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A presentation in Donetsk of the flag of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, October 19, 2014

Where are they now? Five years ago, the bloodiest European war of the 21st century began in eastern Ukraine. Here's what's become of those early separatist leaders.

Source: Meduza
A presentation in Donetsk of the flag of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, October 19, 2014
A presentation in Donetsk of the flag of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, October 19, 2014
Dominique Faget / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Full-scale combat started in eastern Ukraine on May 26, 2014, with the battle for Donetsk airport. The Ukrainian army faced off against separatists from two self-declared “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk, and by extension the Russian military, which offered its unofficial support. The “active stage” of fighting continued until February 2015, when the Minsk II agreement was signed. According to the UN, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has claimed at least 13,000 lives. Almost none of the figures who led the initial protests against the Ukrainian government or the subsequent fighting against Ukrainian troops remain in today’s separatist leadership. In fact, many of these men have been killed. To learn what happened to the first leaders of the Donbas, Meduza spoke to people who knew them and to others who witnessed the dramatic events of 2014.

part one

The living

Igor Ivanovich Strelkov, real name: Igor Vsevolodovich Girkin. “Donetsk People's Republic” (DNR) defense minister from May 16 to August 14, 2014. Call sign: “Strelok” (Shooter)

Sergey Karpukhin / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Before the war: Strelkov was born on December 17, 1970, in Moscow, and studied at the Institute of History and Archives. Strelkov is especially fond of military reenactment and the history of the White Guard movement that opposed the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. He’s fought in armed conflicts in Transnistria, Bosnia, and the Caucasus. According to some accounts, he demonstrated particular cruelty in Chechnya. Strelkov served in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and retired with the rank of colonel. Afterwards, he managed security for the “Marshal Capital” foundation, which is owned by Konstantin Malofeev, a devout Russian Orthodox businessman who is suspected of financing the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist republics. (Malofeev denies these allegations.)

In 2014, Strelkov actively participated in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, commanding a company of pro-Russian “militia” that stormed the Ukrainian Cartographic Center in Simferopol. Two people died in that confrontation: a Ukrainian soldier and one of the attackers.

During the war: While events were still unfolding in Crimea, Strelkov started recruiting individuals for a “business trip” to the Donbas. “Strelkov brought together a group of 52 people from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, and Crimea itself,” says Alexander Zhuchkovsky, a volunteer from St. Petersburg who coordinated aid contributions to Strelkov’s unit and wrote a book titled “85 Days of Slovyansk.” “They crossed the border and headed for Slovyansk, where there was a group of locals who actively supported the uprising. [Strelkov] had experience leading small paramilitary forces and conducting operations and acts of sabotage on this scale. In the first months of the conflict, he ran circles around the others. Here was an FSB colonel with a good education, a grasp of history, a breadth of knowledge, and four wars under his belt. This allowed him to become the first ‘militia’ leader and defense minister [of the DNR].”

Strelkov didn’t tolerate any debate at meetings, and he imposed severe punishments on subordinates for failing to obey his orders — even executing some of his own men. He cited a martial law decree by the Presidium of the USSR’s Supreme Soviet from June 22, 1941, as the legal basis for these actions. The website Life published a photograph of Strelkov’s orders to this effect. “The first executions were two ‘militiamen’ who robbed someone’s apartment,” Zhuchkovsky says in his book.

Many Donbas locals say they’re convinced that Strelkov was sent by Moscow to oversee the “transition period.” Zhuchkovsky argues that he was sent to the region without a grand plan: “Go ahead, and we’ll see. If you create the conditions and if you see that the situation there is the same as in Crimea, we’ll give our support, and a normal military group will follow.” According to former DNR People’s Council Chairman Andrey Purgin (who spoke out against the Ukrainian authorities long before 2014), Strelkov’s group initially had a “local mission,” and he never planned to become one of the region’s main separatist leaders. Purgin says another two groups came to Donetsk with Strelkov. Many of these combatants were wounded during the first battle for the city’s airport on May 26, 2014, but almost no one remembers them today.

On July 5, 2014, Strelkov’s forces abandoned Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, and several other settlements, and retreated to Donetsk, where he declared himself the city’s military commandant and imposed martial law. “Donetsk is an enormous city where Makhnovism flourished and the leadership was still half Ukrainian,” Zhuchkovsky recalls. “Controlling the situation in those circumstances was virtually impossible. All the ‘militia’ commanders were ambitious men, each one considered himself a great general, and they could all draw on certain resources and people. For many of them, crowns started growing on their heads. The city’s defense hung in the balance.”

