Open source survey of reports, materials, and rumors surrounding the assassination of the separatist leader
In the most significant flash point in the Donbas since the February 2015 Minsk II accords and Battle of Debaltseve, the long-time leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), Aleksandr Zakharchenko, was assassinated after an explosion in a cafe in central Donetsk. Long-time DNR official and Zakharchenko right-hand man Aleksandr “Tashkent” Timofeyev was also reportedly injured in the explosion, with the severity of his injuries unclear at the time of this report.
Since the assassination, the DNR closed off its borders, declared a state of emergency, and closed key roads in and out of Donetsk.
Lead-up to the assassination
Zakharchenko seemed to be well aware of the threats posed to his life, and guarded himself far better against dissent than his contemporary, head of the Luhansk Poeple’s Republic (LNR) Igor Plotnitsky, who was overthrown in late 2017. Zakharchenko made a point out of establishing a Republican Guard (RG) and a Spetsnaz regiment to act as fiercely loyal units in addition to the units formally tasked with his security, such as the Republican State Security Service.
The RG and the Spetsnaz regiment both went through a series of changes throughout its existence, undergoing significant reform and change of leadership. Most recently, however, the most significant news surrounding these units was the departure of Zakhar Prilepin from the DNR, and the possible disbandment of his 4th Reconnaissance and Assault Battalion, which was part of this regiment. Rumors had it that this was just one part of a greater reform, which would bring Zakharchenko’s RG and Spetsnaz Regiment under the DNR Interior Ministry.
In addition to these units, Zakharchenko sought to bring local Cossacks under a single banner in what was to be called the Pirazovsk Cossack Host. While the initiative had some success, it did not nearly reach the scale that he had envisioned.
Late July 2018 was marked by uncertainty surrounding Zakharchenko and Timofeyev, as rumors spread that Zakharchenko somehow sustained an injury after weeks of his disappearance from public view. As these rumors were put to rest with footage of Zakharchenko in seemingly good health, an image of Timofeyev in Moscow made its rounds on the messaging app Telegram, raising speculation of the Kremlin making a move in Donetsk, perhaps in a leadership shake-up.
Assassination attempts have previously been carried out on both Zakharchenko and Timofeyev, albeit without any success. Most recently, an attempt on Timofeyev’s life was carried out in September 2017, also by bomb.
Initial reports from the scene
At approximately 5:45pm (Kyiv time), the first reports of an explosion at the “Separatist Cafe” in central Donetsk emerged online. Most of the very first messages about this explosion came via Telegram, where a number of high-profile news outlets and reporters in Donetsk share first-hand information.
5:45pm: BREAKING! An explosion took place in the Separatist cafe in central Donetsk.
5:52pm: BREAKING! There are casualties from the explosion in central Donetsk…
6:15pm: (forwarded from the Daily War Telegram channel) The head of the DNR, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, has passed away from wounds sustained after an explosion in central Donetsk.
Three images appeared alongside initial reports of the explosion, the first of which was from Komsomolskaya Pravda reporter Aleksandr Kots.
This photograph does indeed show the intersection near the Separatist Cafe, located on Pushkin Boulevard in central Donetsk.
A second photograph from the scene shows the initial response to the explosion from the ground level.
Again, this photograph does correspond with the actual area — the same buildings we see from Yandex Maps street view and the other photograph are present in this street-level photograph.
A third photograph showed the aftermath at the cafe with rubble and damage to the same building as in two previous photographs.
The only video that surfaced from the scene immediately after the explosion was shown on Russian state television. The video included (for a moment) the corpse of Zakharchenko. The scene corresponds to that of the two aforementioned photographs.
Who did it?
Following the assassination, typical responses came from Kyiv, Donetsk, and Moscow: the Ukrainian authorities blamed internal fighting and Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova said that “there is every reason to believe that the Kyiv regime is behind the murder”, and Donetsk officials have accused Ukraine and, in a statement from DNR Ministry of Defense spokesperson Eduard Basurin, even the United States.
Who are the likely culprits in carrying out Zakharchenko’s assassination? In no particular order, we will list the the suspects who are the most realistic possibilities.
An Inside Job?
Zakharchenko had no shortage of enemies and rivals in the Donbas, especially a number of ambitious men around him in Donetsk. With the lawlessness of the so-called republics of eastern Ukraine, it is not a stretch to suspect an “inside job” for the assassination. While there is no direct evidence for their involvement in the assassination, there have been a number of recent, high-profile feuds between Zakharchenko and Denis Pushilin, the long-time DNR official and multi-level marketing scam artist, and former Vostok Battalion leader Aleksandr Khodakovsky. For more on these feuds, see this recent @DFRLab article on Khodakovsky’s bizarre drive-along where he highlighted security vulnerabilities in Donetsk and blamed Zakharchenko for his leadership. Rumors have swirled this summer that Zakharchenko was to step down from his post as DNR leader, possibly with Khodakovsky replacing him.
