The murder of “DPR Head” Alexander Zakharchenko shows that there are conflicts in the occupied territories which occur between various criminal groups and their Russian supervisors. Liquidation of Zakharchenko is most likely to speed up staff changes in the leadership of DPR/LPR in favour of persons who are considered more loyal in the Kremlin and less odious in Ukrainian society. However, the murder of the separatist leader is unlikely to have a significant impact on developments of the Donbas conflict and peaceful negotiations at least until an election season ends in Ukraine.
The murder of “DPR Head” Alexander Zakharchenko was another development which is related to the removal of warlords from political activities in the occupied territories. In 2015-2017, several well-known militants – Alexander Bednov (“Batman”), Aleksey Mozgovoy (“Prizrak”), Pavel Dryomov (“Batya”), Arseny Pavlov (“Motorola”) and Mikhail Tolstykh (“Givi”) – were liquidated while “LPR Head” Igor Plotnitsky was ousted.
Four versions of Zakharchenko’s murder dominate in the Ukrainian information space.
- Russian supervisors liquidate the most odious personalities in DPR/LPR. According to this version, Russia is interested in destroying warlords who came to power in the self-proclaimed republics by virtue of military campaigns and were involved in war crimes against Ukrainian soldiers and Donbas residents with pro-Ukrainian views. Subsequently, the Kremlin may have drawn a conclusion that persons such as Zakharchenko, “Prizrak”, “Motorola”, “Givi” and others are an obstacle to the Minsk process since Kyiv refuses to hold direct talks with militants whose hands are coated with blood. In its turn, Russia’s propaganda uses the murder of warlords to glorify them and fuel anti-Ukrainian moods in occupied Donbas.
- Local criminal groups fight for financial flows. DNR and LPR leaders, as well as various groups of influence in both self-proclaimed republics, fight for a redistribution of grabbed business assets and financial receipts from Russia. For instance, Ukrainian political circles consider that Zakharchenko’s murder may have been orchestrated by a main oppositionist Alexander Khodakovsky who accused the killed “DPR Head” of plundering budget costs or a Yanokovych-era oligarch Serhiy Kurchenko. However, it is unlikely that the liquidation of a personality such as Zakharchenko may have occurred without an agreement with Russian supervisors.
- Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and Chief Investigative Directorate (GRU) fight for a control over Donbas. Donbas has become a playground where two security agencies compete both for a control over resources and enterprises in Donbas and favourability of Russia’s top leadership. Moreover, there is also an interpersonal conflict waged between an FSB colonel-general Sergey Beseda and a GRU-backed Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov. Zakharchenko was considered to be backed by Surkov and GRU while FSB which has already maintained supervision over “LPR acting Head” Leonid Pasechnik, also seeks take control over key assets in DPR.
- Zakharchenko was killed by a Ukrainian subversive group. Russia and the self-proclaimed actively promote this version in order to accuse Ukraine of breaking down the Minsk process and preparing for offensive operations. Proponents of this version can be found in Ukraine as well who believe that Zakharchenko’s murder was orchestrated by Ukrainian intelligence agencies in order to boost the morale of Ukrainian troops and increase public trust in state authorities in the run-up to the elections. However, Ukrainian security agencies would have been rather interested in bringing to justice the militants for war crimes and receiving their evidence about activities of the Russian supervisors.
The murder of “DPR Head” Alexander Zakharchenko has raised questions about further developments of the Donbas conflict. There are several possible scenarios in the short-term.
Scenario 1. Renewal of DPR/LPR leadership. Zakharchenko’s murder gives Russia a cause for conducting illegal elections in DPR and LPR simultaneously. Elections of “Heads” and “People’s Soviets” have already been set on November 11, 2018. These elections are necessary for Russia to legitimize new representatives of the self-proclaimed republics in the negotiating process. FSB, GRU and other Russian supervisors will carefully select potential candidates and lead toward separatists who have demonstrated an indisputable loyalty to the Kremlin and have not been caught in atrocities in Donbas. In addition, Russia may also favour ex-members of the Party of Regions who enjoy public support in Donbas and are not directly associated in the Ukrainian popular consciousness with militants.
Scenario 2. Managed chaos in ORDLO. FSB and GRU may fail to agree on the division of the spheres of influence in ORDLO. As a result, various clans and criminal groups will continue struggling for power and financial flows which may be accompanied by new murders and coups in DPR/LPR. Such developments are most likely if a low-intensity conflict continues amid the lack of progress in political settlement. Militants’ supervisors will try to make the most of financial benefits from their control over resources in ORDLO, making up for the lack of political benefits.
Scenario 3. Escalation of warfare. Any resonant development over Donbas automatically raises the risk of escalation in the conflict. After Zakharchenko’s murder the separatists made a statement that they were preparing for an offensive by Ukrainian troops. However, this scenario is unlikely in the near future as both Kyiv and Moscow realize that the risks of a full-scale escalation in the conflict significantly outweigh the potential benefits in the run-up to presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine.