The front lines seem to be following separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine. When an improvised explosive device detonated at his Donetsk apartment Oct. 16, Arsen “Motorola” Pavlov became the latest in a string of rebel commanders targeted outside the main zone of conflict. In the week since the assassination, speculation has swirled over which side of the fight orchestrated Pavlov’s murder. Regardless of whether Ukraine, Russia or the separatists themselves perpetrated the hit, it could signal a turning point in the conflict.
As the leader of the Sparta battalion, Pavlov was one of the primary separatist commanders in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. He played an instrumental role in several important battles over the past two years, including those at Slavyansk, Debaltseve and the Donetsk airport. Pavlov had close ties to the political leadership of Donbas; Aleksander Zakharchenko, president of the Donetsk People’s Repubic, called him a hero and a friend. In addition, he claimed that the commander’s murder was tantamount to a “declaration of war” from Kiev and vowed retribution against Ukrainian security forces.
A Rash of Attacks
Despite Zakharchenko’s accusations, however, it remains unclear who is responsible. Ukraine has denied any involvement in the attack, which would have been difficult for Ukrainian forces to carry out given the tight security around Pavlov’s home. Some have suggested that the assassination was the result of rivalries within the separatist movement, while others have claimed that Russia planned and executed the attack. The latter two scenarios seem especially plausible in light of the recent spate of attacks on separatist leaders beyond the line of contact. Zakharchenko himself was the target of an assassination attempt in late August, and in September, another prominent Donetsk rebel was gunned down in Moscow. In Luhansk, at least four separatist warlords have been killed since December 2015 in attacks away from the line of contact.
Neither the identities nor the affiliations of assailants in any of the attacks have been confirmed. However, evidence suggests that a reshuffling is underway in the separatist territories. Rumor has it that Igor Plotnitsky, the leader of the Luhansk People’s Republic (and the object of another attempted hit) has lost control of the security situation in the breakaway territory. Plotnitsky could have plotted attacks on the rebel commanders in Luhansk — each of whom was reportedly a rival — in an attempt to eliminate dissent. Before his assassination, Pavlov allegedly had been dispatched to Luhansk to re-establish order there, and his presence may have rubbed Plotnitsky the wrong way. Besides Plotnitsky’s reported power struggle, any number of other squabbles, from turf wars to competition over energy resources and smuggling routes, could lead to violence among separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine.
Similarly, Russia may have an interest in eliminating certain rebel commanders, for instance those deemed too aggressive or insubordinate — a profile Pavlov seemed to fit. Moscow might also want to dispense with high-ranking rebels with direct knowledge of Russia’s involvement in war crimes, such as the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. After all, the timing of Pavlov’s assassination coincides with Russia’s fleeting window of opportunity to reach a settlement with the West over Ukraine before the next U.S. president takes office and the next European Union sanctions vote takes place.
The past few months have seen a flurry of diplomatic activity related to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. On Oct. 19, the leaders of the Normandy group — Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France — convened in Berlin, where they agreed to a roadmap to implement the Minsk peace accords by late November. The plan reportedly provides for an armed presence by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Donbas, a notable concession from Moscow. If deployed along strategic parts of the border between Russia and the separatist territories, the OSCE presence would block Russian military and material support destined for Donbas. Since the meeting, however, the separatist leadership has said it would not allow an armed OSCE force in its territory. Furthermore, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said Oct. 24 that the details of the deployment had not been hammered out, suggesting that a wide gap remains between the theory and practice of observing the Minsk accords.
Nonetheless, between the Normandy meeting and the wave of hits on rebel commanders, Russia may be laying the groundwork for a quick exit from the separatist territories. Given the security and political situation on the ground in eastern Ukraine, Moscow is unlikely to extricate itself from the conflict — much less to resolve it — in the near future. Still, the fight in eastern Ukraine could take more unexpected turns as the year winds down.