Notwithstanding whatever arrangements European leaders are concocting in their occasional summit meetings, the conflict in eastern Ukraine is still very much alive, albeit frozen. Literally, come to think of it, given the approach of another Ukrainian winter. Separatists in the Donbas are tired after three years of war, but they’re entrenched, and they’re still getting Russian support, and they don’t seem inclined to make any concessions to Kiev. Kiev, meanwhile, won’t move on promises to decentralize authority or allow elections in the east until some concessions are made, in particular until the separatists relinquish control over their sections of the Ukraine-Russia border to the government. The separatists don’t trust Kiev to keep its word, and so they have no interest in conceding the border. Like I said, it’s frozen.
But something did happen a couple of weeks ago to one of the best-known separatist leaders. Well, at least he used to be one of the best-known separatist leaders:
Arsen Pavlov, the commander, who went by the nom de guerre Motorola after the brand of walkie-talkie he preferred, was blown up as he rode the elevator in his apartment building on Sunday in Donetsk, the larger of the rebels’ two urban strongholds in eastern Ukraine, Russian news accounts said.
Each side blames the other for the killing: Ukrainian officials said Russian special forces had been purging the charismatic but unpredictable early leaders of the rebel movement, while the separatists said Ukrainian assassins were operating behind their lines.
The leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, threatened retaliatory attacks in other parts of Ukraine, but those haven’t materialized yet. But here’s the really interesting bit: Pavlov isn’t the first rebel leader to die under similar circumstances. In fact there has been a string of these kinds of incidents:
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.
Occam’s Razor would say the culprits are the Ukrainian government and/or any of those right-wing militias whose existence they’re always trying to hide. Indeed, a video has surfaced of four guys identifying themselves as Ukrainian neo-Nazis and claiming to have killed Pavlov, though as you might imagine there are some doubts as to its authenticity. But these killings, or at least some of them, could also easily be the result of intra-rebellion rivalries (Pavlov was apparently a big player in the Donbas scrap metal business who could have been killed by a competitor), and it’s also entirely possible that the Russians are behind them. Indeed, the sophistication with which some of these hits have been carried out suggests Russian, more than Ukrainian and far more than rebel, involvement.
But why, you ask? Well, the theory goes that, partly because the conflict is now mostly frozen, Russia is trying to class up the Donbas so that it can ease itself out of direct involvement. Ideally, they’d like to establish Donbas autonomy as a foregone conclusion in international talks, put the onus on Ukraine to make it happen, and then withdraw with their mission mostly accomplished and begin arguing for a lifting of international sanctions. But the international community is going to be reluctant to push for eastern Ukrainian rights so long as the separatists are led by people who are suspected of committing war crimes over the past couple of years. Pavlov happens to have been suspected of committing war crimes, and the fact that he had a high profile but, reportedly, not a big base of support within the separatist community, made him an ideal candidate to get knocked off. It may also be that Russia wants to get rid of rebel leaders who might balk at whatever peace deal Russia finally negotiates with Ukraine/France/Germany/whomever, though there’s no indication that Pavlov specifically would have been a risk to try something like this.
Regardless of the culprit, it seems likely that attacks on separatist leaders are going to continue, and while the leaders who are being killed might have threatened to escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the fact that they’re being violently taken out also threatens to escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The longer Kiev and the rebels both refuse to budge, the better the chances become that this war will come unfrozen.