Minsk Protocol Discussions with Zakharchenko (far-left) and Plotnitsky (mid-right) (Lehtikuva/AFP)

A Guide to the Warlords of Ukraine’s ‘Separatist Republics’

Ukraine’s breakaway territories appear to have settled on who is to lead them, but little is known about either self-proclaimed separatist leader.

by Devin Ackles, Hromadske International

produced by Maxim Eristavi, Randy R. Potts

What You Need to Know:

✓ The Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics ‘elected’ their new official leaders in November

✓ The new leadership will likely try to negotiate with Kyiv, as Russia should be ‘officially’ out of the equation

✓ The new leaders are shadowy figures, though bits and pieces have turned up about them

✓ The rise of both leaders is part of a larger, more pervasive system throughout the region

Get up to speed on Ukraine. Follow Hromadske!

New Separatist Generation

The ‘voting’ which took place in the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ may never be recognized by the global community, but they appear to represent a shift in the region. Gone is the vaudevillian rotation of characters, most of whom were Russian citizens, as a more permanent leadership tries to establish itself.

Journalist, formerly @MoscowTimes now@TheNation, @Guardian.

The vote in the Russian-backed breakaway regions, farcical as they may have been, serve an important purpose:

First, they provide Russia with someone on the ground that they can recommend the Ukrainian government and its western allies speak to.

Second, it provides Russia with a means to gradually pull back and restore as much ‘plausible deniability’ about their involvement as possible.

Relatively little is known about the individuals who are now running the self-proclaimed republics, but bits and pieces have emerged about their histories. What little is known is obfuscated and opaque, but also fits a general pattern found in the political culture in much of the region. Here, we take a brief look at what the Ukrainian and international press has been able to uncover about the separatist leadership.

Oleksandr Zakherchenko at his inaguration as Head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (Reuters / Maxim Zmeyev)

Oleksandr Zakharchenko

‘Head’ of the Donestk People’s Republic

As one of the signatories to the 5 September Minsk Protocol, which was meant to lead to a ceasefire, Zakharchenko’s leadership was more or less already established before the ‘elections’ in the DPR took place. Unlike his predecessors, Zakharchenko appears to be a genuine local with some rather interesting connections.

Buzzfeed reporter in Eastern Europe.

Investigative Ukrainian news outlet Insider has turned up a number of interesting potential connections between Zakharchenko and a number of former ruling Party of Regions MPs and none other than Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov. ‘Pouring’ through several government registries, it was discovered that Zakharchenko was allegedly the co-founder of a Donetsk-based company called “Delta-Fort”.

Without going into all of the complex details, “Delta-Fort” used to receive foodstuffs to sell from a company called “Trading House ‘Kontinent’”, which was created by two-firms controlled by former Party of Regions MPs — Serhiy Kij and Oleksandr Leshchinsky. Kij is a former assistant to Donbas overlord Rinat Akhmetov in his capacity as the President of the “Shaktar” football club.

Rebels in Ukraine’s east inaugurate Zakharchenko as leader

Zakharchenko was also one of the first people to head the anti-Maidan militia group “Oplot” in the Donetsk region, according to an interview with its founder Evhen Zhylin. Oplot gradually transformed from a mixed martial arts club out of Kharkiv into a paramilitary force throughout eastern Ukraine.

While not a previously a public figure, it is clear that Zakharchenko has been a part of the Donetsk clan for some time now.

Ihor Plotnitsky (Itar-Tass)

Ihor Plotnitsky

‘Head’ of the Luhansk People’s Republic

As the other signatory to the Minsk Protocol, and having headed LPR since August, it is clear that he has been given the mandate to rule the region. Formerly the “Minister of Defense” of the Luhansk People’s Republic, a post he took up back in May, Plotnitsky is reportedly not viewed as being as authoritative a figure as his DPR counterpart.

Senior Fellow @AIES, based in Vienna

Plotnitsky is one of the more mythical figures to emerge from the war in east Ukraine, though he is much less romanticized than individuals like Igor Strelkov (Girkin) who is a Russian citizen from Moscow. Save for a biography that RIA Novosti, a state-run Russian news agency, has compiled of him, virtually nothing else was known about the individual until a BBC Ukraine article found his relatives on the other side of the country.

According to the RIA article, he served in the Soviet Union’s armed forces from 1982–1991, from 1992–1996 worked in unspecified firms as a manager and deputy director, then created and headed another firm called “Scarab” until 2004. After over a decade in the business community, Plotnitsky switched over to the public sector where he allegedly worked in the Luhansk Oblast’s Inspector’s Office for Consumer Protection until 2012.

