#MinskMonitor: New Details on Zakharchenko Assassination

Rampant corruption may explain the separatist leader’s assassination

@DFRLab
Pushilin (left) and Zakharchenko (right) in 2016. (Source: DAN)

A week after the shocking assassination of the leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Aleksandr Zakharchenko, new information has surfaced regarding the circumstances of his death and possible motivations for carrying out the attack.

Aleksandr “Tashkent” Timofeyev, Zakharchenko’s right-hand man, was also wounded in the assassination, fled to Moscow after attending Zakharchenko’s funeral. Two days after this exit, “separatist” news outlets reported multiple allegations of Timofeyev’s rampant corruption while serving as a “minister” in the so-called DNR, providing a strong motive for the assassination. However, there have also been false leads to explain the method and reasoning behind the assassination, as we will detail in this report.

How did the assassination take place?

In the week following the assassination, contradicting claims arose regarding where and when the explosive device that killed Zakharchenko was placed. We will summarize each of the most high-profile claims below, and assess which is most likely to correspond with reality.

Cheburashka or Chandelier Charge?

Currently, the most probable claim regarding the placement of the bomb is either an overhead light (chandelier) or a floor lamp at the entrance of the cafe. This claim was first published by Kommersant on September 1, who also reported that the bomb was triggered from a cell phone. According to Kommersant, the actor(s) who carried out the attack triggered the bomb after observing Zakharchenko enter the cafe. Aleksandr Kazakov, a former advisor to Zakharchenko, said that the explosion took place “at the exact moment when they entered inside of the cafe”, reinforcing the theory that the explosive was placed at the cafe’s entrance.

However, this is not the only theory regarding the bomb’s placement.

On September 5, the popular publication Moskovsky Komsomolets (MK) published information that the bomb was placed not in a chandelier, but instead behind a Cheburashka (a popular animated Soviet children’s character) logo on the overhanging sign near the cafe’s entrance. This claim does not stand up to much scrutiny, judging just by a quick glance at the entrance of the cafe before and after the explosion. The Cheburashka is visible on the right part of the sign, next to the Р on the overhang.

The overhanging sign at the cafe “Сепар” (“Separ”), showing the Cheburashka to the right. (Source: TripAdvisor / TrophyCollector)
Entrace to cafe “Сепар” (“Separ”). (Source: VK / Restoran “Separatist”)

After the explosion, there is clear damage to the overhang, but it was obviously not the source of the explosion.

(Source: YouTube / Sladkov plus)

Additionally, footage taken by Russia’s state-run Vesti news program shows extensive damage inside of the cafe, right at the entrance.

(Source: Vesti)
(Source: Vesti)

Lastly, “separatist” politician Oleg Tsarev claimed that the bomb was placed in an overhead light, but rather than at the direct entrance, it was near the table where Zakharchenko normally sat. It is unclear where this table was located, therefore this information does not necessarily contradict the other claims regarding the explosive being placed in a light fixture near the entrance.

When was it placed?

Most serious theories agree that the bomb was placed at the entrance in some light fixture — but when? This question has not been answered, but the competing theories reveal competing claims regarding the motivation and planning of Zakharchenko’s assassination.

Zakharchenko adviser Kazakov claimed that the bomb may have been placed the night before the explosion — the night of August 30 or early morning of August 31 — and the planners “got lucky” when Zakharchenko made an unplanned visit to the cafe.

Ukrainian analyst and former SBU officer Oleg Starikov differed in his analysis, claiming that the bomb would have been placed “about a half-year, year” ahead of time. However, this estimate was made in a very generalized way based off of how a more professional operation from a state security service would likely operate, considering Starikov’s experience.

Who did it?

Perhaps the most important question to resolve is who placed and triggered the bomb that killed Zakharchenko; however, there have been few realistic, credible claims that can resolve this question.

Immediately after the assassination, so-called DNR security forces arrested “a few” suspects along Bohdan Khmelnytsky Prospect in central Donetsk who “confirmed the involvement of Ukrainian authorities in the crime.” However, much like other Ukrainian “saboteurs” who are arrested soon after crimes in the so-called republics of eastern Ukraine, there has been little to no information about them afterwards, indicating that the “arrests” either did not take place or were hastily made to inflate the competence of DNR security forces.

A week later, the so-called DNR’s Interior Affairs Ministry, responsible for the police, shared the photographs of two men who were patrons at the Separatist Cafe shortly before the explosion.

