DONETSK, Ukraine — A Ukrainian has replaced a Russian at the helm of the insurgency in eastern Ukraine and declared that he wants “only moral support” from Moscow, as the Kremlin apparently tries to rebut Western claims that it is calling the shots among the rebels.
Many in the rebel ranks decry what they call Russia’s betrayal of their cause, but most vow to keep on fighting even as Ukrainian government troops close in on the main rebel stronghold, the eastern city of Donetsk.
In an ominous sign that the fighting may escalate further, the new leader of the insurgency has boasted of hundreds of new recruits and says a lot of rocket launchers and tanks have been seized from a Ukrainian unit.
Alexander Zakharchenko, a native of mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, took over late Thursday as prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, which has declared independence from the central government in Kiev.
He succeeded Alexander Borodai, a Moscow political consultant who reportedly played a role in Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March before moving into eastern Ukraine. Borodai has worked for a nationalist tycoon with alleged connections to the Kremlin.