Plotnitsky at his inaguration as Head of the Luhansk People’s Republic

None of this information about him has been verified and a search by the author for any references in official government registries or other publicly accessible sources of information that might confirm the existence of the companies or his time in public service has not turned up anything.

A recent BBC Ukraine report, however, reveals that Plotnitsky is indeed a Ukrainian citizen whose roots are in the village of Kelmentsi, which is located right on the border with Moldova in western Ukraine. His mother worked as a cleaner at the local post office and his father was an automobile mechanic. Their son Ihor apparently left back in the 1980s. The village soon found out about what their son was doing and stopped greeting the family on the street. Plotnitsky’s mother and father departed for Kyiv and, allegedly, onward to Russia back in August. And that is where the story ends, for now.

Oleksei Mozgovoy, RIA Novosti

Oleksei Mozgovoy

Luhansk Warlord

Perhaps one of the more hardline and divisive figures among the separatists, Mozgovoy has effectively become the second face of the LPR. Even more so than his apparent superior Plotnitsky, he is a local phenomenon. Born and raised in the small town of Nizhya Duvanka, up until his recent reappearance most remembered him as a member of a local men’s musical ensemble.

Several sources say that Mozgovoy served in the Ukrainian armed forces as a contract soldier and, after leaving the armed forces, he more-or-less disappeared from the scene. Just before the “Russian Spring” in Ukraine Mozgovoy went to work in Russia. There he had established contacts and got support from Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Vice Chairman of the Russian State Duma known for his ultra-nationalist and anti-Western stance.

Unlike many of the other leaders of the separatist leadership, Mozgovoy is a bit of a renaissance man, with a penchant for poetry. Before returning to the Luhansk oblast following the Maidan revolution, he allegedly wrote a number of poems, mostly dating back to 2013. The poems, which can found on the popular Russian-language poetry website stihi.ru, range from love lyrics to bombastic bits on Cossack identity.

As one of the leaders of the fractured leadership in the LPR, Mozgovoy, a commander of the military battalion “Prizrak” (Ghost), has taken up other pursuits. In November, a video surfaced online of a so-called ‘people’s court’ where he was one of the presiding officials. The court can be seen allegedly sentencing a member of the separatist forces, accused of rape, to death after the audience voted in favor of the lethal punishment.

Lonely Planet author; ex-BBC & Russian Newsweek.

His longevity as one of the heads of the local separatist forces, like any other ‘unelected’ official, remains a question for the time being. Besides addressing President Putin in a rather crude manner to step up his help for the separatists, he has also criticized the leadership of both the LPR and DPR in the past for signing the Minsk protocol, deeming it a betrayal.

His ‘more righteous than thou’ attitude does not appear to be winning him many allies at the moment, though it has helped him to rise to the top of the separatists’ ranks.

Armed pro-Russian militants guard Denis Pushilin, the self-styled governor of the so-called “People’s Republic of Donetsk”AFP

Denis Pushilin

Donetsk Separatist Leader

Maintaining a high-profile public presence since the early days of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Pushilin is one of the most recognizable faces of the Russian-backed separatist movement. He has at times been the head, deputy head and general representative of the DPR.

His appointment in November by Zakharchenko as the DPR’s representative at future multi-party talks in Minsk, in addition to being ‘elected’ as an MP to the DPR’s regional pseudo-parliamentary body, signals his role as a major player in the DPR.

Pushilin is alleged to be a native of Makiivka, a small town in the Donetsk oblast. He graduated from a local lyceum and went on to join the National Guard and afterwards studied at the Donetsk National Academy of Construction and Architecture, though he did not finish his studies. After dropping out, he is reported to have worked at a local confectionary company — though like many other individuals in the separatist republics, these histories are difficult to verify.

He has, however, maintained a public profile since 2011, though not as a member of a pro-Russian separatist force, but rather a ‘volunteer’ for a famous regional pyramid scheme called “MMM”.

Pushilin doting a polo shirt with an “MMM” logo (Photo uncredited)

MMM’s founder Sergey Mavrodi, a former Russian Duma MP, was arrested back in 2003 in Moscow for charges related to the pyramid scheme. Pushilin started working for MMM back in 2011 and had been working with the organization up until at least February 2014, when a video of him advertising the benefits of joining the scheme was shot.

His ascent in the local power structures, from a no one to a big-time player in the DPR, is certainly no accident. His regular appearances at official and semi-official meetings in Russia show that he has developed, over the years, a reputation in Ukraine’s criminal underworld. More important, he has shown the new local authorities and their friends in Russia that he is committed to his work and can be depended upon.

