Why was the separatist leader of Donetsk assassinated? Questions you're too embarrassed to ask about rebel politics in eastern Ukraine
On August 31, a bomb ripped through a cafe in Donetsk, fatally wounding Alexander Zakharchenko, the separatist leader of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). Russian officials immediately blamed the assassination on the Ukrainian authorities. At Meduza’s request, Novaya Gazeta correspondent Pavel Kanygin — who’s reported extensively on the conflict in eastern Ukraine, including on the ground during the height of the armed conflict — explains who stood to profit most from killing Zakharchenko and what we should expect, now that he's dead.
Prominent figures in the Donbass are killed all the time. Is Zakharchenko’s murder part of this trend?
Recently, the political situation in the Donbass has been relatively stable. The peak of terror against local politicians and soldiers passed in 2015, when the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk formed army corps, assimilating the armed groups and so-called battalions with field commanders who were known in the news media only by their call signs. Those who resisted this centralization all met the same end: far from the front, they were picked off in attacks by a group of professional killers. This is how the famed commanders Mozgovoy, Ishchenko, Dremov, and “Batman” all perished. Later, in 2016 and 2017, the commanders “Motorola” and “Givi” died the same way. Since then, however, there haven’t been any major assassinations in Donetsk or Luhansk.
Why was Zakharchenko killed? What are the leading theories?
There are three main theories about Zakharchenko’s murder. The official Russian position (basically endorsed by both the Kremlin and the Foreign Ministry) is that Ukrainian agents killed the head of the Donetsk separatists. In Donetsk and Luhansk, however, the rebel authorities like to blame any major killing on Ukrainian saboteurs, even though there’s never been any irrefutable evidence that Kyiv was responsible. In the cases of “Motorola” and “Givi,” for example, DNR investigators relied on the confessions of several people calling themselves members of the “Misanthropic Division” nationalist organization, but the group denies any role in the killings. DNR official later declared that the two commanders were killed on special orders from Alexey Petrov, the head of the Ukrainian National Security Service’s counterintelligence unit.
A second theory holds that Zakharchenko was killed over money. He might have died in a business dispute over assets controlled by the Ukrainian billionaire Serhiy Kurchenko, who relocated to Russia in 2014. While in power, Zakharchenko and his deputy and close partner Alexander “Tashkent” Timofeyev gained control over every profitable enterprise in the region, including coal mines, supermarkets, pharmacies, and refueling stations. The biggest money was in the sale of cigarettes and especially coal, which was exported to Russia and then shipped back to Ukraine as a Russian import (Kyiv has refused to trade directly with the separatists since 2017, declaring a total economic blockade of the rebels).
The re-export scheme and the revival of the Ukrainian economy (which is expected to grow by three percent this year) increased the cost of Donbass coal and raised the demand from Russian intermediaries led largely by businesses owned by Kurchenko, who enjoys the protection of Russian security officials. Zakharchenko and Timofeyev were both responsible for mining in Donetsk, and they both hoped to grow their share of the profits.
There’s also a third theory based on politics that’s entirely compatible with the second. Alexander Zakharchenko was never responsible for the rebels’ most important decisions about war and peace (these decisions are made in Moscow), and he was charged merely with managing the DNR’s internal affairs. At the same time, he was the public face of the war and he became the symbol of irreconcilable separatism in eastern Ukraine. In 2015, he signed the Minsk Agreement and was formally, at least, responsible for the DNR’s compliance. To this day, however, not one clause in the agreement is observed completely. Zakharchenko irritated not only the Ukrainian authorities, but also officials in the European Union and United States, where he faced a travel ban. By removing a figure so associated with the worst of the war, the killers might have hoped to restart negotiations about the future of the Donbass and an end to sectoral sanctions against Russia, which depend directly on compliance with the Minsk Agreement. Officials in Kyiv have endorsed both the second and third theories about why Zakharchenko was assassinated.
So what happens now? Could Zakharchenko’s killing renew the military conflict?