Last year, a bloodless coup took place in Luhansk when Zakharchenko assisted in a change of leadership in Luhansk. While the Kremlin is the final arbiter of most major decisions in the Donbas, there is some internal free will among separatist fighters and officials, especially when it comes to power struggles and personal feuds. Even more than political power, the potential of facilitating economic exploitation in non-government-controlled territories in the Donbas is very tempting for many, as there are little to no protections for businesses and industry in this territory. With upcoming elections scheduled for the DNR — though it is hard to put too much stock in their integrity — a sudden shake-up in leadership could open up pathways for some Donetsk power players.
An obvious suspect for the assassination is the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU). This was the initial response from Donetsk officials, and they claimed to have arrested a number of Ukrainian “saboteurs”, though this report has not been confirmed and should be weighed with skepticism.
While it may seem obvious that Ukraine would want to assassinate Zakharchenko — he is the ostensible leader of a separatist state they have been in conflict with for over four years — there are not many convincing reasons for an operation at this time. Zakharchenko was already in a relatively weak position with a number of rumors swirling about his resignation, and an assassination would give Russia a reason to ramp up its involvement in the war at a time when the conflict has moved out of the mind of most Russian citizens. Four years after the fever pitch of “Crimea is Ours!” and non-stop images of “Ukrainian atrocities” on Russian state television, there is a diminished appetite among the Russian public for more war.
In short, a Ukrainian assassination of Zakharchenko opens up possibilities for more bloodshed in the Donbas rather than opportunities of destabilization. While we cannot discount the possibility of Ukraine carrying out this operation, there are no immediately obvious reasons for the assassination to happen four years into Zakharchenko’s rule, just before upcoming elections.
The suspect that will likely gain the most press in Western media is the Kremlin; however, we should separate out the various interests that could be at play if the assassination was ordered from Russia.
First, it is very unlikely that the assassination was ordered through the Presidential Administration, namely Putin and his aide Vladislav Surkov. While Putin likely has no direct role in deciding the bureaucracy of eastern Ukraine, Surkov is is extremely involved, from deciding that Zakharchenko would be the leader in the first place to paying for office equipment in DNR offices.
For more information on Surkov’s role in eastern Ukraine, see this @DFRLab article.
By all accounts, Surkov and Zakharchenko were quite close, making joint appearances together and being in close contact. Some of the major decisions made in the DNR over the past two years were done among the triumvirate of Zakharchenko, Surkov, and Zakhar Prilepin, a long-time friend of Surkov and advisor to Zakharchenko.
It’s possible that Surkov — the Kremlin’s strongest player in the Donbas — ordered the assassination of his hand-picked leader, but it seems more likely that Surkov could have easily convinced him to step down or move to another role. If the order to assassinate Zakharchenko came from Russia, it is more likely from a rival “curator” — Russians, usually but not always from or linked to the government, who bankroll or control groups and interests within the Donbas. An example of one of these curators is Konstantin Malofeyev, a Russian millionaire operating outside of the government who bankrolled the work of a number of the initial leaders and commanders in the Donbas, including Zakharchenko. However, most curators are Russian officials or commanders, including from the military and intelligence services.
With a number of competing interests and groups within and adjacent to the Kremlin, an assassination ordered from Ukraine’s easterly neighbor is entirely possible. While Surkov is the most influential and involved single Kremlin official when it comes to the Donbas, his power is not unchecked, and a proxy war could be playing out in Donetsk as a result of palace intrigue or jockeying for economic interests from Moscow.
Lastly, the most cynical possibility for Russian culpability is a pretext to ramp up their involvement in the Donbas conflict. While this is always a possibility, the last three years have shown a trajectory of Russia attempting to freeze the conflict to hamper Ukraine and also not be burdened with serious financial or political responsibilities to the Donbas “republics”. A massive Russian re-entry into the conflict in the mold of August 2014 (Ilovaysk) or January 2015 (Debaltseve) is possible, but nearly every major Russian military exercise or assassination in the Donbas has led to these predictions of an explicit Russian invasion, and none have played out in over three years.
Line of Succession
Hours after Zakharchenko’s assassination, former Vice Premier of the DNR Dmitry Trapeznikov was named the new leader of the separatist “republic”; however, it is unclear if he is the long-term solution. Per the “constitution” of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Trapeznikov was next up in the line of succession, followed by Aleksandr “Tashkent” Timofeyev, if he survived the attack.
Elections are scheduled to take place this autumn in Donetsk, though it is unclear if they will still take place following the assassination. Denis Pushilin, a head legislator in the DNR, is long been rumored to envy Zakharchenko’s position, and was the one to declare a state of emergency in the DNR following Zakharchenko’s death. Aleksandr Khodakovsky, a military commander in a similar mold to Zakharchenko, has been seen as a possible alternative to Zakharchenko over the last four years, but currently holds no political position.
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