The mayor of Pervomaisk, a Cossack commander who goes by the name ‘Evgeniy,’ poses with his traditional sword in the town, some 50 km west of Luhansk, in September. | AFP-JIJI

Cossack Separatist Republics

Alongside their more famous DPR and LPR brethren, there are several smaller Cossack separatist republics. Ethnic Cossacks, whose native language employs many Ukrainian words, are the traditional inhabitants of the steppe — lands that extend from Ukraine to deep into Russia’s interior.

Their fervor for restoring the high-esteem that Cossack culture once held has grown both in Russia and Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cossacks setting up shop in small towns like Stakhanov in eastern Ukraine are from Russia and do not necessarily identify with the other separatist forces in the region, whose motives they distrust. Here’s an excerpt from British journalist Oliver Carroll’s dispatch:

A few doors down from the kitchen is the smoke-filled nerve center of Commander Pavel Dremov’s military operation. Dremov is a 37-year old former bricklayer who has emerged as the savior of Stakhanov, a hitherto-forgotten mining town in the northwest corner of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic. What is interesting is that the commander has styled himself in complete opposition to his fellow separatists in Luhansk and what he calls its “shady businessmen,” who deal “money, power, and ceasefires with the Kiev ‘junta.’” Dremov has offered Stakhanov citizens an alternative vision — a new, socialist, neo-Soviet “Cossack” republic that works for the people, especially the poor and elderly. And, as goes without saying, one that ignores any talk of a ceasefire deal.

Russian Cossacks were some of the most visible figures leading up to the annexation of Crimea as well as the early days of the separatist uprisings in eastern Ukraine. The latest groups to arrive in Ukraine, in particular those in Luhansk, appear to be largely on their own in terms of their arms and basic supplies.

Hromadske International co-founder

As they have made clear, in the best of Cossack traditions, they plan on serving but remaining free. Their forces from Russia are not directly subordinate to either the LPR or DPR leadership, whom many regard as corrupt. Instead, they have their own command structure that they have imported from back home. Here’s quote from the profile of one of the Cossack warlords in East Ukraine by AP journalist Natalia Vasilieva:

Wooden ammunition crates are stacked up in front of the windows of Kozitsyn’s sparse office. Behind him hang portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov — renowned for being the eminence grise of the Moscow leadership.
Outside, four parked tanks carry Russian and rebel flags. Burly Cossacks with wind-burned faces wearing black-and-red astrakhan hats fix Ukrainian military hardware seized in fighting. In the lobby of the House of Culture, an elderly female barber shaves and gives haircuts to a line of Cossacks — members of a semi-military group which traditionally guarded the far-flung outposts of the Russian empire — waiting to pay court to a commander they affectionately call Batya, or Daddy.

As mercenaries, regular armed forces and local pro-Russian separatists all seek to establish control over some part of the territories of the DPR and LPR, alternately known as part of Novorossiya, there are real concerns about who will be able to assert control over all, if not most, of the forces in the future.

While nothing has been determined about the downing of the MH17 flight, it was originally rumored to be the result of a group of Cossacks armed with a Buk anti-air missile system that fired on the plane. It is just one example of what the Russian-backed separatists and the Kremlin itself would like to avoid as they seek to draw international attention away from direct Russian involvement in the conflict.

Who’s Behind Ukraine’s Separatist Leaders?

That Russia has had a direct hand in some of the appointments in separatist controlled areas from the very beginning is difficult to deny, especially with the number of Russian citizens who were at one point or another a part of the leadership. Like any colonizing power or criminal authority, it appoints individuals that are dependent on them to make sure they will stay loyal and do their bidding. It did precisely this in Crimea with fringe the pro-Russian political figure and little-known criminal figure Serhiy Aksyonov and his entourage.

This is phenomenon is by no means unique to the Kremlin’s playbook. Virtual unknowns with ties to less-than-reputable businessmen and political figures ascending to the upper echelons of power is a long established tradition in Ukraine as well. It is, and has been, a regular part of the political and economic system in Ukraine for over two decades.

Whether Plotnitsky and Zakharchenko were appointed by consensus amongst local players and/or the Kremlin or ‘elected’ by the remaining local population to head the breakaway republics is of little importance now. What is important is that all four separatist leaders are more likely than not Ukrainian citizens.

They are individuals that have spent their entire adult lives building networks and have been entrusted by the forces that be to be the ‘face’ of the self-proclaimed republics. That they were chosen should be a good indicator to the Ukrainian government and its partners precisely who it will be dealing with.

Get up to speed on Ukraine. Follow Hromadske!