Is Russia killing off eastern Ukraine’s warlords?

Source: Chicago Tribune/Foreign Policy

On Sunday, Oct. 16, Pavlov’s brutal methods finally caught up with him.

The 33-year-old mercenary was assassinated in Donetsk by a remote-controlled bomb planted on his apartment building’s elevator. Pavlov and his bodyguard were both wearing full-body armor, but bloody remains and a jumble of ammunition were all that was left of them.

Pavlov is the latest separatist commander, and among the most prominent, to die in mysterious circumstances since the conflict first erupted. As the war in eastern Ukraine drags on, with the death toll at around 10,000 and no real end in sight, leaders of the areas known as the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) have been meeting their demise in apparently safe surroundings, far from the dangers of the battlefield.

Last month, the former prime minister of the LNR, Gennady Tsyplakov, purportedly “committed suicide” in detention after separatist authorities rounded up dozens of regime figures who were perceived to present an internal threat and accused them of plotting a coup. LNR officials claimed that he had hanged himself in his cell because he was so consumed with guilt over “the gravity of his crime.”

Just days earlier, a separatist field commander, Yevgeny Zhilin, was gunned down in a Moscow restaurant. Last December, Pavel Dremov, a Cossack battalion commander, was assassinated by car bomb just hours after celebrating his own wedding. Earlier that year, Aleksey Mozgovoy, the founder of the Ghost Brigade, a pro-Russian militant battalion in the LNR, was killed in a roadside ambush of mines and machine guns in a stretch of land he regarded as his private fiefdom. Alexander Bednov, a commander known as “Batman,” was killed during an attack on his convoy on Jan. 1, 2015. And these are just the most notable figures; analysts say there have been at least a dozen more such deaths.

Evidence is hard to come by in the black box of Ukraine’s rebel heartlands, where the Russian-backed regimes of the LNR and DNR thrive off confusion, division, and mystery. But two main theories are circulating among well-connected experts and separatist insiders.

Some say the killings are likely the product of infighting among the rebel elite in eastern Ukraine. As they seek to consolidate their rule and reap the rewards of the region’s lucrative black market, they are turning on one another.

Others say Russia may be behind the assassination campaign.

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