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The assassination of rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko, the ‘head of state’ of the self-proclaimed but internationally unrecognised ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ in Ukraine, is likely to have implications for the internal politics within the rebel administration, as well as for any chances of progress on reaching a diplomatic solution to the conflict in the eastern parts of Ukraine.
The rebel-controlled region of Donetsk has always been politically and symbolically more important to the Russian authorities than neighbouring Luhansk, where another ‘People’s Republic’ has been operating since 2014. Donetsk has received more funding, resources and attention from Moscow, and is currently the hub of most of the day-to-day violence in the region, urban warfare that is mainly concentrated around the towns of Avdiivka, Yasynuvata and the Donetsk filtration station, which supplies drinking water to around 600,000 people in the region.
Given the importance of Donetsk, Zakharchenko’s death is more significant than the assassinations of lesser-known rebel figures, such as senior rebel commanders Mikhail Tolstykh (Givi) in 2017 and Alexei Mozgovoy in Luhansk in 2015. There were also several attempts on the life of Igor Plotnitskiy, leader of Luhansk, who was eventually ousted in a coup in November 2017 and replaced swiftly by his deputy Leonid Pasechnik. But in distinction to all these events, Zakharchenko’s death is likely to prompt a struggle for dominance among the rebel administration in Donetsk, particularly over the control of lucrative smuggling channels.
Since the conflict began in 2014, the rebels have taken advantage of the absence of law and order to capitalise on smuggling, particularly of coal, light metals and jewellery. These activities saw a resurgence since March 2017, when Ukraine’s government introduced an official trade embargo between government and rebel-controlled territories, affording local smugglers more opportunities. Zakharchenko is thought to have overseen many of these lucrative import channels, which became an irritant for Moscow, since Zakharchenko was long suspected for siphoning off funds.
While Zakharchenko was swiftly replaced by his deputy Dmitry Trapeznikov, the presence of other powerful figures in the rebel command increases the likelihood of an internal conflict in the coming months. Trapeznikov is thought to have been initially considered by Moscow as a possible alternative to Zakharchenko in 2014, and he frequently appeared by Zakharchenko’s side in public, giving an indication of his importance within the regional administration. However, there are many other strong characters in the rebel administration in Donetsk, such as ‘finance minister’ Alexander Timofeyev (alias ‘Tashkent’). Timofeyev was injured in the bomb attack that killed Zakharchenko but survived, and attended his funeral several days later. According to local sources, Timofeyev and Trapeznikov have had a poor relationship for a long time; Timofeyev is also thought to be closely involved in illegal trade, particularly contraband cigarettes, metals and coal.
Alexander Khodakovsky, the ‘security minister’ of Donetsk, is also likely to be a contender for power in the administration. Khodakovsky is known to have a difficult relationship with Vladislav Surkov, an influential Kremlin aide and former deputy chief of President Vladimir Putin’s administration, who is thought to have appointed Zakharchenko in the first place. Perhaps as an indication of his intent to return to prominence, Khodakovsky posted a eulogy to Zakharchenko and a strong denial of any Russian involvement in his assassination on his social media Telegram channel – his first post since May. The selection of Trapeznikov – rather than Khodakovsky – to lead the administration may be reflective of Surkov’s ongoing dominance in the region, but this could change should Trapeznikov be ousted, or should Moscow change its mind about Trapeznikov; it’s worth noting that Surkov also appointed Igor Plotnitskiy as leader of the Luhansk region.
Cloudy Prospects for Peaceful Resolution of Ukraine Conflict
Either way, this infighting is likely to delay progress on the so-called Minsk Process, the only diplomatic framework currently on the table to facilitate a peaceful solution to the Ukraine conflict.
Zakharchenko, together with Plotnitskiy from the Luhansk rebel region, was one of the original signatories of the Minsk peace agreements. Since the Minsk agreements were signed in 2015, the rebels and the Kyiv government have been deadlocked over issues such as withdrawing heavy weapons from the contact line, implementing a ceasefire and more fundamentally, on decentralisation to allow the rebel regions greater powers of autonomy.
Last October, Ukraine’s parliament (Verkhovna Rada) delayed the passage of an election bill, which put off a decision on holding local elections in rebel-controlled regions for another 12 months. This decision expires next month, although it is likely that approval of the electoral bill will be postponed again, given public sensitivities around the issue; previous attempts to push through decentralisation measures have prompted public and often violent protests throughout Ukraine. It is unlikely that the Ukrainian authorities will be willing to risk rowdy demonstrations during what is promising to be a contentious national electoral cycle: Ukrainian presidential elections are scheduled for March 2019 and parliamentary elections for November next year.
Either way, progress on fulfilling the terms of the Minsk agreement has been painfully slow. While in September 2016 rebel and government forces agreed to disengage troops and military hardware from three key areas in the east, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which is observing the conflict maintains that there are still troops and heavy weapons such as mortars on the front line, in breach of the agreement. A new ceasefire agreed for the start of the school term on 1 September has already been breached, although there has been some progress on prisoner negotiations in recent months. And given the political deadlock thus far, the change of power in Donetsk is unlikely to improve prospects for progress.
Russia Will Not Walk Away
Still, Russia has been clear that it will continue the Minsk negotiations. Several hours after the assassination, Russia’s ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov reiterated in television interviews Moscow’s commitment to the Minsk agreements, pledging to hold a meeting with Kurt Volker, the US’s special representative for the Ukraine conflict. Days later, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reinforced this stance, although Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the same day noted that any upcoming meetings in the Normandy format – a working group that includes representatives from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France – would be suspended. Nevertheless, representatives from Russia did attend a meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) – a similar diplomatic forum on the conflict - on 5 September in Minsk.
On the same day that Zakharchenko was killed, several Ukrainian media outlets reported on the movements across Russia of a consignment of tanks on rail carts in the Volgograd and Rostov regions – located close to the border with rebel-controlled Ukraine. While Ukraine has expressed consternation that the tanks may cross into rebel-controlled areas, these tanks were T62s – an old class that has not seen active service in Russia since 2000. These consignments are unlikely to prompt an uptick of violence in the east; they are more likely to be a symbolic display of strength on Russia’s part.
Ultimately, Russia has lost interest in the Ukraine conflict, but is unable to walk away from the Minsk negotiations. Doing so would prompt a serious response from the EU, which introduced sanctions on Russia because of its military intervention in eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014; its likelihood of easing these sanctions will depend on Russia making progress in talks over Eastern Ukraine. The conflict rarely makes headlines in Russia, and Russia has also shelved any discussions on incorporating rebel territories and is pushing instead for the regions’ independence. So, notwithstanding Zakharchenko’s death, the peace talks will have to continue.