“Everything then was very complicated and confusing, and mixed up in distrust, fake stories, and provocations,” former DNR Security Council head and “Vostok” brigade commander Alexander Khodakovsky told Meduza. “We continued to address tactical issues, but on a personal level. While Strelkov was in Donetsk, there was no communication between us. I didn’t trust him, and he didn’t trust me.”

Zhuchkovsky says Strelkov didn’t want Ukraine to exploit the disagreements among separatist field commanders, so he resigned as DNR defense minister on August 14, and left the Donbas. According to Zhuchkovsky, there was also an ultimatum from Russia demanding that Strelkov leave the region, as a condition for Moscow’s support. Russia supposedly feared the combination of Strelkov’s “mega-popularity” and “evidently oppositionist views.”

After the war: Strelkov heads the “Novorossiya” social movement, raising humanitarian aid and ammunition and uniform supplies for DNR soldiers. Zhuchkovsky says there’s almost no chance that he’ll ever return to the Donbas: “He’s already established himself as a staunch opponent of the authorities. Today, he criticizes Russia’s state leadership harshly and consistently, and goes after Putin personally. He’s viewed as an enemy of the state.”

“Strelkov is totally incapable of working with staff,” says Evgeny Shabaev, a former official representative of the “Donetsk Republic” movement in Russia. “After he returned from the Donbas, a lot of con men latched onto him, trying to exploit Mr. Strelkov’s glory. They sang his praises, and called him a genius and a hero — all while opening fundraisers in his name, supposedly to help the militia and the people of the DNR. And then they disappeared. Some other supporters and I advised Strelkov to do some long-term planning, but he wasn’t interested. After all, at one point he seemed to be as famous as Putin. And in the end, he’s all alone outside the Foreign Ministry building with a poster about the Kuril Islands [against transferring the islands to Japan].”

Alexey Sorokovoi, the chief of staff of the Novorossiya movement, told Meduza that Igor Strelkov refused to be interviewed for this story.

Alexander Borodai, DNR prime minister from May 16 to August 7, 2014

Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Before the war: Borodai was born in Moscow on July 25, 1972. His father was a philosopher named Yuri. In 1992, Alexander Borodai fought in the Transnistria War, and a year later he defended the Russian White House from supporters of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. He has a graduate degree from Moscow State University’s Philosophy Department, where he studied ethnic conflicts. Borodai worked as a military correspondent, reporting for the newspaper Zavtra from Chechnya and other post-Soviet war zones, and as a political consultant and public relations expert for the entrepreneur Konstantin Malofeev.

Arriving in Donetsk in the spring of 2014, Borodai rallied thousands of people for demonstrations under the slogan “The Donbas is Russia!” In mid-May, the DNR’s Supreme Council approved his appointment as prime minister of the self-proclaimed republic. This position would later be known simply as “head of the DNR.” “In the beginning, the DNR was supposed to become a parliamentary republic, but the war forced a unity of command,” says Andrey Purgin, who was the co-chairman of the coordination council for the DNR’s independence referendum. (After the vote, the DNR’s Supreme Council was created on the basis of this commission. Purgin would eventually lead this institution, as well.)

During the war: “Borodai came to Donetsk supposedly as a representative of the Russian presidential administration,” Evgeny Shabaev told Meduza. “He effectively appointed himself DNR leader. Admittedly, his authority and interests were really only limited to Donetsk, and even then they didn’t extend to all spheres. So for a long time, the city’s leadership continued to take orders from Kyiv. Meanwhile, armed men acting in Borodai’s name and shouting ‘Glory to the DNR!’ seized shopping centers, commandeered property, and so on.” Shabaev says the separatists also confiscated several billion hryvnias from a handful of Ukrainian banks in the city (one hryvnia was worth about 2.5 rubles, at the time), and the money was carted off to an unknown location, supposedly after a phone call from someone in the Kremlin.

Roman Manekin, a Russian publicist who’s lived in Donetsk since 2014, told Meduza that “few people have done as much harm to the Donbas” as Alexander Borodai, recalling his so-called “tax holiday” policy. “The republic will not levy taxes on business people,” Prime Minister Borodai announced at a public briefing on July 17, 2014. “This policy will remain in effect until the end of hostilities in our territory.”

According to Manekin, the real reason for this decision was the fact that former DNR Security Council head Alexander Khodakovsky had managed to secure key posts for two of his subordinates, Alexander “San Sanych” Semenov and Pyotr “Khorvat” Savchenko, in the DNR’s economic leadership: deputy prime minister for economics and revenue and taxation minister. But both men were busy in combat, and they’d never even set foot in their offices. “In this situation, Borodai made a ‘Soloman’s decision’ not to collect taxes at all,” Manekin explains. “This move prompted field commanders to impose ‘taxes’ on businesses independently. As a result, there was not, and indeed could not have been, a single boss or leader who didn’t have a hand in the extortion free-for-all in 2014.”

