Report

Is Russia Killing Off Eastern Ukraine’s Warlords?

Is Russia Killing Off Eastern Ukraine’s Warlords?

Arsen Pavlov was no stranger to extreme violence.

This Russian commander, better known by the nom de guerre “Motorola,” was a veteran of Moscow’s ruthless campaign in the Second Chechen War and later became a prominent figure in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, leading a battalion of Moscow-backed separatists. He soon emerged as one of the region’s most famous warlords, an effective fighter who took part in major offensives at the Donetsk airport and Ilovaisk. He was also ruthless, known to boast about executing captured Ukrainian soldiers.

On Sunday, Oct. 16, Pavlov’s brutal methods finally caught up with him.

The 33-year-old mercenary was assassinated in Donetsk by a remote-controlled bomb planted on his apartment building’s elevator. Pavlov and his bodyguard were both wearing full-body armor, but bloody remains and a jumble of ammunition were all that was left of them.

Pavlov is the latest separatist commander, and among the most prominent, to die in mysterious circumstances since the conflict first erupted. As the war in eastern Ukraine drags on, with the death toll at around 10,000 and no real end in sight, leaders of the areas known as the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) have been meeting their demise in apparently safe surroundings, far from the dangers of the battlefield.

Last month, the former prime minister of the LNR, Gennady Tsyplakov, purportedly “committed suicide” in detention after separatist authorities rounded up dozens of regime figures who were perceived to present an internal threat and accused them of plotting a coup. LNR officials claimed that he had hanged himself in his cell because he was so consumed with guilt over “the gravity of his crime.”

Just days earlier, a separatist field commander, Yevgeny Zhilin, was gunned down in a Moscow restaurant. Last December, Pavel Dremov, a Cossack battalion commander, was assassinated by car bomb just hours after celebrating his own wedding. Earlier that year, Aleksey Mozgovoy, the founder of the Ghost Brigade, a pro-Russian militant battalion in the LNR, was killed in a roadside ambush of mines and machine guns in a stretch of land he regarded as his private fiefdom. Alexander Bednov, a commander known as “Batman,” was killed during an attack on his convoy on Jan. 1, 2015. And these are just the most notable figures; analysts say there have been at least a dozen more such deaths.

Evidence is hard to come by in the black box of Ukraine’s rebel heartlands, where the Russian-backed regimes of the LNR and DNR thrive off confusion, division, and mystery. But two main theories are circulating among well-connected experts and separatist insiders.

Some say the killings are likely the product of infighting among the rebel elite in eastern Ukraine. As they seek to consolidate their rule and reap the rewards of the region’s lucrative black market, they are turning on one another.

Others say Russia may be behind the assassination campaign. After laboring to build the region’s governments, and plowing arms and money into defending them, analysts believe the Kremlin has a newfound interest in extricating itself from the quagmire of eastern Ukraine and ridding itself of a punishing sanctions regime. It hopes to do so by making the breakaway republics seem respectable to local and international audiences — and that requires eliminating any would-be allies who have trouble following orders.

Pavlov may have qualified as an unruly subordinate. A former blue-collar worker from the Russian republic of Komi, he is said to have earned the nickname “Motorola” during his work as a communications officer in a Russian army battalion serving in Chechnya. In March 2014, he crossed into Ukraine’s febrile, industrial east to join the growing insurgency and became the commander of the Sparta Battalion, which is based in Donetsk and has a reputation for ruthlessness. With his ginger beard, unhinged grin, and love of Russian rap and quad-bike joyrides around Donetsk, Pavlov became a wartime media star — loved by some, loathed by others. He even televised his own wedding, a ceremony attended by such separatist luminaries as Igor Strelkov, the commander who led the takeover of the town of Sloviansk and became a hero for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine’s restive Donbass region.

But some regarded Pavlov’s celebrity to be a distraction from the dense political, military, and economic ties that the Kremlin has installed between Moscow and separatist Ukraine and saw him as both a war criminal and a bit player. “He was just a media warrior,” said Mikhail Minakov, a political philosopher at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, a Kiev-based university. “The major figures remain in the shadows.”

And yet the dramatic nature of Pavlov’s murder still came as a shock. Observers regarded him as unwieldy but not disloyal to his superiors in Ukraine and Russia. His murder marks the first successful hit on a high-ranking leader in Donetsk, an indication that the forces picking off separatist leaders may be gaining ground; similar attacks had so far been confined to the neighboring LNR. The question of who is behind the incident has been the subject of much speculation.

A video quickly surfaced on social media that purported to show members of a Ukrainian neo-Nazi group claiming responsibility. The four masked men threatened to target other separatist leaders and ended the clip with a Hitler salute. Some separatists leaped on the suspicious footage as evidence of Ukraine’s involvement in Pavlov’s death; others discounted its authenticity, dismissing it as the latest salvo in a long-running information war.

Who might want Motorola dead? Many believe that it was one of his own. Feuds over the control of trade routes and contraband energy resources — namely Ukrainian coal and Russian oil — are common in the breakaway regions. Pavlov was said to have been involved in dealing scrap metal, a profession that the Moscow Times last week called “one of the few growth industries in and around the destroyed Donetsk airport.” By removing rogue competitors, eastern Ukraine’s ruling coalitions of rebel warlords and criminal syndicates could be seeking to tighten their grip on these underground and hugely profitable markets.

