Unknown bombers have killed Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region and self-proclaimed head of the largely unrecognized “Donetsk People's Republic,” which could further fuel tensions between the government in Kiev and rebels, as well as their benefactors in the Kremlin. The assassination comes amid a months-long surge in fighting over the disputed area, fears of a military buildup across the border in Russia, and a growing crisis in the Sea of Azov. This could all combine to send the conflict heading into a new phase.
Zakharchenko was in a café he owned in Donetsk city, the capital of the region, when the bombing occurred on August 31st, 2018. The blast killed him and injured the Donetsk People's Republic’s (DPR) “finance minister” Alexander Timofeyev. Rebel forces subsequently confirmed the incident to various media outlets and said that they had apprehended an unknown number of reportedly Ukrainian suspects. Both DPR and Russian authorities have launched investigations into the incident.
“Assassination of Zakharchenko is [an] act of state terrorism by Ukraine,” a senior DPR official reportedly said in an interview with Russian state-owned television. “We'll definitely get revenge on them.”
This may have been Denis Pushilin, who is now the DPR’s acting “prime minister” and has echoed the calls for retaliation against Ukraine over Zakharchenko death. He has instituted a state of emergency in areas under rebel control in Donetsk, as well. Deputy “defense minister” for the DPR Eduard Basurin also accused Ukrainian authorities, but alleged that the United States was involved, as well, without providing any evidence to substantiate that claim.
Not surprisingly, Russian and Ukrainian authorities have each pointed the finger at each other as being responsible for the incident. But while Ukraine indicated that Zakharchenko’s rivals or criminal elements might also have been responsible, the Kremlin has more directly insinuated that Kiev orchestrated the assassination.
“There is every reason to believe that the Kiev regime, which has used similar means to eliminate unwanted people who have dissenting views more than once, is behind his assassination,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said after the bombing. “Instead of complying with the Minsk agreements and searching for ways of resolving the internal conflict, the warmongers in Kiev are implementing the terrorist scenario exacerbating the complex situation in the region.”
The Minsk Agreement, or Minsk Protocol, was a ceasefire deal that came into effect in September 2014 and collapsed four months later. This was the first attempt to reign in the conflict between Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, collectively known as the Donbas, which erupted in April 2018. This closely coincided with Russia’s own illegal invasion and subsequent annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula.
In February 2015, the parties to the conflict in eastern Ukraine agreed to another arrangement, known as Minsk II, which technically remains in effect, with the International Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) overseeing its implementation.
Ukrainian officials and the Russian-backed rebels, as well as their respective international allies and partners, have each traded accusation of violations of the letter and the spirit of that second deal. Sporadic fighting between Kiev’s forces and the separatists continued afterward, but there has been a recent spike in the violence in the region since earlier in August 2018, along with reports of the continued presence of actual Russian troops bolstering separatist forces.
“We have heard time and time again Russia deny its role in manufacturing the conflict over four years, yet additional evidence of its involvement continues to come to light,” Harry Kamian, the Chargé d’Affaires, a.i. of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, said at a meeting of the organization on Aug. 30, 2018. “The United States once again calls on Russia to take the initial steps to order a credible cease-fire and disengage its forces in the Donbas.”
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The concern, of course, is that Zakharchenko death could lead to an even greater surge in the fighting, which has hit civilians living in eastern Ukraine the hardest and could potentially give Russia a pretext for even greater involvement in the conflict. The demands for vengeance from the DPR’s acting Prime Minister Pushilin only reinforce these fears.
Still, it remains to be seen how the various parties to the conflict might seek to exploit the situation to advance their own agendas. Despite the already free-flowing accusations, it is not at all clear who was actually behind the bombing of Zakharchenko or what their motives might have been.
It is certainly possible that Ukrainian authorities could have killed Zakharchenko. Separatists have accused Ukraine, or groups linked to the government in Kiev, of assassinating at least four other prominent rebel commanders in Donestk and Luhansk – Mikhail “Givi” Tolstykh, Arsen “Motorola” Pavlov, Aleksey Mozgovoy, and Alexander “Batman” Bednov – since 2015 and, unlike the Russian government, authorities in Kiev are hardly mourning the DPR leader's death.
But there is also evidence that Givi and Bednov died due to political infighting in Donetsk and Luhansk respectively. Other information has implicated Russian security services in the deaths of Motorola and Mozgovoy, as well as yet another rebel commander, Valery Bolotov.
