Warlords’ deaths could help Russia cover its tracks in Ukraine
Highly implausible that Kiev-based hit squads could kill militia leaders so effectively
Pro-Russian separatist commander Mikhail Tolstykh, who was known by the nom de guerre Givi, at a parade marking the 70th anniversary of the second World War, in Donetsk, Ukraine, in 2015. Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters
It is becoming a familiar scene on Russian television news: firemen douse the charred wreckage of a car, office or elevator, as stretcher-bearers carry away the remains of yet another militia leader in eastern Ukraine.
On Wednesday the body belonged to Mikhail Tolstykh, better known by the nom de guerre Givi. He was blown up in his office at the base of his so-called Somali battalion on the outskirts of the separatist stronghold of Donetsk.
From the “people’s republics” of the Donbas region to the Russian parliament, the official response was the same: Givi was a hero who defended his people against brutal Ukrainian forces whose assassins ultimately killed him.
A former factory worker from the Donetsk region, Givi was lionised by Russian state media that portray Ukraine’s bloodshed as a civil war rather than a conflict fomented and largely sustained by military and other support from Moscow.
Most Russian obituaries for Givi ignored the Somali unit’s habit of placing artillery in residential areas and using apartment blocks as shields, and grim footage of him abusing Ukrainian soldiers captured in the battle for Donetsk airport.
The reports also failed to acknowledge the apparent skill of the Ukrainian hit squads for whom Givi was supposedly just the latest in a string of “high-value” victims.
Last October, a bomb placed in the lift of an apartment block killed Arseny Pavlov, a Russian former car wash attendant who found fame under the nickname Motorola as leader of a militia unit called Sparta.
Ukrainian agents were immediately blamed for that grisly murder in central Donetsk, as they had been for earlier explosions and ambushes that killed separatist warlords in the Luhansk region: Aleksei Mozgovoi, leader of the Ghost battalion; Alexander Bednov, nicknamed Batman; and Pavel Dryomov, a Cossack leader blown up on the day of his wedding celebrations.
For a Kiev-controlled hit squad to infiltrate separatist-held territory, evade high-tech Russian electronic surveillance, track and kill a closely guarded target and escape unharmed would be a remarkable one-off achievement – that Ukrainian agents appear to keep doing it beggars belief.
What is more, senior separatists have met sticky ends a long way from Ukraine.
Last September, diners in an expensive restaurant in an elite suburb of Moscow recounted how a man wearing a false moustache, yellow-tinted sunglasses and Panama hat walked up the table of Yevgeny Zhilin and shot him dead.
Zhilin was a former police officer from Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, who used his fight club and other businesses as the basis for a pro-Russian militia called Oplot (Stronghold).
Just two weeks ago, a former leader of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic, Valery Bolotov, died shortly after falling ill in Moscow. He had been a prominent figure in the early months of the Russian-backed uprising of spring 2014.
Initial reports said Bolotov suffered a heart attack, but his wife told Russian media that she suspected poisoning.
Yelena Bolotova said her husband felt unwell after returning from a “business meeting” with two men at a cafe in an ice hockey complex in Moscow.
“All evening he kept saying, ‘Why did I drink that coffee?’” she recalled. He died the next day.
Ukrainian officials say the life expectancy of prominent militia figures is dwindling not due to the superhuman efforts of Kiev’s special forces, but because Russia is eliminating people who are no longer useful to its cause – and may have crucial information about Moscow’s role in a war that has now killed more than 10,000 people, and in atrocities like the downing of the MH17 airliner in July 2014.
Several of the murdered warlords opposed the Moscow-approved militant leaders Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, and rejected the kind of negotiated end to the conflict that Russia may be seeking – albeit on its own terms.
The Kremlin denied any role in the killings, but Zoryan Shkiryak, a senior adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said Donbas was witnessing the “targeted elimination of the leaders of Russian terrorist groups.”
“We suggest that Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky surrender to the Ukrainian authorities,” he said after Givi’s death, “because they might be next.”