On July 17, 2014, a passenger flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down outside Donetsk, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board, leading to the first major international sanctions against Russia. On August 7, Borodai resigned from his post as head of the DNR government, and was made a general adviser and deputy to the next prime minister, Alexander Zakharchenko. Borodai claims that he chose his successor, after considering Alexander Khodakovsky as an alternative candidate.

After the war: When he finally returned to Moscow in the summer of 2015, Borodai founded the “Union of Donbas Volunteers” (SDD). On its official website, the organization says it has dozens of offices and representatives in different regions, republics, and territories across Russia.

“This is a real organization that includes more than 13,000 people who participated in the events in the DNR and LNR,” Borodai told Meduza. “The SDD has many passionate people who are united by the idea of all-Russian patriotism and loyalty to current President Putin. We treat the wounded, bury the dead, and help families. We’re providing direct assistance to soldiers with medicines that are needed on the battlefield.”

Shabaev claims that SDD has helped send the most devoted and “inconvenient” Donbas fighters to Syria, and now Borodai is supposedly trying to recruit more mercenaries for private military companies that operate mainly in Africa.

Denis Pushilin, head of the DNR since November 20, 2018

Maxim Zmeev / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Before the war: Pushilin was born on May 9, 1981, in Makiivka, an industrial city outside Donetsk. He served in Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, and studied at the Donbas National Academy of Civil Engineering and Architecture, but never graduated. Before the war, he led the Ukrainian division of the “MMM” Ponzi-scheme company, which he used to organize a political party and run for a seat in Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada. (He lost.)

“At the time when I brought him into our still underground movement, Pushilin had no ties to the Donetsk patriotic or pro-Russian agendas,” recalls Purgin, who says Pushilin still called himself a “patriot of Ukraine” as late as April 2014.

Pushilin nevertheless rose fast, quickly becoming one of the protest movement’s formal leaders. “Denis couldn’t marshal any real military force or serious financial assets, and he couldn’t influence events at the front, or elsewhere, for that matter,” a source close to the DNR’s leadership told Meduza. “But he could speak convincingly in press conferences at the regional administration building.”

During the war: After the Donetsk People’s Republic proclaimed its existence, Pushilin became the chairman of its Supreme Council (which was later renamed the People’s Council and made into the local parliament). According to Roman Manekin, Borodai publicly accused Pushilin in the summer of 2014 of trying to loot the Makiivka Iron and Steel Works. “On June 9, Denis Pushilin went to Russia, and after some time he was removed in absentia from his position on the DNR Supreme Council at Borodai’s request, who presented documents showing that Pushilin was directly tied to mass theft,” confirms Andrey Purgin, adding, “It wasn’t just the Makiivka Iron and Steel Works, but also aluminum grain cars and other things.”

Roman Manekin believes these allegations are linked directly to the murders of two of Pushilin’s aides, one of whom was shot in a car, and another who was blown up in a minibus in the center of Donetsk. DNR officials say they suspect both killings were attempts on Pushilin’s life, though he wasn’t present at either incident. In July 2014, Pushilin visited Moscow, where (according to Manekin and several other sources) he met with Kremlin officials, including Vladislav Surkov. That fall, he returned to Donetsk and was elected to the People’s Council, DNR’s new parliament.

After the war: Pushilin represented the DNR at ceasefire negotiations in Minsk. In the fall of 2015, he became chairman of the People’s Council (once again heading the DNR’s local parliament). “One night, they gathered all the deputies together at gunpoint, and then they ‘elected’ Pushilin their chairman,” Manekin recalls. “I led the People’s Council from November 2014 to September 2015,” says Andrey Purgin. “Denis Pushilin replaced me in this position with a one-off departure from all norms and laws. Simply put, it was a complete outrage. In civilized countries, they’d call this a coup. Afterwards, based on orders from the MGB [State Security Ministry], I was moved to a basement, and placed under guard. I didn’t ask for these guards.”

After a bomb killed Alexander Zakharchenko on August 31, 2018, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Trapeznikov became interim leader, in accordance with the DNR’s constitution. A week later, however, Pushilin replaced him — despite the absence of any constitutional grounds for this transition. “Trapeznikov was taken by ‘experts’ in the middle of the night and brought to Russia,” Manekin says, arguing that these events “prove clearly that this coup was carefully planned.”

