The question "who controls the separatists in the eastern Ukraine?" has no categorical answer. The insurgents of Donetsk don't have a single command centre. In fact these terrorist groups are controlled by a number of different individuals who often don't see eye to eye.
What transpires in Donetsk region these days is very much akin to Pugachev's Rebellion. The rebel forces are sparse yet they enjoy the support of the underworld, which provides a regular source of new recruits from the social lowlife as well as mercenaries from the Russian side of the border who followed the smell of blood. The uprising naturally sucked in all the local scum that began forming little groups of their own in hope to catch something in this muddy water. Considering the social and economic situation in the Ukrainian East, the seeds of revolt have surely found a fertile ground.
The primary customers ordering this chaos are believed to be the fugitive ex-president Viktor Yanukovych and his closest associates. It's their money that is used to fund all manner of insurgents. In small miner towns news spread quickly, so it's a secret to no one that men on militia checkpoints are being paid for their service, and paid rather well by local standards: 400 to 800 hryvnias per day depending on location.
According to the editor in chief of the Torez newspaper "Pro Gorod" Ihor Abyzov, in some of the faces "guarding the town" he recognized junkies and drunks from his district. They openly speak about their incredible income. But who is pumping all this money into the region to fund hundreds of people all over Donbas? Inside sources suggest that the money is handled by Yanukovych's people all the way down the chain. But in the region where the notorious figure reigned for the last 15 years the term "Yanukovych's man" is a blurry one at best. It is fair to say that in these parts all the local officials, important criminals and the entire police are all people of Yanukovych one way or another.
The more obvious associates of Viktor Yanukovych have no bones about supporting the separatists. If one, for instance, takes a closer look at the video in which a rebel who calls himself Abwehr issues an ultimatum to Ukrainian armed forces, sitting right next to him one would see none other than Yenakiyevo mayor Valeriy Oliynyk. The very mayor who at a rally in his town famously proclaimed: "Papa will never abandon his kids". Shortly afterwards "Papa" fled to Rostov [Ed. Note: V.Yanukovych's supporters in his home region often refer to him as "Batia" which is informal for "father"]. Yet the appearance of Yenakiyevo mayor beside a terrorist tells all you need to know about the involvement of Yanukovych and his gang in all of this.
This neatly explains why the town of Yenakiyevo remained perfectly calm while in the neighboring Horlivka separatists stormed the government building and forced the nonparty mayor Yevhen Klep to resign, and why the thought of harassing the mayor of Yenakiyevo never crossed anyone's mind.
The pieces of once mighty Party of Regions have been following distinctly different behavioral patterns since the split in late February.
Former president's people are advocating the independence of Donbas from Ukraine and seem to be on a political suicide mission: they're sure to face criminal charges in case the rebellion is thwarted, unlike Rinat Akhmetov's men who are far less keen to risk losing freedom, let alone capital. The creation of a quasi-state like Donetsk People's Republic is definitely not on their agenda. Instead they're seeking broad autonomy for Donetsk region within Ukraine, the kind of legal status that would allow securing Akhmetov reign over Donbas area for an indefinite term, de-facto making him untouchable for the central authorities. The thinking behind the idea is that powers in Kyiv will have no choice but to agree to this scenario for fear of losing the territory altogether.
Another evidence to support this view is the recent interview of Donetsk separatist leader Pavlo Hubarev, in which the latter complained that Rinat Akhmetov bought up two thirds of Hubarev's associates in order to "sap the protest". In Hubarev's understanding "sapping the protest" means keeping the region part of Ukraine. Pavlo Hubarev himself is openly supporting complete separation of Donbas from Ukraine and clearly belongs to Yanukovych's wing of insurgence. It's no surprise that immediately after his release Hubarev headed to Slovyansk where the likes of Abwehr and other Valeriy Oliynyk's buddies are currently based.
According to inside sources separatist forces in Donetsk region are also funded by Yukhim Zvihilskyi's men. Although for now it isn't clear what sort of future for Donetsk People's Republic is envisaged by this oligarch. Additionally, at the same time a number of smaller comparatively independent players within Party of Regions took a stand against separatism. One example is Vitaliy Karpachev, the unofficial "landlord" of the town of Torez. He wrote a resentful letter to the "activists" of Donetsk People's Republic labeling them mad. Interestingly enough, shortly after that local separatists in Torez began mysteriously disappearing without trace. To date three are missing, including the leader Iryna Poltoratska.
Is Russia in control of the Donetsk People's Republic? Sure, the Kremlin has some influence on the insurgents, but one should understand that local elites are really the ones paying the bills here, and therefore the ones calling the shots. The mutiny would be impossible without them. Moreover the sluggishness of the security forces, the leaky borders with Russia, the predisposition of the local elites are all Ukraine's own contributions to the separatist cause. And to understand the importance of the above one has to look no further than Kharkiv or Dnipropetrovsk where all attempts to start an insurgence faced the opposition of the local elites and were thwarted in the bud. Therefore it is the forces within Donbas that are primarily responsible for turning the region into a boiling pot akin to Abkhazia.
Russia's influence seems to be limited to providing instructions and moral support. The guidance from Aleksandr Dugin and Aleksandr Barkashov via Skype, the Tigr armored vehicle presented by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the dubious recruits and the so-called "cossacks". This has to be all the support the Donetsk People's Republic has got from Russia at this point. And full military support for separatists from their "Russian brothers" is becoming less likely by the day. Vladimir Putin is not too thrilled about taking custody over such a problematic region and making it part of the Russian Federation. Most likely Russia is to continue adding fuel to the fire to keep the chaos in Donbas going for as long as possible. But this shall be done indirectly using Viktor Yanukovych and his men on the ground.
Do the puppet ministers and officials of the Donetsk People's Republic actually possess any power at all?
Nominal separatist leaders like Khriakov, Liagin, Purhin and Pushylin, who frequent television reports worldwide, in reality play a much smaller role then they'd like to admit. Only a person completely unfamiliar with these characters would take them seriously and expect them to act independently in any way, shape, or form. The first three are Party or Regions' own tried and tested political provocateurs, who have been on party's paycheck for decades to pull all kinds of dirty tricks against political opponents. The fourth figure is a complete unknown but gives the impression of someone even more dimwitted than the above-mentioned trio of "experts". All this motley crew at the head of the Donetsk People's Republic is obviously not much more than a theatre company hired to portray the "leaders from the masses".
It's thus unfortunate that the masses bought into this performance.