The conflict in Eastern Ukraine, which has been going on for the past three years, led to not only the creation of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, but above all to the development of a small group of political and military elite in the region. As a result of the ongoing war, permanent crisis and confusion, people came to power who would not have done so during peacetime.
Some of them became popular heroes among the local population, and some celebrities in Russian television. However, the majority of them did not manage to enjoy the support of the masses for too long – almost all separatist leaders of the first wave are dead. Interestingly, the most famous fighters for freedom and independence of Donbas and the leaders of the insurgency died not on the frontline, but often in unresolved circumstances.
A series of (un)resolved deaths
Separatist leaders began to die not long after the proclamation of the LPR and DPR, and within the past two years, this fate was shared by almost all of the popular heroes of Donbas. Instances of spectacular and unresolved killings of military leaders of the unrecognised republics especially increased between 2016 and 2017.
One of the first victims of the “Russian Spring” was Alexandr Bednov, alias Batman. Bednov, who used to work as a bouncer in Luhansk nightclubs before the war, was commander of the Batman battalion and defence minister of the LPR. He died on January 1st 2015 as a result of all-out artillery shelling of a motorcade he was in. Evgeny Ishchenko, alias Kiddy, also died in January. The Russian born “popular mayor” of Pervomaysk and one of the most popular Cossack generals was shot on one of the town’s streets.
Another victim was an experienced field commander, Aleksey Mozgovoy, one of the most charismatic leaders of the Donbas insurgency and the commander of the Prizrak (Ghost) battalion, in which fought volunteers from Spain and Italy, among other countries. He was the leader of a division of people’s militia of the LPR and was one of the last military commanders who remained independent from the new republic’s administration.
He became famous for his proposal to arrest and sentence Luhansk women for visiting bars, but he gained popularity with his determination and open critique of the LPR’s leadership. On May 23rd 2015, his car was shelled and the commander and a few of his comrades died.
There was one more independent commander in the LPR– the general-mayor and Cossack ataman Pavel Dremov, alias Batia. He became popular, especially on Russian TV stations, thanks to his radical views and open dislike of the ruling LPR bureaucracy. Dremov openly accused the head of the republic, Igor Plotnitsky, of corruption, illegal trade with coal and stealing humanitarian aid. At the end of 2015, he announced that during the press conference he was planning to hold in Russia, he would disclose documents compromising Plotnitsky and his administration. On December 12th, the 39-year old ataman died in a bomb explosion in his car, which he received as a wedding present from his deputy.
On September 19th, 2016 another separatist leader, anti-Maidan movement activist and, later, the commander of the Oplot paramilitary group in the DPR, Evgeny Zhilin, was killed in a Moscow restaurant. In the end of 2014, Zhilin left Ukraine and opened up a business in Russia, but it did not save his life. Several days later the former LPR prime minister, Gennady Tsypkalov, was killed in one of the prisons. He was arrested by LPR secret service and accused of treason. In the official version, Tsypkalov committed suicide, although his comrades claimed that he was murdered.
A spectacular assassination of one of the most popular separatists and fighters of Novorossiya, Arsen Pavlov, alias Motorola, was conducted on October 16th 2016. Pavlov had an amazing career – within two years, a carwash worker from the republic of Komi, got promoted to the rank of colonel and commander of the Sparta battalion. Motorola became famous for his fighting for Donetsk airport, becoming the favourite of Russian TV and the face of hybrid war. He was also known for his cruelty, for example, in one of the interviews he acknowledged that he personally executed Ukrainian hostages. The 33-year old commander died in a bomb explosion in a lift of the Donetsk housing block in which he lived.
Towards the end of January 2017, the first people’s governor and the leader of the LPR, Valery Bolotov, died. The popular governor came into conflict with the new administration of LPR and DPR and emigrated to Russia. Officially, Bolotov died of heart failure, although many people, including his wife, claim that he was poisoned. A week later, on February 4th, Oleg Anashchenko, a fighter and the head of the popular militia of the LPR, died. A car with the colonel was blown up in Luhansk.
The apex of the “black series” of deaths of Donbas insurgency leaders was the assassination of the last hero of the DPR, the commander of Somali battalion, Mikhail Tolstykh, alias Givi. He and Motorola were the most famous and controversial duo of separatist militia leaders in Donbas. Tolstykh was one of the most famous field commanders, the favourite of Russian TV, who portrayed as an unbreakable people’s hero. Givi, just like Motorola, became famous for his determination and cruelty in relation to his enemies. At the same time, he remained the last military commander independent from the administration. The last hero of the “Russian spring” died on February 8th 2017, age 36, in Makiyivka close to Donetsk. His office was shelled with a rocket flamethrower.
Kyiv’s revenge or the long arm of Moscow?
There are two dominant popular interpretations of the deaths of the separatist leaders: revenge from Kyiv or murders ordered by the Kremlin. The authorities of the LPR and DPR after each spectacular assassination traditionally blamed “Kyiv junta” and often claimed they are onto the assassins. However, the announcements were usually the end of the pursuit. The only murder that was officially acknowledged to be the work of the self-proclaimed republics was the murder of Alexandr Bednov alias Batman, who was officially viewed as the leader of a criminal group.
