Alexander Zakharchenko, the head of Ukraine’s self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), was killed in an explosion inside a Donetsk cafe on August 31. Political assassinations are a routine occurrence in the Donbas region’s unrecognized Donetsk and Luhansk republics, whose officials generally blame the killings on Ukrainian agents, and did just that following the death of Zakharchenko. But this is a convenient cover for internal squabbles in the ranks of separatist elites, whose corporate ethics allow for the physical elimination of political opponents.  

Zakharchenko’s death, however, goes beyond the regular Donbas infighting. He was, after all, a signatory of the Minsk agreements that attempted to bring peace to the Donbas conflict, and he was received in the Kremlin, which means that his murder will have far-reaching consequences. 

The 2014 Donbas crisis swept stale bureaucrats and oligarchs from Ukraine’s then ruling Party of Regions off the political stage. The separatist field commanders who replaced them can be seen as the counter-elite that emerged as a result of the dominance of the Party of Regions in Donbas politics. This counter-elite only fully realized its potential after the party had lost its monopoly on power. 

Zakharchenko was a typical member of the counter-elite. There was far more to him than the image of a simple Donbas electrician that he cultivated for the media. He was the co-founder and director of a number of Donetsk companies affiliated with influential Party of Regions members. His partners included former Party of Regions parliamentary deputy Alexander Leshchinsky, who controls bread factories across Donbas, and Serhii Kyi, an aide to Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. 

Zakharchenko also had some political activism experience under his belt. Prior to 2014, he headed the Donetsk branch of the Oplot organization, which combined the functions of a charitable foundation, a sports club that supplied mercenary fighters for the regime of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, and a business entity. Kharkiv Mayor and Party of Regions member Hennadiy Kernes was reported to be the patron of the the organization.

Zakharchenko defined Oplot’s ideology as “a unified Russian world, Orthodox Christian faith, and, most importantly, freedom of choice.” In keeping with this simple triad, Zakharchenko played an active role in Oplot militants’ takeover of Donetsk administrative buildings in the spring of 2014, as well as in subsequent clashes with Ukrainian security services. After Donetsk fell under the full control of the separatists, Zakharchenko was appointed the city’s commandant. 

In the eyes of the Moscow curators of the unrecognized republics, his local roots, plain appearance, and the active role he played in the “Russian Spring” made Zakharchenko a perfect pick for the position of the DPR’s official leader after Russian carpetbaggers like Igor Strelkov and Alexander Borodai exited the region. He became prime minister of the DPR on August 8, 2014, and was elected the republic’s head in November of the same year. In February 2015, he took part in the signing of the Minsk peace deal negotiated by Russia, France, Germany, and Ukraine. 

After his ascension to power, Zakharchenko remained part of the counter-elite, which saw itself as both the Party of Regions’ political successor and the heir to its tangible assets. Zakharchenko’s reign was characterized by mass expropriations of businesses and property, ranging from “nationalizing” private companies to requisitioning luxury cars under the pretext of military necessity.

Gradually, Zakharchenko and his right-hand man Alexander Timofeyev took control of all the illegal coal and metals trade, contraband, and other get-rich-quick enterprises. The republic’s Moscow curators could no longer tolerate the emergence of a truly pirate entity along the Russian border. There were rumors that Zakharchenko and his team could soon be removed from power.

Events in Luhansk in 2017 showcased the mechanism of elite rotation under the Donbas republics’ military authoritarian system. Strongmen in the government of the Luhansk People’s Republic ousted its leader, Igor Plotnitsky, from power and effectively exiled him from Luhansk (his signature on the Minsk agreement was said to have saved his life). It’s quite telling that Plotnitsky was succeeded by former Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) officer Leonid Pasechnik, who once battled smuggling on the Russia-Ukraine border and switched to the separatists’ side after the fall of the Yanukovych regime. 

Rumors of Zakharchenko’s imminent removal were quick to follow. He was accused of incompetence, corruption, and the pursuit of personal commercial interest at the expense of the “Russian world” ideals.

Interestingly enough, another former SBU officer, Alexander Khodakovsky, was Zakharchenko’s most vocal critic and opponent. Khodakovsky previously headed Donetsk’s Alpha special forces brigade. An active participant of the “Russian Spring,” Khodakovsky has often been described as Rinat Akhmetov’s man. It was suggested that the Ukrainian oligarch was trying to influence the situation in the DPR via Khodakovsky. In 2015, Khodakovsky was accused of pro-Ukrainian sentiment and dismissed from his position as secretary of the DPR Security Council, forcing him to become an opposition figure.

Zakharchenko’s term in office was to end in November 2018, and the Ukrainian law on the special status of certain districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions expires a month earlier. The law calls for elections in these territories under Ukraine’s legal framework, but were the separatists to conduct them on their own terms, the Ukrainian parliament would be justified in not extending the special status law and would have legal grounds to withdraw from the Minsk agreements. 

Back in June 2018, the DPR authorities appeared inclined to hold the vote according to their own rules, describing it as a referendum on the “truth of the historical choice of the Donbas people.” But in early August, the separatist press published a statement from the “Donetsk Republic,” which essentially acts as the DPR ruling party, asking Zakharchenko not to step down and to postpone the elections for an indefinite period of time.

The DPR’s Moscow curators had directed the Donetsk authorities to cancel the election, according to Russia’s RBC news agency, whose sources cited “the lack of immediate need to reelect deputies and republics’ heads, risks to the Minsk negotiations, and the prospects of new sanctions” as reasons for the decision. 

Under the DPR constitution, if the head of the republic is unable to carry out his duties, they are assumed by the first deputy prime minister: Dmitry Trapeznikov, who had ties to Akhmetov’s sports businesses during the pre-war years.

Another likely candidate for the position is Khodakovsky. This appointment would be in sync with the current trend of replacing popular leaders with in-system security officers. The move would close a chapter in the revolutionary history of the DPR, and would indicate that Moscow is prepared to reintegrate Donbas into Ukraine and transfer power in the unrecognized republics to leaders who are more acceptable to Kiev.

Reputational losses notwithstanding, the Kremlin has two reasons to support the reintegration of Donbas into Ukraine. First, this would make it possible to ease sanctions, at least on the part of the EU (the first references to canceling the Donbas elections appeared right after a summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel). Second, the return of Donbas to Ukraine would lead to an increase in the number of pro-Russian voters in Ukraine’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. 

On the other hand, given that Ukrainian security services have been accused of killing Zakharchenko—one of the signatories of the Minsk agreements—Russia may now have an excuse to withdraw from the peace process and blame Ukraine for its failure. Russia’s parliamentary speaker Vyacheslav Volodin has called the killing “a lawless act that annuls all the steps that Russia and the international community have been taking for several years now to stop the war in southeastern Ukraine,” and called for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly to condemn Ukraine’s actions. This may be a prelude to a new escalation of the conflict. The killing of the Donetsk leader could lead to new deaths on both sides of the hybrid front.

  • Konstantin Skorkin