Manekin believes the decision to choose Pushilin was made at a much higher level than the DNR’s own leadership, and he attributes the appointment to officials who dismissed Pushilin’s considerable unpopularity in Donetsk. Other candidates for the job were either barred entry to the region, blown up, or kidnapped. “Election commission members told me in private about conversations with individuals who encouraged them to stuff ballots and falsify the vote in other ways,” Manekin says, arguing that Pushilin remains one of Vladislav Surkov’s “pet projects.” On November 11, 2018, Pushilin was elected the new head of the DNR (winning 60.85 percent of the vote).

Alexander Khodakovsky, DNR state security minister from May 16 to July 16, 2014, Security Council secretary from November 13, 2014, to March 13, 2015. Call sign: “Skif” (Scythian)

Maxim Zmeev / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Before the war: Khodakovsky was born on December 18, 1972, in Donetsk. After serving in the Soviet army, he worked in law enforcement, and by 2014 he was head of the Ukrainian Security Service’s “Alpha” special ops unit in the Donetsk region. When war broke out, he sided with the separatists.

During the war: Khodakovsky created and led the “Vostok” battalion, which later became a full brigade. In the summer of 2014, he became DNR state security minister, and later served as Security Council secretary. He fought directly in several major battles, beginning with the first clashes over the Donetsk airport. To this day, many DNR security forces wear the Vostok chevron insignia on their uniforms, in violation of official regulations.

Eyewitnesses (who asked Meduza not to identify them) say soldiers from Khodakovsky’s battalion stole metal and sold off railway cars and other equipment seized from several businesses and mines. Admittedly, there’s not a single separatist division that isn’t accused of illegal requisitioning and extortion, and their commanders usually justify these incidents as military necessities. Speaking to Meduza, Khodakovsky confirmed that he personally ordered his men to seize and sell off the railcars: “They were decommissioned, discarded, and already partly corroded. The owners had fled, and we needed to survive.”

After the war: “Khodakovsky had good connections with the criminal world,” says Evgeny Shabaev. “This allowed Vostok to gain control over various commercial interests in Horlivka, Makiivka, and other cities in the Donetsk metropolitan area. By 2016, there was serious infighting between Khodakovsky and Zakharchenko over finances.”

In 2018, shortly before Donetsk voted on its new leader, DNR guards at the Russian border suddenly refused, without any explanation, to allow Khodakovsky back into the self-declared republic. Afterwards, he said he no longer has any hope of returning to Donetsk to participate in the region’s political life. Many people in Donetsk who spoke to Meduza said they believe Khodakovsky might defeat current DNR leader Denis Pushilin in a free and fair election.

Khodakovsky told Meduza that the DNR’s system of government is flawed and based “almost on inheritance law.” “If we created a parliament that would incorporate the commanders of various armed groups — decent people — then this parliament would be highly renewable, because the commanders would die out, and others would be elected in their place,” he argues.

Khodakovsky says Russia is partly to blame for the region’s current economic and social troubles: “Rumor has it that Mr. Surkov said we used assholes to dislodge the assholes. But who are we going to use to dislodge these assholes?”

Today, Khodakovsky chairs the board of the “Donbas Patriotic Forces” voluntary organization, which operates in Russia, where he now lives.

Igor Bezler. Field commander. Call sign: “Bes” (Demon)

Sergey Kiselyov / Kommersant

Before the war: Bezler was born on December 30, 1965, in Simferopol. A Russian citizen, he served in the Soviet and Russian armies, before leaving for the reserves as a lieutenant colonel. Bezler lived in Gorlovka, a suburb of Donetsk, and worked in the municipal security apparatus. In the spring of 2014, he took part in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and led the Gorlovka “militia” upon his return to the Donbas.

During the war: “Demon had complex relationships with other commanders and militia leaders right from the beginning of the conflict,” said Alexander T., a fighter in one of the DNR’s elite military divisions. “Things even spilled over into armed clashes. In the summer of 2014, for example, Demon’s squad captured a police station in Donetsk. Some of the police officers were injured, and some were killed. Ultimately, fighters from the Vostok and Oplot units were sent in to bring Bezler to reason. Alexander Borodai said publicly at the time that Demon’s subdivision doesn’t report to anyone. But in the end, they made peace somehow and even put a general’s star on Bezler’s epaulettes.”

Ukrainian special service representatives have called Bezler a Russian military intelligence agent and accused him of kidnapping, torturing, and executing prisoners of war. On one occasion, “Demon” posted a video of his troops shooting two Ukrainian officers online. It later came to light that the video was staged and that nobody was injured in the process.

