On March 23, France’s Court of Appeals ordered the closure of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) representative office in Marseilles. This comes following a years-long legal campaign by the Ukrainian government to shut down the diplomatic outpost of the rebel territory. The legal battle over the DPR’s representative center began in 2018 when a French court in Aix-en-Provence struck down the Ukrainian government’s suit.
The court cited no violation of the 1964 Vienna Convention which set the framework for most diplomatic law governing embassies and diplomatic missions. The association was established in Marseilles in 2017 by Hubert Fayard, a former deputy mayor of the town of Vitrolles, himself a member of the French ultranationalist National Front Party.
But this is not the first time a DPR representative center has been shut down in Europe. The DPR established a representative in the Czech city of Ostrava in 2016, the first such center in a European Union (EU) member state. A Czech court later ordered the center’s closure in 2017. The only remaining DPR representative centers in the EU are now in Italy (Turin in 2016, Verona in 2019), Greece (Athens in 2016), and Finland (Helsinki in 2016). Additionally, the unrecognized Luhansk Republic has managed to open one representative center in the Italian city of Messina in 2018.
While such centers were established ostensibly to develop economic, trade, and cultural linkages between the insurgent territory and the sovereign EU states, the reality is that these centers function as Kremlin propaganda centers. The DPR centers, theoretically diplomatic outposts of the Donetsk government, resemble little more than Bizarro embassies, operating in places ranging from dance studios to apartment hallways. And all were created and run by foreigners. The chairmen of these DPR centers come from diverse backgrounds, but are all united by disreputable pasts and hostility to Western unity and NATO.
The head of the Turin center, Maurizio Marrone, is a member of the rightist Italian Party Fratelli d’Italia, which has a sympathetic view of Mussolini. The man who established and runs the Verona center, Palmarino Zoccatelli, is a Venetian nationalist who advocates for Venetian independence and is associated with Italy’s Northern League, which also advocates for separatism. The Greek center’s chairman, Andreas Zafiris, is part of SYRIZA, left in its political leanings but equally hostile as other centers to the West and NATO.
Hubert Fayard, the National Front member who established the Marseille center, was arrested in 2019 on charges of pimping and procuring (though he was later released). Mr. Fayard also created a dating agency in 2007 which assisted in finding Russian women for French men; the registered address for this company was the same as the DPR representative center he operated. But while these stories of diplomatic outposts paint an almost risible picture of the DPR’s attempts at diplomatic outreach and normalization, they do have a darker aspect, as is demonstrated by the DPR representative center in Finland.
The Finnish DPR representative center is run by Johan Backman. Mr. Backman is a regular commentator in Russian news, frequently espousing anti-Western, anti-Ukrainian, and anti-NATO views. A self-styled human rights activist, Mr. Backman was extradited from Andorra to Finland in 2019 for his part in a three-year online hate campaign against a Finnish journalist. The campaign, which used of Russian troll farms, resulted in a suspended one-year prison sentence, which was later appealed to a suspended three-month sentence.
Mr. Backman has used his center to push Russian narratives on the Ukraine conflict, as well as to host tours in the occupied Donbas. But beyond this, Mr. Backman has used the DPR Representative Center as a means to create a Finnish platoon, called “Bear,” to fight against the Ukrainian government in the Donbas.
The DPR representative centers are not diplomatic outposts of the rebel Ukrainian provinces. They are sources of Russian propaganda that make use of fifth columnists within the West to try and weaken European support for the Ukrainian government in its fight against Russian aggression. For this reason, the centers cannot find shelter under the Vienna Convention as the Marseilles DPR representative center originally did.
Beyond attempting to create recognition in Europe of illegal governments, these centers act as sources of disinformation at best, and mercenary recruitment centers at worst. The Finnish, Greek, and Italian governments would do well to follow the example of Czechia and France and shut down the remaining representative centers of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics.