In a diplomatic world of blow-dried coifs and pressed Italian suits, Alexander Borodai more than stands out. His round face is perpetually patched in scruff, and, clad in grunge clothing, he always looks as if he just left a Pearl Jam concert.
This week, he presided before a throng of microphones at a news conference in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, wearing a blue denim coat, black undershirt, heaps of scruff and a look of alarm. He had reason to be concerned: A preponderance of evidence suggests pro-Russian separatists used a Russian-obtained missile launcher to shoot down a Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 298 people late last week, killing everyone aboard and eliciting global condemnation.
As investigators sift through what happened and who did what, this relatively unknown and very unpolished leader of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic has quickly become one of the most important figures in the international tragedy. As the self-styled prime minister of the republic, he’s the one who has controlled the fate of the black boxes that investigators said are vital to piecing together what happened.
On Tuesday morning, Borodai, who was elected in May, brandished the black boxes at a room jammed with journalists inside the republic’s headquarters. He placed the boxes on the table, according to a Reuters report. “Here they are, the black boxes,” he said, handing them over to Malaysian experts. As for the bodies, Borodai dispatched a refrigerated train carrying body bags to Ukrainian government territory so they could be transported to the Netherlands for identification.
The theatrics of the morning were only the latest in what’s been a frenetic few days for Borodai, the grizzled face of the separatist movement who just months ago was a Russian political activist and consultant. Earlier this week, as the world focused on Donetsk, he said in a statement, “We have found some technical parts. We assume that they are black boxes. … They are under my control.”
Then he delivered one of the more unusual interviews by any self-styled head of state, saying the crime scene was an object of “black humor.” The interview was with CNN. Borodai was in denim. The interviewer was hammering him over some of the evidence linking the plane crash to pro-Russian separatists. Borodai’s eyes just rolled into the back of his head. He threw his head back and a pained look came over his face. “It is very simple to disprove” the evidence, he said. “All the information that comes through the Internet in my opinion is practically all lies.”
“As soon as members of the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] arrived, they notified us that as soon as we start moving the bodies then we will be responsible,” he said. “It got to the point where it resembled if not a horror movie, then black humor.”
Borodai may not be the smoothest operator, but he says he’s plenty experienced at handling conflict. “In essence, I am what can be called a professional consultant,” the 41-year-old Muscovite told reporters at his first Donetsk news conference in May, Agence France-Presse reported. “I have resolved all kinds of complicated situations. For that reason, personally speaking, my specialization was what was needed here.”
He’s often accused of having ties to the Russian government — being a Russian and all — but Borodai denies that. “I am a Russian citizen,” he told AFP. “But I am a private individual, so you cannot accuse the Russian government of having a hand in what’s going on in the Donetsk People’s Republic because of my presence here.”
His presence, the New York Times reported, may have been sudden and unceremonious in Ukraine, but back home in Russia, he is more known and a man of many titles. He calls himself an “ordinary citizen,” a “political strategist” and a “professional consultant.” To others, he is the “Karl Rove of Russian imperialism,” as Irena Chalupa, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, told the Times.
With roots in the ultranationalist movement in Russia, he contributed to a far-right newspaper called Zavtra in the 1990s that promulgated pan-Slavic unity. Fringe ideas then, but ones that today had enough power to drive Borodai and other Russians into eastern Ukraine. “Real Ukrainians have the right to live as they like,” he told the Times. “They can create their own state which would be named Ukraine, or however they like, because the word Ukraine is a little humiliating.” He said Ukrainians “also want to live as we want to live. We think that we have that right.”
He said that he had been working as a “political strategist” when Russian annexed Crimea and that he later departed for Ukraine. And despite his Russian origins, some observers contend that he’s telling the truth when he says he’s in it just for Ukraine. “This is not the hand of Moscow; it’s just Borodai,” Oleg Kashin, a Russian investigative journalist, told the Times.
But who is he personally? It’s unknown.
“As far as possible I want to conceal personal information about myself,” he said earlier this year. “Not because it’s so top secret — it is absolutely not top secret — but simply because, honestly speaking, I don’t want to give it.”