“These deaths often involve bandits falling out in turf wars over power, money, and smuggling routes, control of which is crucial if you’re a budding warlord wanting to fund a militia,” said Daragh McDowell, a principal analyst on Europe and Central Asia for the consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft.

But privately some separatists acknowledge that the danger may be coming from as far away as Moscow. Pavlov’s murder was sophisticated, efficient, and required close access — signs of tradecraft that suggest Russian involvement. Speaking on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, a well-placed source with links to key figures in the Russian-controlled separatist regime told me: “Some … are saying that handlers higher up the chain are cleaning up first-generation rebels to destroy any incriminating evidence and remove witnesses to war crimes. The Kremlin needs its proxies to have a more acceptable public face.”

The ruling authorities of the DNR and LNR were hastily assembled more than two years ago in the midst of a separatist insurrection — an uprising widely regarded as orchestrated by Moscow in response to the ousting of Ukraine’s disgraced pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. The priority at the time was to install some kind of governing structure — no matter how crude — to bolster the breakaway regions’ claim of being “people’s republics” rather than pariah badlands, armed and fabricated by Russia.

It was a brutal environment, and the figures who came to power in these volatile territories typically won their positions not by political skill but by being the most effective and ideological fighters on the battlefield. One of these figures was Alexander Zakharchenko, who currently heads the DNR and rose to prominence in April 2014 as the commander of a battalion that was formed from members of a fight club and went on to seize Donetsk’s government buildings. Similarly, Igor Plotnitsky, the LNR’s current thuggish leader, was a lowly regional official before the war; he subsequently raised a militant force and, within a month, was named the LNR’s defense minister and later its head.

These initial embryonic institutions served their purpose when the focus was on military conquest and land grabs in the early days of the crisis. But with the war at an impasse in its third year, Russian enthusiasm for the project has waned; few in command speak anymore of building “Novorossiya,” the centerpiece of this region’s separatist ideology. At the same time, there seem to be few routes for winding down the conflict: Ukraine will not give up territory that it views as its own; Vladimir Putin risks losing face — within his own constituency, among Russia’s ruling elite, and on the world stage — if Russia withdraws too readily from the morass. Last week’s hastily arranged talks between France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine, which were aimed at reviving the stalled peace process in Donbass, had no concrete results. Kiev wants the Russians to demilitarize the occupied east before local elections are held there; Moscow and its separatist proxies wants these elections before scaling back their forces.

According to this line of thinking, Russia is purging the separatists of their most visible and unsavory warmongers in a bid both to avoid a major, uncontrolled escalation at the front and to render the breakaway regimes as more palatable partners for a future peace process. This restructuring has involved bloodiness and brutality but not exclusively; though some figures have been assassinated, others have simply been “retired,” such as Strelkov and the DNR’s former parliament speaker, Andrei Purgin — a hard-line imperialist who was replaced by his more conciliatory deputy — who are now both living in Russia.

Eliminating Motorola, and people like him, does not solve the conflict’s thorniest issues but may, in time, allow Moscow to apply more pressure on Kiev by forcing it to negotiate with less radicalized, more respectable proxies. Such a shake-up may provide an offramp for the Kremlin, allowing Russia to extricate itself from the deadlock, advocate for the removal of punitive sanctions, and concentrate on its war in Syria.

It is unlikely that the lives of leaders like Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky are at risk, said Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer in European studies at King’s College London. But they, too, may eventually need to be removed somehow — perhaps via asylum deals in Russia, under the close supervision of the security services. “The Russians need local proxies who are not directly implicated in war crimes or MH17,” Clarkson said. “If Zakharchenko is cleared out before any ‘election,’ Moscow can present Kiev with a clean skin that makes the mere compromise of direct talks more palatable.”

On Wednesday, Oct. 19, far from the geopolitics, thousands of people turned out in central Donetsk for Pavlov’s funeral at the city’s opera and ballet theater. Later, the commander’s coffin was mounted upon a howitzer garlanded with flowers and towed through the streets. For most of Ukraine, he was a war criminal who embodied the worst excesses of the conflict. But in Russia and the breakaway regions, he was an idol who led a valiant charge against Kiev. (Intriguingly, Moscow appeared to distance itself from Pavlov after his death. The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said media tributes to the assassinated warlord that appeared across Russia’s state-run and privately owned media were “not the official position.”)

The discredited Minsk peace accords that were signed last year prohibit the prosecution of any figure involved in the conflict. Regardless, many in Ukraine have hoped that the most heinous offenders would be brought to justice. Pavlov was on that list. In a telephone interview last year, his cruelty was laid bare when he confessed to executing prisoners of war. “I don’t give a fuck about what I am accused of, believe it or not. I shot 15 prisoners dead. I don’t give a fuck. No comment. I kill if I want to. I don’t if I don’t,” he told a reporter.

Last month, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko branded Pavlov a “monster” and swore that the separatist commander would answer for his alleged crimes. Pavlov’s unexplained murder extinguishes any hope of putting him in the dock.

Photo credit: Mikhail Sokolov\TASS via Getty Images