest standoff between Moscow and the West in decades.
And Borodai isn't the only one making the transformation.
“Yesterday’s marginals are today’s political mainstream,” said Yevgeny Kiselyov, a Kyiv-based political commentator and television anchor who is originally from Russia.
Kiselyov, who hosted the popular current affairs program "Itogi" (Summing Up) on Russia's NTV channel in the 1990s before falling out with the Kremlin and emigrating, added that the ideas of once-marginal figures like Borodai and Aleksandr Prokhanov, the editor and founder of "Zavtra," now make up "the backbone of Russian foreign policy.”
Take Pavel Gubarev, for example. Shortly after he burst onto the scene as the self-proclaimed “people’s governor” of Donetsk in March, 12-year-old photos
appeared online of him posing -- in full uniform -- with members of the paramilitary group Russian National Unity.
Writing on Facebook
on June 6, Gubarev, a Ukrainian citizen, admitted he was a member of the group, whose symbol bears a striking resemblance to a swastika, thanking it for “military training that you don’t get in the Ukrainian army.”
Pro-Russian separatist leaders Denis Pushilin (left) and Aleksandr Borodai in Donetsk, Ukraine, in late May
Russian National Unity is infamous for its attacks on ethnic minorities in Russia and two of its purported former members have been jailed in connection with the 2009 killings of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova. The group was founded by Aleksandr Barkashov, a Russian nationalist who gained notoriety for leading paramilitary units during the October 1993 Constitutional Crisis in Russia.
Back on May 7, just days before the Donetsk and Luhansk regions held unrecognized independence referendums, Ukraine's security service, the SBU, released what it says was an intercepted phone conversation
in which a man they identified as Barkashov explains to separatist leaders how to falsify the results.
Moreover, Aleksandr Dugin, who in the 1990s preached a Russian nationalism "borderless and red," spoke in a Skype conversation posted on YouTube
with Guberev's wife, Yekaterina, in late March. The two spoke at length about the situation in the east, a week before gunmen seized government buildings.
The 'Zavtra' Connection
Several of the Russian nationalists participating in the unrest in Ukraine have links to Prokhanov's newspaper, "Zavtra."
Both Borodai and Igor Girkin, the self-proclaimed "defense minister" of the Donetsk People's Republic who goes by the moniker “Strelkov,” have been regular contributors.
Among those contributors are Sergei Aksyonov
, the Moscow-installed prime minister in Russian-occupied Crimea.
Another is Aleksei Khudyakov
, the former head of the Russian anti-immigration group Shield Of Moscow. Last year, masked youths from the group raided migrant living quarters in the Russian capital:
Khudyakov was arrested and then released after a storm
on the occupied Donetsk regional administration building in March.
"Zavtra" claims it served as a “recruitment point” for Russian volunteers fighting alongside pro-Moscow separatists in Moldova's Transdniester region in the 1992 conflict.
Analysts suggest that rather than taking the lead in the separatist movement, nationalist groups are instead being recruited and sent by others.
“These links don’t mean that nationalist organizations are playing a significant role,” said Aleksandr Verkhovsky, head of the Moscow-based Sova Center, which monitors xenophobic attacks and right-wing groups.
“I have the impression that other people are doing the recruiting of volunteers other than the usual suspects in nationalist organizations.”
Moreover, extremist volunteers have not always received a warm welcome from separatists in Ukraine.
Andrei Morozov, who goes by the pseudonym “Murz” and heads the little-known group Red Blitzkrieg, traveled to eastern Ukraine’s Slaviansk to enlist his services last month.
But as Morozov wrote on his blog
, separatists mistook him for a spy. They handcuffed him, tortured him, and held him for days before dumping him on Russian territory.
Morozov writes that he was then detained by Russia border guards and made to pay a fine of 2,000 rubles (approximately $60) for illegally crossing a border.
Nevertheless, the Ukraine crisis has served to bridge the gap between the Kremlin and many of its nationalist critics.
For years, Eduard Limonov has been an arrest-on-sight target for police during street rallies and his "Strategy 31" freedom-of-assembly rallies have long been banned.
But on May 31, the authorities allowed Limonov to hold his demonstration. He returned the favor by giving a speech parroting the Kremlin line that the United States, the European Union, and the authorities in Kyiv were waging war on the Ukrainian people.
On June 10, Limonov's Other Russia organization called on its volunteers
to travel to the eastern Ukrainian separatist stronghold of Slovyansk.