Photographs of two men who were patrons at the Separatist Cafe shortly before the explosion as advertised by the so-called DNR’s Interior Affairs Ministry (Source: DNR Police / Strana.ua)

However, these two men were cleared of any involvement soon after their photographs were published. The so-called DNR Interior Affairs Ministry deleted the video showing the two men from their YouTube channel.

On September 9, Russia’s FSB claimed to have interrogated a member of ISIS in Russia’s Smolensk Oblast. This Dagestani ISIS member, according to the FSB, was ordered by the SBU and the Ukrainian far-right “Right Sector” group to carry out an assassination of an unnamed leader of the DNR. The FSB did not explicitly tie this man to the Zakharchenko assassination, but it was clearly insinuated from the timing and method of the announcement. There is no reason to take this “discovery” seriously, as there have been numerous propaganda attempts from Russian and separatist-run media outlets to tie ISIS together with the Ukrainian government and far-right groups, including Azov.

Motivations Emerge: Corruption and Hubris

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has already sent in a team of investigators to Donetsk to determine a culprit for the assassination, despite the fact that Russia has no international jurisdiction on Ukrainian territory. The FSB’s spokesperson did not take long to name their eventual suspect — the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), accusing them just days after the attack.

While it is possible (though, unlikely) that the SBU pulled off this attack, it is far more probable that the assassination was carried out by either an “insider” from Donetsk or a Moscow-ordered assassin. On September 2, Novaya Gazeta’s Pavel Kanygin provided one of the more credible reports for a potential motive: the rampant corruption of Zakharchenko and his right-hand man, Aleksandr “Tashkent” Timofeyev, who was also wounded in the August 31 explosion.

Along with the sort of corruption you would expect from the leaders of a pseudo-state — taking control of or skimming the profits from profitable local businesses, playing fast and loose with the tax code, and so on — Zakharchenko and Timofeyev personally profited in a coal export scheme. As Kanygin described in an interview with Meduza, this scheme involved mining coal in the Donbas, then it was “exported to Russia and then shipped back to Ukraine as a Russian import,” as there is a trade blockade between the unrecognized separatist republics and Ukraine. Despite the ongoing war and dismal relations between Ukraine and Russia, they are still trade partners.

There have been numerous investigations published by both national and international media on Russia’s re-export scheme with Donbas coal, including from Bloomberg.

(Source: Bloomberg)

Zakharchenko and Timofeyev, according to Kanygin and other journalists, were too greedy with this re-export scheme and other business deals, a potential reason for their exit from the stage. As a source told Kanygin, “The pie had gotten much bigger, and everyone wanted a big slice of it themselves, and not to dole it out civilly. Batya [Zakharchenko] and Tashkent [Timofeyev] were in over their heads when dealing with those more powerful than them.”

Timofeyev has not stuck around Donetsk following the assassination, fleeing to Moscow after Zakharchenko’s funeral. Both he and Kazakov appeared in Moscow a week after the assassination.

Timofeyev (left) and Kazakov (right). (Source: Facebook / Alexandr Kazakov)

Attributing the reason for this exit to Moscow, along with a motivation for the assassination, to Timofeyev and Zakharchenko’s rampant corruption was strengthened on September 7, when the Donetsk News Agency (DAN) published an explosive report that accused Timofeyev of over 850 million rubles (~12.2 million USD) of graft. This report opened up the floodgates, with another article published shortly later in DAN detailing how Timofeyev stole from a transport company as well by abusing his ministerial position.

Whither Donetsk?

With the high-profile assassination, the future course of the “republics” of eastern Ukraine remain in question. The relatively unknown Dmitry Trapeznikov served as the head of the DNR for only about a week after Zakharchenko’s assassination, followed by the ascension of Denis Pushilin, a longtime politician and notorious pyramid scam artist.

Pushilin has publicly feuded with Zakharchenko, but not to the same level as the assassinated leader’s other rival, Aleksandr Khodakovsky, who, like Zakharchenko, presented himself as a “strongman.” Pushilin, in contrast, never fought in the war in the Donbas and has continuously served as a politician in a suit, in contrast to Zakharchenko’s public image as a former military commander walking around in fatigues.

Pushilin (left) and Zakharchenko (right) in 2016. (Source: DAN)

Elections are scheduled to take place in the illegally-occupied Donbas on November 11, as confirmed on September 7 following questions if they would be rescheduled or cancelled. It is unclear if Pushilin will run for the position of so-called head of DNR during these elections, but it should be expected.


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DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

@DFRLab

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@DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil's Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

DFRLab

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.