After the war: At the end of October 2014, Bezler left the DNR for Russia. Rumors of his return to the breakaway Ukrainian region have spread multiple times since, but they are not true. “Now, Bezler is living modestly in the Crimea,” Borodai told Meduza. “He’s a relatively private person. Rumor has it that he turned down multiple very interesting job offers from Russia. They say he was even offered the mayor’s post in some city in the south, but Igor wanted to fight. I think that even now, he’s waiting for some kind of interesting turn of events to break out that he could jump into. Rumor is that Bezler and Pushilin had some kind of talks, but I don’t know how they ended.”

Meduza was unable to reach Igor Bezler for comment.

Igor Plotnitsky. Head of the “Luhansk People's Republic” (LNR) from August 14, 2014, to November 24, 2017.

Valentin Sprinchak / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Before the war: Plotnitsky was born on June 24, 1964, in the village of Kelmentsy in Ukraine’s Chernivtsi region. He worked as a Ukrainian civil servant, monitoring the energy industry and the sale of other non-food products. He started out as head of the “Dawn” battalion in May 2014. Plotnitsky was named defense minister of the LNR by the self-declared republic’s ad hoc legislature on May 21, 2014.

During the war: In August 2014, the LNR’s first leader, Valery Bolotov, resigned and named Plotnitsky as his successor. Plotnitsky signed both Minsk agreements. During the height of the Ukrainian conflict, he challenged President Petro Poroshenko to a duel.

After the war: Plotnitsky survived an assassination attempt many sources close to the situation said was staged. In September 2016, he announced that a coup attempt planned by several high-ranked LNR officials had been prevented. Gennady Tsypkalov, a former prime minister of the breakaway republic, was accused of attempting to mount a revolt and was later found hanging in his jail cell.

On November 23, 2017, a political crisis broke out in Luhansk that forced Plotnitsky to escape to Russia. LNR State Security Minister Leonid Pasechnik moved into Plotnitsky’s office, but Internal Affairs Minister Igor Kornet is considered to be the self-declared republic’s de facto leader.

Plotnitsky led the LNR for more than three years. Nonetheless, Borodai said he “never once heard anyone say anything good about him” and himself “could never stand to talk to that toad.” Ukrainian news sources asserted that Plotnitsky had invested resources exported from the Donbas into a commercial network registered under his son Stanislav’s name. Sources close to Russia’s special services confirmed that allegation to Meduza. According to Russia’s SPARK-Interfax registry, Stanislav Plotnitsky is registered as an independent entrepreneur who owns three discount domestic appliance stores in Russia’s Voronezh region. “People say [Igor Plotnitsky] is living somewhere near Voronezh,” Borodai added.

Meduza was unable to reach Igor Plotnitsky for comment.

Part two

The dead

Alexander Zakharchenko. Head of the DNR from August 7, 2014, to August 31, 2018. Call signs: “Zakhar,” “Batya” (Papa). Killed in a bombing in Donetsk on August 31, 2018.

Alexander Yermochenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Before the war: Zakharchenko was born on June 26, 1976, in Donetsk. He worked at a mine, and studied law at the Ukrainian Internal Affairs Ministry’s Donetsk Legal Institute, but never graduated. Zakharchenko led a local branch of “Oplot,” an organization dedicated to helping veterans with disabilities and counteracting the romanticization of Ukrainian Nazi collaborators. He also played an active role in the April 2014 revolt and the seizure of administrative buildings in Donetsk.

During the war: Zakharchenko served as the military commandant of Donetsk and as deputy internal affairs minster of the DNR. He created and commanded a battalion and, later, the Oplot brigade. Zakharchenko also fought in several battles.

Those who fought alongside him noted that he took courageous risks on the battlefield and was injured twice (rumor has it that one injury occurred when a tipsy bodyguard shot his boss in the foot). In August of 2014, Zakharchenko replaced Alexander Borodai as the prime minster of the DNR. On November 2, 2014, he received about 75 percent of the vote and became the president of the unrecognized republic. Zakharchenko survived multiple assassination attempts.

Borodai explained his decision to choose Zakharchenko (rather than Khodakovsky) as a successor as follows: “Khodakovsky had already had time to become versed in Ukrainian politics, meaning constant trickery, deals that change 40 times a week, and blackmail. Meanwhile, Sasha Zakharchenko was a fresh face in that sense — an authoritative field commander uncorrupted by politics.”

“Before the war started, Zakhar was close to [Ukrainian oligarch Rinat] Akhmetov’s businesses and worked in his security detail,” said a Russian citizen named Sergey who served in the DNR’s government from 2014 to 2016. “After the war started, he kept lobbying for his former boss’s interests for a time. For example, he made sure there were no interruptions in fuel supplies and raw material deliveries to Akhmetov’s combines and factories, even if that meant getting them across the front lines [between the Ukrainian army and DNR forces]. Most other manufacturers were pressed into serving the revolution pretty quickly.” (Meduza was unable to confirm this information.)

