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Ukraine Separatists In Seeming Disarray Amid Rumors Of Strelkov's Demise

Igor Strelkov, the top military commander of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic," holds a press conference in Donetsk on July 28.
Igor Strelkov, the top military commander of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic," holds a press conference in Donetsk on July 28.

Where is Igor Strelkov?

A day after a separatist news agency reported the notorious rebel commander had been seriously wounded, the news trail has gone largely silent, leaving many to speculate about the true fate of Strelkov and Ukraine's increasingly fractious separatists.

Agentsvo Novorossia, an unofficial information site established by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR), announced Strelkov, the so-called defense minister of the DNR, had been injured and was in critical condition.

The account was quickly repeated by the DNR's former leader, Denis Pushilin, who stated via video that he was awaiting confirmation and further details. Pushilin added, however, that the fight for eastern Ukraine would continue, and that Strelkov had trained a significant number of commanders prepared to take his place.

Other members of the DNR, however, have since denied the reports. Strelkov's own deputy, Fyodor Berezin, said that "everything is fine with Igor Strelkov."

Sergei Kavtaradze, a member of the separatist republic's makeshift Security Council, said the rumors were "complete nonsense" aimed at demoralizing the rebels on the eve of "decisive battles." Kavtaradze went on to accuse Agentsvo Novorossia of disinformation, adding, "Igor Strelkov is alive and well."

A fourth DNR official, Andrei Purgin, who serves as deputy prime minister, said he could neither confirm nor deny the information. He noted, however, that Strelkov had been located in areas of heavy fighting and that rumors of an injury were "likely" to be true.

Offering yet another perspective was Aleksandr Borodai, the former DNR prime minister, who told Life News in an interview on August 14 that Strelkov had not been injured but had resigned from his post. He said Strelkov had been replaced by a militia fighter with the nickname "the Tsar."

Scapegoat Or Conquering Hero?

Strelkov -- a 43-year-old Muscovite also known by his real name, Igor Girkin -- is one of the most infamous figures in the ongoing separatist war in eastern Ukraine.

An avowed Russian nationalist and suspected military intelligence officer, Strelkov is a veteran of several Kremlin military operations, including the 1992 war in Moldova's Transdniester region and the first and second Chechen campaigns.

In Ukraine, he is widely believed to be acting as an agent of Moscow, despite the Kremlin's insistence it is not involved in the separatist conflict. The Ukrainian government has accused Strelkov of masterminding brutal attacks on Ukrainian citizens and armed forces; internationally, he gained instant notoriety for appearing to claim separatist responsibility for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which he erroneously identified as a Ukrainian military transport plane. Two hundred and ninety-eight people were killed in the incident.

Some have interpreted Strelkov's rumored injury as a sign that Moscow, deeply compromised by the MH17 downing, may have recalled him as punishment for his costly blunder.

Others, such as intelligence analyst Mark Galeotti, suggest that Strelkov may receive a hero's welcome, and possible political post, if returned to Moscow.

If truly wounded, Galeotti says, Strelkov's absence would deliver a blow to rebels in the region, where one disenchanted separatist recently accused his Russian commanders of "fleeing like rats" as fighting intensifies.

Pushilin, the self-described "chairman" of the Donetsk "Supreme Council" and DNR head, announced his resignation on July 18, a day after the MH17 incident. He has since returned to Moscow.

Borodai, a fellow Muscovite, stepped down as DNR prime minister on August 7, just hours after Agentsvo Novorossia reported he was not stepping down. Borodai denied he was fleeing the increasing violence, saying he believed the "worst was over."

His replacement, Ukrainian-born Aleksandr Zakharchenko, has said he wants "only moral support" from Moscow -- even as Kyiv's military campaign continues to take a deadly toll on Donetsk, where as many as 839 civilians have been killed in the past four months, including 74 in the past three days alone.

The latest retreat comes from the neighboring Luhansk region, where Valeriy Bolotov, the Ukrainian-born head of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic (LNR), announced on August 14 that injuries were forcing him to relinquish his post.

Bolotov has asked the LNR's current defense minister, Ihor Plotnitskiy, to replace him. The outgoing head acknowledged that increasing numbers of Ukrainian federal troops are advancing on the area, saying the LNR was "standing on the brink of a human catastrophe." Some 7,000 civilians have reportedly fled Luhansk since the establishment of a humanitarian corridor on July 29.

The United Nations said on August 13 that the death toll from fighting between separatists and government troops in eastern Ukraine had nearly doubled in the past two weeks, with an overall total of at least 2,086 people.

Meanwhile, a Russian aid convoy of nearly 300 trucks is continuing to travel toward Luhansk. Moscow has dismissed claims the convoy is a pretext to deliver military supplies or Russian troops to support the separatists.

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