Yet another leader in Ukraine’s breakaway Donbass region has met a kinetic end: The charismatic and hardline leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, was assassinated by an outdoor bomb blast on August 31.
Reaction to his death was predictably mixed. Thousands of supporters gathered in the city streets of Donetsk to honor the memory of a man they considered a “Russian Spring” folk hero. At the same time, in Kiev, Ukrainian nationalists celebrated the death of a wanted terrorist and pro-Russian separatist.
While those responsible for the killing are unlikely to be discovered any time soon, Zakharchenko’s death may have major consequences for the development of the ever-simmering war, during which Ukrainian government forces have been fighting – with varying degrees of intensity – pro-Russian rebels in two-self-proclaimed republics in Donbass, Donetsk and Luhansk, for over four years.
While some are concerned that the leader’s assassination could lead to a new escalation of the conflict, others say that a more moderate leader than Zakharchenko may very well facilitate a peaceful resolution. And Zakharchenko’s death is not an isolated incident. A trend is clearly visible, as many of the warlords and hardliners who fought against Kiev’s forces in the breakaway region have met similarly bloody ends.
Whodunnit? And why?
Zakharchenko was sitting in the Separ Cafè in central Donetsk, when a hidden explosive device went off, causing his instant death. Pro-Russian separatists and their Moscow backers were quick in accusing Ukrainian authorities of orchestrating the attack.
“There is every reason to believe that Kiev is behind this murder. This regime has repeatedly used similar methods to eliminate dissidents and undesirables”, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova declared. She accused Ukraine of provoking a new escalation of the conflict. “Ukraine has not carried out any of its obligations towards establishing peace in eastern Ukraine and has now resorted to blood.”
Offering his condolences to the leader’s family, President Vladimir Putin defined Zakharchenko “a true people’s leader and a brave man.” He also promised that those responsible for his “vile murder” would suffer appropriate punishment. “Those who chose the path of terror and violence do not want to seek a peaceful political solution to the conflict and conduct a dialogue with the people who live in southeastern Ukraine,” Putin said. “They are placing a dangerous bet on destabilizing the situation, to bring the people of Donbass to their knees. This will not happen.”
And yet two key allies of the deceased leader, who fled Donetsk after his death, have, reportedly, been denied an audience with Putin in Moscow. This indicates the complexity of affairs, for in the murky game of Ukrainian separatism, there is not necessarily a clear motive – or conductor – of the assassination. Nor is Moscow’s stance necessarily as militant as outsider observers believe it to be.
Kiev rejected Moscow’s allegations, accusing “Moscow’s puppeteers” of murdering Zakharchenko to replace him with someone easier to control. Another conspiracy advanced by Kiev is that the rebel leader might have fallen victim of an internal fight for the control of resources: since the beginning of the conflict, Zakharchenko took over most illegal coal and metal trade in the region under the pretext of nationalization and confiscations for military needs. As a result, he had many enemies among Donbass entrepreneurs.
“Identifying who is behind Zakharchenko’s killer is particularly problematic, considering the many actors who could benefit from his removal”, said Novaya Gazeta correspondent and Donbas expert Pavel Kanygin. “Local businessmen as well as the state actors involved in the conflict – Ukraine, the US, even Russia – would have benefitted from it.”
According to Kanygin, Zakharchenko was a symbol of belligerence and uncompromising separatism, representing an obstacle to the gradual resolution of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
A former coal-mine electrician, Zakharchenko was one of the key protagonists of the “Russian Spring”, the armed uprising which led to the foundation of pro-Russian Lugansk and Donetsk breakaway republics in Donbass in southeastern Ukraine. He was among the armed men who took over Donetsk government buildings in the spring of 2014 and anointed head of the Donetsk People’s Republic a few months later.
Heroes, freedom fighters, terrorists or gangsters?
He is also the latest of a long series of charismatic separatist field commanders – often with colorful noms de guerre, based on their radio call signs – who have been killed in ultra-violent, but opaque, circumstances.
The first on the list was Luhansk People’s Republic militia leader Aleksandr “Batman” Bednovm, killed in January 2015 by the Luhansk police in what it looked more like a showdown between rival gangs than a law-enforcement operation. Lurid allegations swirled that rivals had wanted him killed him for kidnappings, and for operating a torture chamber.
A year and a half later it was the turn of the commander of the “Sparta” militia battalion Arseny Pavlov – better known as “Motorola” – who was blown apart in the lift of his apartment building in 2016. A similar fate was met by “Somalia” battalion commander Mikhail “Givi” Tolstykh, who had become an unlikely online star after a video of his cool reaction to a Grad rocket exploding nearby went viral. “Givi” was spectacularly assassinated by a shoulder-fired Shmel incendiary rocket at his office in Donetsk in 2017.
Similarly violent ends awaited LNR commanders Aleksandr Bednov, Aleksey Mosgovoy and Pavel Dremov.
Pro-Russian media portrayed these men as “Donbass Che Guevaras” – battle-hardened freedom fighters who, when the hour struck, stood up for their people against “Kiev’s fascist junta.” Pro-Kiev media painted them terrorists and bloodthirsty mercenaries on Moscow’s payroll.
The real picture is more nuanced. Zakharchenko and the other Donbass militia stars were products of a power vacuum engendered by the 2014 uprising.
“In the context of a revolution, where guns give you absolute power, a few individuals who never achieved anything in life all of a sudden felt like Napoleons making history”, said Konstantin Skorkin, an independent journalist specializing in Donbass affairs. However, the same lawlessness which allowed their quick rise to power was soon to cause their downfall.
“Even if each one of them might have died for different reasons, the backdrop is the same: in the chaos engulfing Donbass, where arguments are decided at gunpoint and the rule of force replaces the rule of law, it is only natural that leadership succession also happens through violence,” Skorkin said.
According to Skorkin, Zakharchenko’s death and his replacement could mark the end of the “heroic-revolutionary” period of the war and the beginning of the reintegration process of Donbass into the legal framework of Ukraine.
A few days after Zakharchenko’s death, his rival, Donetsk People’s Republic Parliamentary chairman Denis Pushilin was appointed acting head of the republic, pending elections to be held on November 11. Known for his prominent role in negotiations with Kiev, Pushilin is seen as a moderate and balanced politician. In this sense, he stands in stark contrast to the hardliner Zakharchenko. While the former was envisioning a future agreement with the Ukrainian government, the latter at some point dreamt of a separatist offensive capturing Kiev, Ukraine’s capital.
With Pushilin in charge of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Kremlin will be facilitated in pursuing a key foreign policy objective: resolution of the conflict and reintegration of the separatist republics into the framework of Ukraine as autonomous entities.
On the surface, this might appear like a loss for Moscow, but the Donbass is not as strategically important for Russia as the Crimea, Russia’s historical entry-point to the Black Sea. A peaceful outcome in Donbass would not prevent Russia exerting influence on the region and on the rest of Ukraine, as an increased number of pro-Russian voters would participate in the next parliamentary and presidential elections.
Moreover, while questions still hang over the West’s attitude toward Crimea – at peace following a de facto Russian takeover – a resolution to the Donbass conflict could lead to a softening of sanctions, easing pressure on Russia’s economy.