Immediately following Zakharchenko’s death, his government put the DNR army on high alert, saying that they anticipated renewed armed hostilities with Ukrainian troops, as evidenced by “the advance of Ukrainian armored vehicles toward Volnovakha-Dokuchaevsk.” A real resumption of active fighting is unlikely, however. A low-level trench war has been dragging on for three years now, all without any major breakthroughs. Russia would gain nothing from escalating or expanding violence at the front, moreover, insofar as it would risk new sanctions. Ukraine, meanwhile, has only just recovered from its defeats in 2014 and 2015.
So now there will be a struggle for power in the DNR? What about in the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR)?
A real political upheaval in the Donbass is unlikely. Both the DNR and the LNR are really only quasi-states: the Kremlin determines all foreign and trade policies, while the separatist leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk handle various “internal” issues.
The political landscape inside the DNR has been purged so thoroughly that there’s no real opposition to speak of. Technically, the republic has a two-party system, and both the “Free Donbass” movement and the ”Donetsk Republic” party has seats in the DNR’s parliament. In reality, however, the groups hardly differ from one another.
Dmitry Trapeznikov, Zakharchenko’s deputy, has taken over as the DNR’s acting head of government. Trapeznikov used to work for the Donetsk billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, including with his soccer team, Shakhtar Donetsk. Trapeznikov has supported the separatists since the war’s very outset, and the territory’s new leaders quickly took a liking to him.
It’s unclear if Trapeznikov will hold onto his position in the DNR. He doesn’t belong unequivocally to any influential “clan,” and his ties to Akhmetov carry little weight today, as the billionaire has lost virtually all sway in Donetsk. Members of the security forces most likely hope to take control over the region, hoping to repeat what happened in Luhansk.
Trapeznikov will clearly suit Ukrainian officials better than Zakharchenko, but the authorities in Kyiv are only willing to discuss the future of the Donbass with figures who didn’t participate in the war and who had no role in the separatists’ crimes against the country’s territorial integrity. On this last score, Trapeznikov is still unacceptable, given that he is one of the founders of the DNR, which the Ukrainian government considers a criminal occupation force.
Traditionally, events in Donetsk seldom have any effect in the neighboring “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR). Managed by the same officials in Moscow, both rebel enclaves remain independent from each other. There has been some talk in Donetsk and Luhansk about uniting the separatists into a single entity, but Moscow squashes the idea every time, preferring to administer the territories separately. In four years of existence, the breakaway republics have scarcely ever meddled in each other’s affairs. The one exception was in the fall of 2017, when Zakharchenko helped security personnel in Luhansk overthrow then LDR leader Igor Plotnitsky. It turns out that the security forces and Zakharchenko acted without the Kremlin’s permission, to Moscow's great annoyance.
Was Zakharchenko genuinely popular in Donetsk? They say tens of thousands of people attended his funeral.
According to DNR officials, more than 100,000 people came to say farewell to Alexander Zakharchenko. Such popularity is unsurprising, however, given the rebels’ censorship of the media. Local news outlets report nothing critical about the separatist regime, and Internet service providers have been ordered by the separatists to block access to the major Ukrainian publications. Under Zakharchenko, the authorities have introduced and widely utilized 30-day arrests without charges, often targeting uncooperative businessmen, as well as some bloggers and Internet users. Last year, for example, Donetsk separatist officials arrested the blogger Roman Manekin for 30 days. He says he was locked up because he wrote on Facebook about the possible arrest of DNR Interior Minister Alexey Dikoi. Months later, separatists arrested another blogger, Alexey Petrov, for criticizing Zakharchenko on social media. He’s still in custody to this day.
The absence of oppositionist sentiment in Donetsk has much to do with the exodus of most of its people: roughly half a million residents have relocated to Ukraine, and 750,000 people fled to Russia. Most of these people are young and able-bodied, and they left in search of work opportunities. Those who stayed behind are largely public sector laborers, pensioners, and state officials, who owe their sustenance to funding from Russia.