On the territory of the self-proclaimed republics it is widely believed that there are professional sabotage groups sent by Ukraine in order to eliminate separatist leaders. Kyiv and the Security Service of Ukraine deny or refuse to comment on the accusations. In some cases, conducting retaliatory actions by Kyiv seems logical, such is the Ukrainian military’s will to take revenge on Motorola and Givi for humiliating, torturing and acknowledging the killing of Ukrainian hostages. But the majority of the secret services do not publically brag about such actions, given than in Eastern Ukraine it would only intensify the conflict. In the end, the separatists themselves (especially those who survived assassination attempts) claimed that the actions were not organised by sabotage groups, as Ukrainian forces are too weak to do so.
At the same time, Kyiv, just like parts of the expert community, often points at Moscow and separatist leaders as organisers of assassinations. And while it could often be justified, such as in the case of fighter who seriously began to play the game of independence, the Kremlin has been mocking and denying such accusations, hiding behind the claim that the conflict in Donbas is Ukraine’s internal matter and Moscow has nothing to do with it.
A friend among outsiders, an outsider among his own
Donbas, rich in natural resources and prospering in independent Ukraine, became an attractive area to divide between the emerging political institutions and military organisations. The new, unconstrained leaders, quickly began to share spheres of influence and convert social and political capital into material gain. In the region, which was overwhelmingly corrupt even before the war, patron-client relations have strengthened even more. Many of the people’s heroes of Novorossiya had valid convictions, therefore it is no surprise that issues in the area have been solved using methods from the criminal world on a daily basis. Extortion, kidnappings, and executions were daily events in both republics. Often the deaths of separatist leaders were the result of the simple mafia settling accounts, rather than fight for independence.
Thus, the deputy minister of industry and trade of DPR, Sergey Tretyakov, who was responsible for the distribution of humanitarian aid, died suddenly on the same day as Valery Bolotov. The causes of his death are unknown. We know that Givi and Motorola were negotiating fees of 500 US dollars for a photoshoot for foreign journalists who were covering the fight for Donetsk airport.
The human factor can be important too, especially when it comes to field commanders. Average soldiers from various battalions often complained about the dire conditions in their formations and that while they fight and die, it is the commanders, usually not fighting in the frontline, who become famous and take credit for their efforts. The fighters often accused their leaders of incompetence and treason, as a result of which many common soldiers died. The last reports suggest that both Givi and Motorola died at the hands of their own people.
It is only politics – nothing personal
Each version of the assassination of Donbas separatist leaders can be seen as partially justified. And each of them reflects a basic but logical process – a political fight and the struggle to develop a military and political monopoly in the unrecognised republics. Importantly, the fight for influence in the republics began even before the proclamation of the LPR and DPR. Here, it is worth recalling Igor Strelkov Girkin, who came to Donbas at the beginning of the conflict and became famous during the fight for Sloviansk, and later as a commander of Donbas people’s army.
Many of the deceased separatist commanders were connected with Girkin or were his subordinates (for example Givi, Motorola, Batia and others). With time, the number of clans fighting for power and influence in the republics grew, the situation deteriorated and the management of the republics became increasingly complicated. Girkin returned to Russia in the summer of 2014, but his people stayed in Donbas and their ambitions and appetites grew with time.
Currently, the LPR is headed by Igor Plotnitsky and the DPR by Alexander Zakharchenko. They both survived assassination attempts and the series of unresolved killings of separatist leaders suggests that it was the two who conducted purges in order to consolidate power in the republics.
It is especially evident if one looks at the head of the LPR. Almost all of his competitors and critics have died: Bednov alias Batman, Ishchenko alias Kiddy, Mozgovoy, Dremov alias Batia, Tsypkalov and others. Some of the heroes of the “Russian spring” voluntarily resigned in return for their lives – that was the case with Girkin and a few other separatist leaders, who ceded their political activities or left for Russia. Their previous safety was questioned after the mysterious series of deaths.
Motorola and Givi had the lowest political ambitions and did not get involved in internal struggles – they were fully content with their roles of people’s heroes and celebrities of Russian TV. Perhaps, this is why they survived for so long. Nevertheless, they both became dangerously popular and in addition they were commanders of uncontrolled by the republics’ administration battalions.
It can be assumed that after the centralisation of state apparatus and the conclusion of purges, Plotnitsky and Zakharchenko themselves will be replaced. The next months will show if that is the case. What we know for sure is that after the killings of Givi and Motorola, the last people’s commanders and Donbas heroes, there is no one left who fought in this war for whatever idea. In the LPR and DPR, the era of insurgency and the “Russian spring” is definitely over, burying the pipe dream of independent republics. It is now time for pragmatic, faceless figures loyal to the Kremlin bureaucracy.
Maxim Rust is a political scientist, a graduate of doctoral studies at the University of Warsaw. His research interests include political elites and transformation processes in the post-Soviet space. He cooperated with the College of Eastern Europe and Heinrich Böll Foundation.