It is equally possible that the Russians had a hand in Zakharchenko’s death. In May 2016, Vladislav Surkov, who has been Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal advisor on matters relating to Ukraine since 2013, reportedly traveled to Donetsk to admonish the DPR leader, according to the Ukrainian intelligence services. The Kremlin was allegedly angry over the way he had been allocating financial and other aid from Russia and that his forces had not made sufficient progress in ejecting Ukrainian forces from the region.
Zakharchenko has also been a high-profile member of the separatists in Donetsk from the beginning of the conflict and may have been involved in or otherwise aware of movements of Russian military equipment and personnel back and forth in the early stages of the fighting. This could have given him insider knowledge about the true circumstances of the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014. In the face of overwhelming evidence implicating Russian forces in that tragedy, the Kremlin continues to deny it was responsible and there is now one less individual who might be able to directly link Russia to that incident.
Still, if Russia did kill Zakharchenko, it’s hard to tell what the desired outcome in doing so might have been. The most obvious objective would have been to cast further aspersions on Ukraine’s government to deflect attention and distract from its out malign activities in the country, which is a core element in the Kremlin’s information operations playbook. The bombing could also help undermine the Minsk II agreement, potentially leading to its collapse, after which officials in Moscow could push for a new deal that is more in their favor or actively push to annex Donetsk and Luhansk for good, a possibility that Pushilin himself had raised in the past.
With this in mind, there have been reports of unusual Russian military movements along the country’s western border with Ukraine that do not appear to be linked to routine military exercises. These sightings have included train-loads of older T-62 tanks that are typically associated with rear-echelon reserve forces that could be heading to Ukraine. We have seen similar reports ahead of separatist offensives in the past.
Far more worryingly, Zakharchenko’s death also comes as Russian forces have moved to assert greater control over the Sea of Azov, which lies to the east of Crimea and is linked to the Black Sea to the south via the Kerch Strait. Russia and Ukraine both have interests in the sea, which serves as a major commercial shipping route for both countries.
“Russia has delayed hundreds of commercial vessels since April and in recent weeks has stopped at least 16 commercial ships attempting to reach Ukrainian ports,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement on Aug. 30, 2018. “Russia’s actions to impede maritime transit are further examples of its ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilize Ukraine, as well as its disregard for international norms.”
Harassing ships heading to and from Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov has the immediate effect of hurting Ukraine economically. It also demonstrates Russia's willingness and capacity to hamper Ukrainian naval operations in the area if a broader conflict were to break out, if not deny Kiev the ability to send ships through the Kerch Strait at all. This, in turn, could allow the Kremlin to block off an important route for Ukrainian forces in the eastern portion of the country during a crisis.
These military moves might be an attempt on Russia’s part to deter the United States and NATO from becoming any more involved in the region. The Kremlin has already become more assertive toward American ships and aircraft operating in the Black Sea, especially in the vicinity of occupied Crimea.
The Kremlin’s goal could also simply be to try to put Ukraine in a weaker negotiating position in any peace talks to end the conflict, with hopes of compelling them to accept the present status of Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk. Russia might feel that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko position is already fragile enough that he might be more inclined to make a deal to secure a political victory and avoid the negative press associated with heightened tensions with the Kremlin or a further surge in fighting with Russian-backed rebels.
Poroshenko is facing the prospect of a number of serious challengers in presidential elections set to occur in March 2019 and has been beset by a number of corruption scandals himself. In addition, though he has managed to build a relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, and secured the delivery of new and advanced weapons in the process, including Javelin anti-tank guided missiles. There continues to be speculation that his American counterpart might be inclined to cede Crimea to Russia in exchange for concessions that he could spin as his own political victory.
It seems likely that Russia will make new demands of Ukrainian authorities, as well as its international partners, such as the United States, regardless of the true motives behind Zakharchenko’s assassination and who might have carried it out. At the same time, whether or not the goal was to provoke a serious escalation in the conflict in Ukraine, the statements from DPR officials and their Russian benefactors make it hard to see how they will be able to get away without pursuing some sort of retaliatory action, whether it involves direct military action or not.
All told, after nearly five years of fighting and political upheaval, the bombing looks set to create all-new and serious challenges for Ukraine.
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