After the war: Every municipality in the breakaway republic was decked out in posters featuring a portrait of Zakharchenko wearing a general’s coat and a national hero’s star alongside a colorful array of crosses and medals. Over time, Zakharchenko managed to bring all of the DNR’s internal affairs under his command, replacing “Russian Spring” activists with people loyal to him.

Alexander “Tashkent” Timofeyev became Zakharchenko’s right-hand man. Novaya Gazeta special correspondent Pavel Kanygin, who covered the conflict in eastern Ukraine, confirmed that Zakharchenko and Timofeyev seized control of all of the region’s profitable assets in the time they were in power. Sergey, the Russian citizen mentioned above, told Meduza that the pair attempted to receive a share in a coal transport enterprise that supplies Russian fuel to Ukraine and Europe. With Zakharchenko’s implicit consent, Timofeyev allegedly demanded that humanitarian volunteers in the Donbas hand over up to half of their food, medicine, and other products, which were all later sold in supermarkets belonging to Zakharchenko’s common-law wife. Those who refused to cooperate were sent “to the basement,” where, according to Sergey, a significant number of DNR ministers ultimately ended up.

Evgeny Shabaev, who formerly worked as the Donetsk Republic movement’s official representative in Russia, partially confirmed Sergey’s assertions. “They got a share in all the markets: some chain stores, small businesses, mid-sized businesses, and energy companies. They even sparked a fuel crisis to get a share in the DNR’s gas stations. The price of gasoline shot up from 45 rubles to 70 rubles per liter.”

Death: Zakharchenko died in an explosion at the Separ Café on August 31, 2018. DNR authorities announced that he had been killed in a terrorist attack carried out by Ukrainian agents, and Borodai also believes that assertion. A majority of Meduza’s sources, however, believe that local or Russian special services were behind the attack.

“In the end, Zakharchenko and Tashkent lost their sense of boundaries entirely and started demanding more and more money from schemes that involved not only [Russian-allied oligarch Sergey] Kurchenko but also the FSB and the Old Guard,” Sergey explained, using a euphemism for the Russian presidential administration. Shabaev asserted that in 2018, tensions emerged between Zakharchenko and Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician suspected of being Vladimir Putin’s godfather, as well as “other powerful, shady bigwigs.”

Alexander Timofeyev, who was the DNR’s vice premier and lead government revenue official at the time of the attack, was injured in the explosion that killed Zakharchenko. Timofeyev currently resides in Russia.

Mikhail Tolstykh. Field commander. Call sign: “Givi.” Killed in an explosion at his batallion’s base on February 8, 2017.

Dominique Faget /AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Before the war: Tolstykh was born on July 19, 1980, in Ilovaisk, outside Donetsk. He served in the Ukrainian army and chose a nickname honoring his grandfather, who fought in World War II. Tolstykh also worked as an industrial climber.

During the war: Beginning in May of 2014, Tolstykh fought under Strelkov in battles near Slovyansk. He led the Somali Battalion, gaining respect among his subordinates for his bravery. Along with “Motorola” (see below), “Givi” became a local favorite among Russian journalists. He even humiliated prisoners of war on camera on multiple occasions, forcing one group of captured Ukrainian officers to eat their own epaulets. In another video, “Givi” said he was willing to shoot a Ukrainian prisoner extrajudicially. He survived several attempts on his life.

After the war: Sources close to the DNR’s military forces told Meduza that “Givi” tried to get into business and even contraband. They said he also took the risk of clashing with Zakharchenko. Another military source said one of Tolstykh’s troops had once been arrested for stopping a car that turned out to be carrying contraband under the supposed protection of DNR prosecutors. In an effort to free his subordinate, the commander was said to have shot into the ceiling of his superior’s office.

Roman Manekin, however, argued that “Givi” was “absolutely loyal to Zakharchenko and went so far as to criticize his rival, Khodakovsky.” Manekin said the commander “wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer” and was a real “adrenaline junkie.”

Death: On February 8, 2017, “Givi” was killed in an explosion at his own battalion’s base in Makeyevka. Rumors spread immediately that someone had shot a flamethrower through the window of Tolstykh’s office, but military experts believe that is extremely unlikely.

A source who was present at the scene shortly after the attack told Meduza he is certain that “Givi” was killed by an improvised explosive device that was brought onto the base, an act that could only have been carried out by one of the subdivision’s own troops. Borodai stands by the official version of events: “There is 100 percent certain information about who the main culprit was. It was an embedded SBU agent, and he managed to slip away.”

