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Separatist Shuffle: Who's In, Who's Out Among Donbas Rebels

Strelkov is out.

Some are in Moscow. Others have mysteriously disappeared.

As Ukraine's forces surround the last pro-Russian separatist strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk, many of the more prominent faces of the Russia-backed separatists appear to be dropping out of the fight. And they are largely being replaced by local unknowns.

Here's a rundown of who's in and who's out in the self-proclaimed people's republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. (Almost everyone included in a similar breakdown in June is now on the outs.)

Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov (OUT)

The former defense minister of the "Donetsk People's Republic" (DNR), Igor Girkin, who is widely known by his nom-de-guerre, Strelkov, has been romanticized by pro-Russian rebels and called a war criminal by Kyiv. Ukrainian authorities have accused Strelkov, a Russian nationalist from Moscow, of working for the GRU, Russia's military intelligence, since he arrived in Donetsk in April.

But Strelkov has been neither seen nor heard from since August 13, when the news service of the separatist republic reported him "gravely injured." Although several officials walked back that claim, his "resignation" was announced the next day by Aleksandr Borodai -- a friend from Moscow and formerly the DNR's de facto prime minister. Strelkov, he said, will be given another job.

(A billboard paints Strelkov as a man of mythical strength, but how does he match up against the former judo instructor who's replacing him?)

Volodymyr Kononov (IN)

If you're going to replace the man supporters compare to the Spartan warrior King Leonidas I, it makes sense to start the myth-making from the outset. When Borodai announced Strelkov's exit he said simply that he would be replaced by the "Tsar."

The "Tsar," as it turns out, is Volodymyr Kononov, a 40-year-old Luhansk native and former judo instructor (on the right in the photo below). He has commanded a division of separatist fighters in Donetsk since April and has promised to "solve the strategic task of repelling Ukraine's military aggression" according to the DNR's official press service. Little else is known.

Aleksandr Borodai (OUT)

A Muscovite, Borodai wrote for the ultranationalist newspaper "Zavtra" with Strelkov and also owned a restaurant chain. Borodai entered the pro-Russian separatist scene in May when he was appointed the DNR's prime minister.

With a close-cut beard and signature blue blazer, Borodai sometimes seemed like the closest thing the separatist republics had to a legitimate spokesperson.

But after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and a bizarre late-night press conference in which he handed over the plane's flight recorder to Malaysian officials in a plastic garbage bag, his stock appeared to fall.

In an August 7 press conference Borodai announced his resignation, claiming he had really only come in as a "startup manager" and that the role of prime minister should belong to a local. He has since departed for Moscow, although he said at the time that he would continue in the role of deputy prime minister.

Oleksandr Zakharchenko (IN)

Replacing Borodai is Oleksandr Zakharchenko, the leader of the Donetsk chapter of Oplot, a police-advocacy group that has provided fighters to the separatists, and a former mine technician. Ukrainian media has accused Zakharchenko of being a small-time smuggler.

The 38-year-old, who was one of the leaders in the storming of the Donetsk regional administration building in April, called for a cease-fire soon after his appointment and said that separatists needed "only moral support" from Moscow.

WATCH: Zakharchenko in the early days of the separatist movement, after the storming of the Donetsk regional administration building.

Valeriy Bolotov (OUT)

A Luhansk businessman with degrees in economics and business, Bolotov survived an assassination attempt and escaped capture by the Ukrainian Army during his time as the "people's governor" of the self-declared Luhansk People's Republic (LNR).

In a video shot in early April that has become popular among separatist supporters, Bolotov takes off his mask to declare he will be fighting for "our land."

His "temporary resignation" on August 14 came unexpectedly. In a recorded video in which he does not look particularly unhealthy, he says that unspecified injuries would prevent him from continuing to lead the self-declared republic.

Ihor Plotnitskiy (IN)

Named to replace Bolotov at the helm of Luhansk's separatist government, Plotnitskiy was once a Luhansk bureaucrat, working as the head of quality control at the local consumer inspection agency.

Plotnitskiy previously served as LNR's de facto defense minister.

Igor Bezler (Unclear)

Nicknamed "Demon," Igor Bezler, the commander of separatist forces in the Donetsk city of Horlivka, is a former funeral parlor manager. Bezler is known for his unpredictable behavior -- including threatening to execute a journalist from the British daily "The Guardian" -- and has been accused by Ukraine's Security Service of giving the order to shoot down the Malaysian airliner.

As Ukrainian forces have closed in on the city of Horlivka, rumors of Bezler's demise have been rife. He has not been seen since the end of July, when Ukrainian media reported that he had fled to Moscow. His unit is still active in fighting, however, and on August 14, separatist press attributed a boasting statement about recent military victories.

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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer.