DONETSK/SLAVIANSK, Ukraine, (Reuters) – One is a dapper former croupier and promoter of Ponzi scams run by “Russia’s Bernie Madoff”; the other is a burly Soviet Navy veteran turned soap factory boss, with a shifting gaze and a glint of gold teeth.
In an uprising whose calling cards are the Kalashnikov and the black balaclava, Denis Pushilin and Vyacheslav Ponomaryov have become the unmasked faces of the pro-Russian separatist movement in eastern Ukraine that has plunged Moscow and the West into their most ominous confrontation since the Cold War.
But many in the Donetsk region, including officials who have negotiated with the activists, see the pair as mere fronts for brains behind the scenes: a “puppeteer” in the words of one local Ukrainian mediator; or Vladimir Putin in the eyes of Kiev, which says Russian special forces are orchestrating events.
Pushilin, a 32-year-old who won 77 votes when he ran for parliament a few months ago, emerged this month as leader of the self-styled People’s Republic of Donetsk, occupying the regional governor’s office in Ukraine’s industrial heartland. Well-pressed suits set him apart from his frumpy admirers and unwashed men in mismatched camouflage on the barricades, as he gives an articulate voice to widely held fears among Russian speakers; many despise the leaders in Kiev who overthrew Viktor Yanukovich, the Donetsk-born president, and want a vote on letting the industrial east follow Crimea into Russian hands.
“There will be a referendum,” is his mantra to small crowds who gather to hear him speak from a stage protected by walls of sandbags and truck tyres, topped with barbed wire.
Ponomaryov, “people’s mayor” of Slaviansk, a rustbelt city of 130,000 a two-hour drive north of Donetsk, cuts an altogether different figure. Middle-aged, he is much less comfortable around the media, often addressing the ground, his eyes shielded by a baseball cap, occasionally flashing those gold teeth.
He is cagey about his Cold War military service and his business affairs, even his age, but shows greater authority over the gun-heavy separatists who have taken effective control of the entire city. Long feared by officialdom as a haven for crime gangs, Slaviansk looks like the military base camp for the pro-Russian political demands in other towns across the region.
Ponomaryov and Pushilin, who seem largely unacquainted with each other, deny taking orders from the Kremlin or liaising with Russian commandos, who the Ukrainian government and its U.S. and European allies suspect are active under cover, coordinating moves by locals to seize strategic objectives three weeks ago.
“There’s not a single Russian soldier or an active member of Russian armed forces in the Slaviansk area, and no contact with Russian authorities, its state security services or military,” Ponomaryov said – though he did broadcast an appeal to President Putin at the weekend asking for Russian troops to protect the city from “fascists” after three of his men died in a gunfight.