Arsen Pavlov. Field commander. Call sign: “Motorola.” Killed in an explosion in Donetsk on October 16, 2016.

Mikhail Sokolov / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Before the war: Pavlov was born on February 2, 1983, in Ukhta, in the Komi Republic of the Russian SFSR. He served in a Russian marine division and fought in the Chechen wars, and later worked at a car wash in Rostov-on-Don, until fighting began in the Donbas region.

Pavlov arrived in Ukraine in February 2014. According to Igor Strelkov, Pavlov was a member of the so-called “militia” in Crimea and was selected to join a group of soldiers headed for the Donbas.

During the war: Beginning on April 10, 2014, Pavlov led small units to the most intense combat areas around Slovyansk. During that time, “Motorola” recruited enough fighters to expand his unit from 40 members to 200. During Strelkov’s retreat from Slovyansk, Pavlov’s subdivision covered the main army’s movements. In August 2014, after Strelkov left the Donbas for Russia, Pavlov took charge of the Sparta Batallion and took part in some of the war’s most violent battles. In an interview published by the English-language Kyiv Post, Pavlov said he had personally shot 15 prisoners, but he later denied saying any such thing.

“Motorola’s media promotion began when a group of journalists asked Strelkov to fire his weapon on camera,” Shabaev said. “He sent them away, but he did tell them about Motor, who was commanding a subdivision at the time. And Motor didn’t just agree to the live video: he set himself up to be taped shooting a PTUR antitank missile for good measure. He’s a conspicuous, cool kind of character. And people started bringing him in to build the hype. Motorola started organizing paid tours of the Donetsk airport for journalists.” Shabaev recalled that when other DNR subdivisions invited journalists on similar tours, Pavlov consistently sabotaged them and even started shootouts on occasion to scare the journalists away.

“Motorola was a miracle man,” Manekin said. “There was no way he could have survived in Semyonovka, near Slovyansk, but he survived. And not only that — he didn’t yield his position. Motorola prepared his team meticulously for combat operations, but time after time, he was saved by literal miracles. He didn’t do anything to make that happen: he didn’t hide; he would go into the sizzling heat of the battle. But he was lucky right up until he died.”

According to Manekin, Pavlov came off as a simple man, but “in Donetsk, a lot of people were frustrated at his wife, who would go shopping in the supermarkets there with a whole cadre of bodyguards.” Manekin also said “Motorola” was extremely loyal to the breakaway republic’s government and even avoided defending his soldiers when they got into trouble with DNR leaders.

Death: On October 16, 2016, Pavlov and his bodyguard were bombed in the elevator of Pavlov’s home in Donetsk. Per tradition, DNR leaders blamed Ukrainian special services for the bombing. “He got caught up in some dirty money,” said Evgeny Shabaev, who added that it was supposedly Pavlov’s own troops who dealt with “Tsypkalov’s revolt” in the neighboring LNR.

In September 2016, Igor Plotnitsky had announced that a group of officials led by former Prime Minister Gennady Tsypkalov had supposedly attempted to carry out an armed coup in the LNR. Plotnitsky turned to the DNR for help, saying he “didn’t trust” the military units within his own republic. Tsypkalov was arrested and later found hanging in his cell. “Officially, it was named a suicide,” Shabaev said. “The fact that the body was missing several finger bones and even a few ribs and limbs didn’t give anyone pause.” He added that the LNR government acknowledged that Tsypkalov had been killed but blamed SBU agents for his death. When, in 2017, LNR Internal Affairs Minister Igor Kornet overthrew Plotnitsky himself, he said Plotnitsky had staged “Tsypkalov’s revolt.”

Shabaev suggested that Pavlov may have been dissatisfied with his payment for the expedition into Luhansk. He doubts the official explanation of Motorola’s death, saying that in an apartment building where “even the concierge is armed,” it is unlikely that a teenager would have been able to construct, install, and trigger an improvised explosive device at the right moment to kill a specific target in an elevator. Shabaev noted that the young suspect’s trial still has not taken place.

Pavel Dremov. Field commander and ataman. Call sign: “Batya” (Papa). Killed in a car bombing on December 12, 2015.

 John MacDougall / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Before the war: Dremov was born on November 22, 1976, in the Voroshilovgrad (now Luhansk) region. He fought in Transnistria and Chechnya, and worked as a mason before the war. In the spring and summer of 2014, Dremov created and led a Cossack regiment named for the ataman M.I. Platov, who fought in the Napoleonic Wars. The regiment still holds a significant portion of the front line in the LNR.

