Why is Russia rushing to put an end to the warlords in its self-proclaimed republics in occupied Donbas?
A new pantheon. "DNR" leader Oleksandr Zakharchenko (see photo) at the funeral of Motorola, the Russian militant in the Donbas who was recently killed in an explosion. Apparently, he is now more useful for the “DNR” ideologues dead than alive
The murder of field commander Arsen “Motorola” Pavlov was a shock for supporters of LNR and DNR, as well as for the Russian nationalists who empathize with them. But for those who have been paying attention to developments in occupied Donbas, this death came as no surprise at all. It was just another link in the chain of events taking place in ORDiLO over the past two years.
High-profile field commanders who made a name for themselves in the early stages of the war and loyalists who had authority among the locals quickly carried out their assignments and were no longer needed. They were used in the first months of the conflict, when their charisma was necessary to actively draw locals into the ranks of their “militias.” But after that, when Russia changed course to seek a political resolution of the situation, these field commanders became unnecessary. Their purges began towards the end of 2014, when GRU and other Russian operatives like Igor “Strelkov” Ghirkin and Igor Bezler quietly went back home to Russia and never came back. What’s surprising about Motorola is not that he was killed but that it took so long to do this, nearly two years later.
Pavlov was clearly useless in the kind of DNR that Russia was establishing in Donetsk. At the end of 2014, the Kremlin decided to put its bets on local operatives with Ukrainian passports and began to call back its own men, who had helped initiate and run the conflict in its early days. In fact, the Russian handlers had decided to set up a chain-of-command much like Vladimir Putin’s in the two “republics,” which means it had to depend on malleable, average executives, not on outspoken gangsters who lived and breathed war. The best people for this purpose were older individuals who had shown their worth as rank-and-file in the Party of the Regions. That’s who the Kremlin wanted in charge.
A citizen of Russia, Strelkov protégé and loyalist, Motorola clearly did not fit into the new scheme of things as an outsider and his presence in Donbas obviously had an expiry date. More recently, rumors began circulating that he would be transferred to fight in Syria, but this never happened. But the continuing media exposure of a field commander with a Russian passport in occupied Donbas who had been with Strelkov in the take-over of Sloviansk in April 2014 was clearly becoming inconvenient for Moscow. For one thing, the “Motorola factor’ allowed Ukraine to be uncompromising in the Minsk negotiations and gave clear evidence of a Russian military presence in Donbas. Moscow is getting desperate to have sanctions lifted and to force Ukraine to take back the largely destroyed and depopulated territories of DNR and LNR.
Looking to blame
Subsequent attempts to paint the killing of Pavlov in a booby-trapped elevator as an operation by Ukrainian saboteurs proved illogical, as even the militants themselves admitted. For one thing, he was very well guarded and no outsiders were allowed access to his apartment building entrance. Right after the assassination, public announcements among the separatists appeared with testimonies from militants stating that claims about a “Ukrainian undercover group” were ridiculous.
“The building where Motorola lived was extremely well protected,” wrote Briefs from the Novorossiya Militia. “Of course, no guards are a 100% guarantee that the person will be saved from killers. But this killing is a different matter. The place where the bomb was set is on a lock and only a small number of people have access to it: garbage collectors, utility personnel and their managers. In short, nobody from the outside could have gotten in there. And even if they did manage to get their hands on a key, strangers who were trying to get into a private building would immediately have been seen by the security detail that monitors the surrounding territory.”
Other authoritative voices from the separatist side, like Maxim Kalahnikov and Anatoliy Nesmian, known as the blogger El Miurid, also said it was doubtful that Ukrainian fingerprints would be found on the job.
“This kind of news has become quite commonplace for the ‘people’s republics,’ which have long been run by bandits,” wrote Nesmian. “More than likely, there wasn’t any Ukrainian diversionary group even close to the area. And this assassination was not for political reasons, either, because Motorola was emphatically outside of politics. So we’re left with the criminal world. It doesn’t really matter whether Motorola was even involved in any criminal schemes or refused to be so involved.”
Kalashnikov wrote: “Those leading the popular war, the real leaders, are being killed and eliminated because they are dangerous both to Kyiv and to Moscow. Like Mozgovoy, like the first leaders of the insurrection are being destroyed in Luhansk right now. People like Tsypkalov. Tsypkalov was tortured before he died, and then he was hanged. It wasn’t Praviy Sektor but more likely their own. Only Givi is left. But the trend is pretty clear. The insurgents in Donbas have, in fact, turned out to be dangerous, not so much for Kyiv but for Moscow.”
According to Kalashnikov, Russia is trying through political means to arrange for LNR and DNR to be reintegrated into Ukraine again and is eliminating all those who are likely to get in the way of this. Still, even without these comments, it’s been clear to all that Motorola’s death was only the latest link in the long chain of deaths of DNR and LNR warlords and commanders since 2014.
We make you, we break you
Initially, no one even tried to pin the elimination of poorly managed field commanders who cast aspersions on the authority of the local bosses, Oleksandr Zakharchenko and Ihor Plotnytskiy, on Ukraine. The killing of cossack warlords in Rovenky and Antratsyt back in 2014 was officially handled by the ‘Ministry of Internal Affairs’ of LNR. The January 1, 2015 assassination of Aleksandr “Batman” Byednov, field commander of the Luhansk militias was officially acknowledged by the LNR ‘Prosecutor’s Office’ as its handiwork: Byednov was supposedly killed during an attempted arrest because he was “resisting authorities.”
Still, after this murder, outrage spread among those who supported LNR/DNR. At that point, those behind it all decided it would be wiser to blame such assassinations on unidentified Ukrainian saboteurs, who were remarkably skilled at penetrating the depths of enemy territory, carrying out the most outrageous acts, and disappearing without a trace. Needless to say, no one really believed this, but, without evidence, it was also hard to deny completely.
Interestingly, after all these field commanders were eliminated, the armed formations that they had put together also fell apart almost immediately. After Byednov was killed, the Batman Rapid Deployment Force also ceased to exist. After the killing of Mozgovoy, his Pryzrak or Ghost Brigade ceased to be an independent group. Most likely, the same fate awaits Motorola’s Spartak group.
The time of the field commanders in this war has passed. In the grand scheme of Kremlin-based geopolitical maneuvers playing out in Ukraine, they were little more than pawns that are easy to sacrifice at the right time. When Motorola began to interfere, however indirectly, in Moscow’s plans to move the conflict from the military field to the political arena, an unknown Ukrainian sabotage group appeared out of nowhere, as though with the wave of a magic wand. Nor will this be its last appearance, either.
The reaction of Russian bloggers connected to Vladislav Surkov to the killing of Motorola has been very revealing. Well-known blogger and writer Eduard Bagirov tweeted wrote an offensive epithet to the dead warlord, accusing him of “taking on himself the functions of the Russian state without asking anyone.” The one-time coordinator of the pro-Kremlin movement “Nashi” [Ours], Kristina Potupchik, even made fun of his death, causing outrage among her followers.
In reality, representatives of the Kremlin guard have every right to be so condescending about the murder of the former car-washer. After all, they made him in the first place. Motorola the Hero appeared thanks to a massive PR campaign that promoted him in the media. And so, he remained in the center of attention exactly as long as he was needed by those who made him.