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Death: an occupational hazard in Donbass

Roman Goncharenko
April 1, 2017

Killed, removed from power or dead from disease: Very few of eastern Ukraine's original separatists are active today - or even alive. Is Russia tightening its grip? Experts see a pattern.

Ukrainekonflikt - Avdiivka
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Filippov

Vladimir Makovich and people like him were are at the height of their popularity about three years ago. It was in April 2014 that pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine proclaimed their "Donetsk People's Republic" and Makovich read out the "declaration of independence." The hitherto unknown Makovich, whose gray beard made him look more like an Orthodox priest than a rebel, rose quickly to become the deputy chairman of the "Supreme Council." Yet he disappeared just six months later. Makovich's name remained out of the news until March 12, 2017, when it was reported that he had died, supposedly from a brain tumor.

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Death from the shadows

Thus, the list of the early separatist leaders still alive in eastern Ukraine has again gotten shorter. Many of those men have been murdered outright. In February, Mikhail Tolstykh was killed when an incendiary rocket was fired into his Donetsk office. A few months earlier, Arsen "Motorola" Pavlov was killed when a bomb exploded in his apartment building's elevator. Both men had been presented as war heroes on Russian state television. Separatists blame "Ukrainian saboteurs" for the murders - foreign agents in communist parlance. Kyiv denies the accusations.

In Ukraine, most point to Moscow and speak of "cleansing." Either way, the fact remains that more than half a dozen separatist leaders have now been killed in ambushes. Serhiy Taruta, a member of Ukraine's parliament, has his own explanation: "There is a power struggle over businesses, over confiscated companies, and negotiations are being held with machine guns," he said. Anyone who fails to abide by the rules is eliminated. Taruta used to be a leading businessman in the Donbass coal field. He served as regional governor there between March and October of 2014.

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Heart attack at 46

Some separatists, such as Valery Bolotov, died of sudden illness. The first leader of the "Luhansk People's Republic" succumbed to a supposed heart attack in his Moscow apartment this January. He was just 46 years old. Some media outlets have reported that he may have been the victim of poisoning. 

Bolotov resigned at the height of the conflict in August 2014, and led a quiet life in Russia thereafter. "People say that Bolotov had conflicts with Russian 'minders' and military leadership when it came down to shooting fellow Ukrainians," according to Alexander Eremenko, a lecturer at the East Ukrainian National University in Luhansk. Bolotov's replacement, Igor Plotnitsky, who still leads the separatists today, had no such qualms says Eremenko. Russia denies that it provides any military assistance in Donbass.

At 43 years old, Gennady Tsypkalov was even younger than Bolotov when he supposedly committed suicide in custody. He was accused by fellow separatists of plotting a coup. Rumors of murder surround the case. Tsypkalov was Bolotov's deputy and the "prime minister" of Luhansk. Those on the Ukrainian side of the conflict don't only have bad things to say about him. "Tsypkalov was the most reasonable" of the separatists, says Yaroslav Halas, press secretary for the former governor of Luhansk. Halas says that although no one ever met him in person, ceasefires were agreed upon via fax, and Tsypkalov always kept his word.

Russians coming …

Donetsk-born Serhiy Harmash, who now lives in Kyiv, is the editor-in-chief of the online portal "Ostrov." He told DW that it is difficult to say for certain whether the numerous deaths among separatist leaders are direct interventions planned and carried out by Moscow. He says that some may well have been carried out by Ukraine's SBU security service. But he says that if Russia is behind the operations, it is not to get rid of witnesses, but rather to better control the region.

Harmash also sees a pattern. Moscow sold "real Russians," as well as impassioned Ukrainian supporters, on an annexation like the one that took place in Crimea. Harmash says one man that belongs to the first group is Igor Girkin, known as "Strelkov," who, according to media reports, is a former Russian intelligence agent. Girkin was "defense minister" in Donetsk until August 2014, and bragged about having squeezed the war's "trigger." At the time, Moscow political advisor Alexander Borodai was serving as "prime minister." His counterpart in Luhansk was also a Muscovite, Marat Bashirov.

… and going

The Russians were only visible among separatist leadership for a very short time. As the war raged, they handed all three positions over to Ukrainians. Harmash lists Andrei Purgin among those separatist leaders pushed from power. Purgin acted as deputy "prime minister" in Donetsk until 2015, when he was unexpectedly replaced. "Purgin was removed when it became known that he was preparing a referendum on Russian annexation," said Harmash.

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Hidden control

Today, both "people's republics" are under Russian control according to both Harmash and Taruta. Kyiv is of the same opinion. Taruta sees Moscow's current influence at "95 percent." Russia, he says, dictates the central political course, creating "a corridor to manipulate, to plunder and to make immense amounts of cash."  

Although there are rumors of Russian "minders" at all levels in both Luhansk and Donetsk, they are rarely seen. The most prominent Russian in Donetsk right now is Zakhar Prilepin. The writer, who is also known in the West, divulged a secret in February: He is the deputy commander of a fighting battalion. In Ukraine there is speculation that Prilepin's task, as a celebrity of sorts, is to fill positions recently vacated after the deaths of field commanders.