Ex-separatist leader calls Russian attack on Ukraine a mistake


London (Reuters) – One of the architects of the Moscow-backed separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine eight years ago said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a mistake, in comments that show the Kremlin cannot count on support from all pro-Russian opponents of Kyiv.

Alexei Alexandrov was one of the leaders of a movement in 2014 to reject Kyiv’s rule and create an autonomous pro-Moscow territory in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, triggering a war against Ukrainian government forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Russia attacked Ukraine last month in part to protect the separatist territory from Kyiv, though Western states say that is a pretext for an unprovoked land grab.

In an interview with Reuters last Friday, Alexandrov said: “All this could have been resolved earlier, mainly through diplomatic means and perhaps an insignificant use of force. But that was not done, and that is a mistake on all sides.”

He said that because Moscow failed to negotiate a settlement with Kyiv guaranteeing autonomy for the Donbas and rights for its residents, by the start of this year armed conflict became unavoidable.

Alexandrov said Moscow had, over many years, failed to grasp how to deal with Ukraine, whose rulers he said were set on crushing the identity of the Russian-speaking community in eastern Ukraine, an allegation that Kyiv and its allies deny.

“Moscow’s reaction was always late, and never got to grips with the situation,” he said. “That was a mistake, and we are reaping the consequences now in blood, and multiple victims on both sides.”

Contacted by Reuters, the Kremlin did not provide a comment about the remarks by Alexandrov, who was chief of staff to the head of the self-proclaimed republic’s parliament, Andrei Purgin, until both men were pushed out of their roles in 2015.

In the interview, Alexandrov said once the active phase of the conflict in Ukraine is over, the long-term outlook for Donbas was unclear. He said he doubted Russia had the resources to bring the whole of Ukraine under its control.

If Russia kept its presence in eastern Ukraine, there would therefore be a high likelihood of a renewed armed conflict with the Ukrainian state, Alexandrov said.

“This is not how it should have ended,” he said. “It’s not worth all the victims.”

Alexandrov was among a group of people who created the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in 2014, defying Kyiv’s rule, after pro-Moscow Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted by popular protests and replaced with Western-leaning leaders.

Since 2015, when his boss Purgin was dismissed and briefly detained for reasons that were never spelled out, Alexandrov has lived as a private citizen inside Russian-controlled territory and has not held any official roles or elected office.

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