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Separatist Leader Zakharchenko Was A Thorn In The Side Of Both Kyiv And Moscow

Aleksandr Zakharchenko outside Donetsk in October 2014
Aleksandr Zakharchenko outside Donetsk in October 2014

He was a local boy from coal-dusted Donetsk who grew up to be a mine engineer. Aleksandr Zakharchenko quit that life to become a separatist warlord whose Russia-backed insurgents carved out a “republic” roughly the size of the state of Delaware.

On August 31, a bomb ripped through a popular Donetsk cafe, killing Zakharchenko as he dined with several others. The cafe where he was dining was called Separ, or Separatist. He was survived by a wife and four sons.

The killing was at least the ninth targeted assassination of a senior Ukrainian separatist figure in the nongovernment-controlled territories of Donetsk and Luhansk since the conflict between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists broke out in April 2014.

More than 10,300 people have been killed in the conflict, including those separatists. More than 1 million people have fled.

Zakharchenko, 42, graduated from a local technical college and studied at the Interior Ministry’s law institute before landing a job as an engineer in one of the region's many mines, according to Russian state media.

He rose to the leadership of the Russia-backed separatists in and around Donetsk on August 8, 2014, with full-scale fighting under way through the region. He replaced Aleksandr Borodai, a Russian citizen from Moscow with close ties to the Kremlin, in a thinly veiled attempt by the Kremlin to show a semblance of self-government on the part of the separatist “republic.”

Three months later, Zakharchenko won an election that was meant to cement his rule but which was viewed by Kyiv and the West as a sham.

Brutal, unruly, and divisive, Zakharchenko was never fully accepted, not even by his own separatist supporters.

He always carried a loaded sidearm and traveled with security and was never comfortable leading the government, known by its acronym, the DNR. He preferred camouflage fatigues and front-line trenches to a suit and tie in a stuffy office or appearing in front of TV cameras.

Kyiv despised him because he had Ukrainian blood on his hands and was notorious for using torture on Ukrainian prisoners of war. Moscow kept him on a short leash because he wanted more autonomy than it was willing to give him.

Still, he was little more than a figurehead, since evidence suggests that Moscow has had a powerful influence on the so-called separatist republics from the very beginning -- as shown by an overwhelming amount of evidence compiled by journalists, Kyiv, and Western intelligence agencies.

In one instance illustrating this, as the conflict flared in January 2015, Zakharchenko announced a large-scale offensive aimed at capturing the strategic port city of Mariupol. Two hours later, he walked back the order in a rushed press conference that had just one Russia state news outlet present.

At the time, sources in Donetsk told RFE/RL that he had received a call from Moscow shortly after his announcement.

Aleksandr Zakharchenko (left) and another separatist figure, Aleksandr Timofeyev, in October 2017. Timofeyev was reportedly seriously injured in the same blast that killed Zakharchenko.
Aleksandr Zakharchenko (left) and another separatist figure, Aleksandr Timofeyev, in October 2017. Timofeyev was reportedly seriously injured in the same blast that killed Zakharchenko.

Zakharchenko was twice wounded on the battlefield: once in the arm during a battle in July 2014 and a second time in the leg during a fight in February 2015. He underwent several surgeries and never fully recovered from the leg wound. Some reports indicated the wound had flared up again in the months before his death, sidelining him for several weeks.

In July 2015, on the first anniversary of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, he appeared in the village of Hrabove, where much of the plane’s wreckage had fallen. All 298 people on board the jet died.

Zakharchenko wore a leg brace and leaned heavily on a cane for support as he hobbled to a memorial plaque. Despite overwhelming evidence showing that the missile that downed the jet was transported from Russia and fired from territory under his control, he repeated Russian propaganda and blamed the downing on Kyiv.

There had long been rumors that Zakharchenko would be replaced. Much of that stemmed from his insubordination but also from the difficulties local residents endured, not least of which was actual war. But there was also the dire economic situation and an unpopular curfew.

One of the leading contenders to replace him is Denis Pushilin, another Donetsk native who was involved in a notorious Ponzi scheme in Russia before joining the separatists’ ranks. For now, however, the DNR government appointed as its acting head Dmitry Trapeznikov, who previously was the deputy chief of the DNR cabinet and reportedly worked for the Shakhtar Donetsk soccer club before the war.

In the immediate aftermath of Zakharchenko’s death, Kyiv and Moscow traded blame. Russia blamed Ukrainian security agents; Ukraine blamed internal rivalries, or even criminal groups.

The separatists’ deputy defense minister, Eduard Basurin, claimed -- without any evidence -- that the United States “was directly involved” in killing Zakharchenko, Russia’s state-run Sputnik news agency reported.

In comments to Bloomberg, another notorious former fighter, Igor Girkin, summed up the theories surrounding the killing.

“He could have been taken out because of criminal schemes or maybe his Kremlin curators grew tired of him or the Ukrainians may have done it,” said Girkin, a former militia commander who was favored by the Kremlin before his maverick ways became too costly. “He was a problem for everyone.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has rarely even mentioned Zakharchenko by name, sent his condolences to Zakharchenko’s family shortly after his death was confirmed.

He “was a true people’s leader, a brave and resolute person, a patriot of Donbas,” he said in a statement posted on the Kremlin’s website. “In a difficult time for his native land, he stood up for his defense, took on a huge personal responsibility, led the people.”

The Ukrainian response was much more critical. The country’s main security agency, the SBU, immediately denied responsibility.

In some cases, the response from Ukrainians was darkly comical.

“We’ll have to go to TripAdvisor and leave a review about” the bombed cafe, Taras Berezovets, a Ukrainian political analyst and TV host, said in a post to Twitter. “The [dumplings] are simply the bomb!”

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