By Anton Zverev
DONETSK, Ukraine – An influential separatist commander in eastern Ukraine has urged Russia to send 30,000 soldiers to reinforce rebel forces fighting in the breakaway Donetsk region and to operate new weapons systems he hopes Russia will supply.
The Kremlin did not immediately respond when asked to comment on the request by Alexander Khodakovsky, a former political leader in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic who now oversees a military unit.
The deployment of 30,000 Russian soldiers would further increase tensions between the West and Moscow over a Russian troop build-up near Ukraine.
Khodakovsky said he thought separatist forces would be defeated if they faced a major offensive by Ukrainian government forces in a conflict that began in 2014, and urged Russia to send Grad and Uragan multiple rocket launcher systems.
Russia’s ruling United Russia party, which backs President Vladimir Putin, has said the forces of Donetsk and Luhansk, an adjacent breakaway republic, need more weapons.
But the Kremlin has not yet committed one way or the other on the idea of military aid and has played down the call to recognise the breakaway regions as it tries to negotiate security guarantees with the West in the standoff over Ukraine.
Khodakovsky said the Donetsk separatists had 30,000 fighters of their own, but only 10,000 were fit for frontline duties.
“We need to have at least 40,000, but 40,000 with automatic rifles on the frontline,” Khodakovsky told Reuters in an interview, making clear his request was for 30,000 soldiers in addition to the 10,000 already deemed capable of frontline duties.
He welcomed an appeal by Andrey Turchak, a senior United Russia member, to send armaments to the separatist regions but said specialists would also be needed to operate such “complex systems”.
“I would like to see Russian military units that can use this weaponry,” he said.
Over 700,000 Russian passports have been issued to residents of eastern Ukraine since separatists seized territory there in 2014. Russia’s parliament is set to discuss making an appeal Putin to recognise the breakaway areas as independent states.
Kyiv has denied allegations by Moscow that Ukraine could launch an attack to take back control of the two regions and has accused Russia of supporting the separatists with covert forces, something Moscow denies.
Khodakovsky said the majority of rebel troops did not want more fighting and did not want the conflict, in which more than 14,000 people have been killed, to be settled militarily.
“There remains in their minds the understanding that they are, after all, fighting their own people,” he said.
He said Russia would raise morale among separatist forces and deter Ukraine by openly sending clearly marked Russian units to the breakaway regions, and that it was now only a matter of time before Russia formally recognised their independence.
(Reporting by Anton Zverev; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn and Timothy Heritage)