During the war: According to a former subordinate named Mikhail, Dremov resisted the Ukrainian army’s attempts to take over Stakhanov, Alchevsk, and Pervomaisk. An anonymous source told Meduza that Dremov had organized transports of food and water to residential areas on the front lines.

After the war: Dremov publicly accused Igor Plotnitsky and his circle of maintaining ties with Kyiv officials and oligarchs; profiting by trading coal across the front lines; selling humanitarian aid delivered from Russia in chain stores under their control — and being cowards more generally. The field commander said that if any of his subordinates were attacked, he would reveal corruption and criminal activity within the LNR’s leadership using data he supposedly kept on a personal flash drive.

Death: On December 12, 2015, while he was on his way to his own wedding, Dremov was bombed in a car he had received as a wedding gift. The ataman died on site, and his driver died later in a hospital. “Officially, they’ve blamed Ukrainian diversionary tactics for Pavel Leonidovich’s death,” his subordinate Mikhail said, “but most servicemembers believe that the republic’s government was behind it.” Mikhail said either LNR Internal Affairs Minister Igor Kornet, whom the soldier accused of trading drugs across the front lines, or Igor Plotnitsky, who may have “feared a potential rival” in Dremov, may have ordered the attack. Mikhail also accused the breakaway republic’s government of inaction in the investigation of the murder: “Even the person who gave him that cursed automobile was allowed to escape to the Ukrainian side. And Nikolai Pinchuk, who kept the ataman’s notorious flash drive, was found decapitated in his own bed.”

Alexey Mozgovoi. Field commander. Killed in a car bombing on May 23, 2015.

Stanislav Krasilnikov / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Before the war: Mozgovoi was Cossack by blood. He was born on April 3, 1975, in the village of Lower Duvanka, in the Voroshilovgrad (now Luhansk) region. A protest and armed resistance leader in eastern Ukraine, Mozgovoi was commander of the “Ghost” Brigade.

During the war: Mozgovoi clashed with the LNR leadership, and took the Ghost Brigade to Slovyansk to fight under Igor Strelkov. He later joined Pavel Dremov’s subdivision to defend Alchevsk, Stakhanov, and Pervomaisk.

Evgeny Shabaev considers the Ghost Brigade to be one of the separatists’ most combat-ready divisions of 4,000 people or less. “People came to him because they knew that [the Ghost Division] won’t leave you hanging without a salary. They would follow their agreements honestly,” Shabaev said. “Mozgovoi raised money in Russia, but he didn’t spend it on himself and those close to him, like many commanders did. Instead, he bought equipment and paid the salaries he had promised.”

In October of 2014, Mozgovoi convened a “people’s court” in Alchevsk to try two men who had been accused of rape. In an open head count, the city’s residents voted to have one shot and the other sent to the front lines. During periods of active combat, this was one of the most common punishments issued. Because those “convicted” in ad hoc courts were tasked with digging trenches and were not issued firearms, they were often killed as soon as shooting broke out.

After the war: Mozgovoi ignored Plotnitsky’s call for him not to enter politics, and began organizing negotiations with potentially like-minded field commanders in other brigades. He spoke out in favor of the unification of the DNR and the LNR into a single entity called Novorossiya but simultaneously took part in teleconferences with Ukrainian soldiers, saying the conflict in the country’s east was “only advantageous for people who make a profit off it.” Mozgovoi accused Plotnitsky and his circle of conspiring with Kyiv, establishing a dictatorship, and ignoring the interests of the people.

Death: On May 7, 2015, Mozgovoi’s car was bombed. He received a head wound. Nonetheless, on May 9, he defied Plotnitsky’s orders and threats of violence to run a celebratory military parade in Alchevsk. On May 23, Mozgovoi’s car was bombed again and immediately targeted with machine gun fire. Mozgovoi died along with his press secretary, two guards, and his driver. Two civilians were also killed.

Leonid Tkachenko, the head of the investigative division in the LNR’s prosecutor general’s office, said his subordinates were considering multiple potential explanations of the attack, “including diversionary reconnaissance work on the part of Ukraine.” Those among Mozgovoi’s associates who spoke with Meduza still believe that the commander’s assassination was carried out by the “Wagner” private military company. The PMC has gained fame for its activities in Africa but is rumored among Mozgovoi’s supporters to have been given its first “test drive” in the Donbas region, where it was supposedly deployed to carry out “particularly sensitive tasks” for the leaders of eastern Ukraine’s breakaway regions.

Report by Grigory Alexandrov, with special assistance from Novaya Gazeta special correspondent Pavel Kanygin

Translation by Hilah Kohen and Kevin Rothrock

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