MOSCOW — There was a time when the arrival of Alexander Borodai and his posse of camouflaged gunmen could clear out a restaurant in just minutes.
But that was in Donetsk, Ukraine, in 2014, where Borodai was prime minister of a pro-Russian separatist government. Now, he is back in his native Moscow and, as he tells it, back to his old day job as a public relations consultant.
“When you are not on television, people start to forget what you look like,” he said, sinking into a cream-colored sofa in a tony Moscow restaurant for an interview. “And thank God for that. It was hard to go out on the street at first.”
It is an unlikely, perhaps unbelievable, transformation for the most prominent Russian citizen in the war in Ukraine and the possible target of a Dutch investigation into the missile attack on a Malaysian airliner in July last year that killed 298 people.
Borodai is not the only one of Russia’s self-proclaimed volunteer fighters to reappear here. As the conflict in east Ukraine has reached a stalemate, hundreds of volunteers have returned to Russia, and the early rebel leaders, many of them native Russians, have resumed comfortable, increasingly public lives in Moscow.
Wrapped in a tight Armani Exchange T-shirt and sporting a week’s stubble, Borodai said that he has not been in Donetsk since October and that his focus now is on reviving his consulting company. Business is bad. Several international companies, which he declined to name, severed their contracts when he was subjected to sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union.
Consulting “is an intimate business that requires a personal touch,” Borodai said, which was lacking while he was out of town.
“People go to war, fulfill their duty, and then go back to peaceful, productive lives,” he said. “I don’t think this is especially interesting.”
Borodai’s respite from the spotlight may be short-lived, as Russia and the West are on a collision course over the Flight 17 investigation. The West has blamed rebel leaders, of whom Borodai was the most visible, and Russia for supplying them with sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons. Russia denies this, vetoed a United Nations tribunal and criticized the Dutch investigation as opaque. Indictments are expected near the end of the year.
“I don’t have an answer. Let’s wait and see,” said Borodai when asked whether he would go to the Netherlands to face trial if accused. “This is a story that is long in the past for me, and I have done everything that I thought necessary and needed to support a full investigation.”
Even if separatist leaders are formally accused, there are few signs Moscow would comply with the investigation or an extradition request.
In the meantime, the gang’s all here. You could have bumped into Marat Bashirov, the former prime minister of the separatist Luhansk People’s Republic, at the Moscow Economic Forum in March, where he gave a lecture titled “Risks, sanctions, lobbying.” Bashirov, a Moscow government relations consultant once employed by the oligarch Viktor Vekselberg’s holding company, was subjected to sanctions by the European Union in July 2014 along with Borodai.
A snappy dresser, he remarked on a government airstrike on his headquarters in July last year in a dry post on Facebook: “It seems my Tom Ford suit has been killed. Now I will hold government sessions in camouflage.”
Bashirov did not reply to requests for comment. In Moscow, he runs several government relations firms and chairs a committee on government relations at the Russia Managers Association, a spokesman there said. Last month, dressed in a navy blue suit, he gave a presentation to young entrepreneurs, one of whom tweeted: “Government is the regulator between producer and consumer. Marat Bashirov.”
There is also Igor Girkin, the battle commander who once bragged that if not for his attacks on police stations in April last year, there would be no war in Ukraine. He now appears at lectures with far-right nationalists and has gone spectacularly off message, accusing Russia of abandoning the separatist republics in Ukraine that it helped to create.
“The village crazy,” Borodai said with a smile.
Borodai and Girkin are veterans of the ethnic conflicts that emerged with the fall of the Soviet Union. Borodai fought alongside ethnic Russians in Transnistria, Chechnya and Tajikistan during the 1990s. After each conflict, he returned to Moscow.
“For them, this is just another war,” said Alexei Makarkin, a commentator on politics who studied alongside Girkin at a university in Moscow in the 1990s. “It isn’t something that feels extraordinary; they fought in the ’90s, after all.”
Skeptics, and there are many, say that Borodai is either paid by Russia or is an employee of Russia’s security services. He denies both charges but said he passed information from Donetsk to Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin apparatchik said to be overseeing Russian policy on Ukraine.
Some events point to Russian control, such as the surprise arrivals of Borodai and Bashirov at a time of political chaos for the separatists. Others suggest miscommunication: When the rebels in May last year held referendums seen as a prelude to annexation, the Kremlin ignored them. It was an awkward moment for both sides.
“I believe he acted carefully and competently,” Borodai said of President Vladimir Putin’s policy in Ukraine. “I can’t criticize his actions because in the end he has far more information than I do.”
Russians returning from the war have diverse political views, and a small number are even openly hostile to Putin. Many more say they support Putin but believe he should have supported the volunteers more.
“The government has hindered us more than anything,” said Vladimir Yefimov, a volunteer leader with a flowing beard who led 50 volunteers to war. “But I can say that because I am from here and allowed to criticize the government.”
Some believe that Russia’s support for volunteers fighting in Ukraine could provoke instability or blowback. There have been worrying incidents: A former separatist sniper will soon stand trial in Moscow for the killing of two police officers last autumn. And the Federal Security Service has built a 100-kilometer trench on the Ukrainian border because of concerns about weapons smugglers bringing automatic rifles and grenades from Ukraine.
But there have not been clear signs yet that returned volunteers pose an urgent threat to Russia as either criminals or politicians.
“First, there just are not that many of them,” Mark Galeotti, a security expert who visited Moscow this summer, said of returning volunteers. “I think that the Russians should be more concerned about the soldiers who are coming back.”
The soldiers are Russian servicemen, some of whom have died under mysterious circumstances and are believed to have been fighting in Ukraine. Putin has shrugged off the accusations.
Those who fought openly, calling themselves volunteers, are a more eccentric lot: nationalists or far-leftists, war veterans, thrill seekers and a few would-be philosophers.
Sergei Kavtaradze, an aide to Borodai in Donetsk who was once labeled “the hipster with a machine gun,” returned to Russia last year and is now finishing a film adaptation of his doctoral dissertation.
Titled “MilkForMadness,” it investigates “the archetypes of war,” Kavtaradze said, and the effects of war on its participants.
“It makes people go crazy,” he said.
In a trailer for the film, which Kavtaradze said was produced over the past five years, scenes of combat, torture and sex are cut together in quick succession under a heroic soundtrack.
He said that he also filmed “a little bit” in Donetsk, when there was time.
“Hopefully, it may be in some Western festivals next year,” Kavtaradze said of the film.
An earlier version erroneously cited Alexander Borodai, a former separatist leader in Ukraine, saying his guard tied up another rebel leader, Igor Girkin, as he was taken from Ukraine to Moscow. Borodai said Girkin was “escorted” back to Moscow, but was not bound