Another warlord killed: Mystery grows as series of deaths in Russian-backed enclaves continues

Mykhailo Tolstykh (aka "Givi")

Givi died on the spot. Photo: Ruvesna.su 

War in the Donbas

On 8 February 2017, at 6:12 AM, Mykhailo Tolstykh, callsign “Givi,” was killed in his office in occupied Donetsk, the “Ministry of Defense” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” reported. Givi was the commander of the Somali battalion, part of the Russian-backed separatist forces fighting against the Ukrainian army in Donbas since 2014.

The exterior of the building where the explosion took place. Photo: hromadske.ua

According to one of the versions, he was killed by the blast of a Shmel rocket flamethrower which was shot through the window. Another version, expressed by the Russian TV channel 360 citing sources, is that Givi was killed by “his own”: the channel’s interlocutor claims that the explosion came from a bomb that was situated inside the building.

A video from the site of the event shows that the explosion fully demolished the room.

The place of Givi's death. Screenshot from video

The place of Givi’s death. Screenshot from video

Row of deaths

The death follows a row of deaths of other militant leaders in the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk “People’s Republics” (“LNR” and “DNR”).

Just days earlier, on 5 February 2017, a car explosion took the life of “LNR” field commander Oleksandr Onashchenko. The “LNR” announced that this was the job of the Ukrainian Special Services and even announced that they found the perpetrator, calling him a major of the Ukrainian Army. However, it turned out that this “perpetrator” is actually a scapegoated homosexual militant of the “DNR,” who was expelled from his battalion after being caught having sex with a fellow militant, and ran away to “LNR.”

On 28 January 2017, the first leader of the “LNR” Valery Bolotov was reported dead in Moscow. It is now suspected that he was poisoned. His death follows a row of mysterious deaths in the self-proclaimed enclave which are connected to the alleged coup against the leader Leonid Plotnitsky, which Bolotov, however, said Plotnitsky staged himself. After the “coup” was announced to have been planned in September 2016, former “Prime Minister” Gennadiy Tsypkalov was found hanging in his cell, warlord Yaroslav Zhilin was killed in a restaurant, and former deputy of people’s militia chief Vitalii Kiselyov died in his prison cell. There were four other similar cases during the last six months: Aleksandr Bushuev, Aleksandr Nemogay, Alexander Osipov, and Sergey Litvin were reportedly killed due to their disobedience or growing personal authority.

One of Givi’s “colleagues,” warlord Motorola who was the commander of the Sparta brigade, was killed on 17 October 2016. Then, Givi promised to take revenge on his comrade and reach Ukraine’s capital Kyiv.

War criminal Givi

Mykhailo Tolstykh aka Givi was born in 1980 in Ilovaisk, a town in Donbas, where he worked as a security guard in a supermarket. At the start of the so-called “Russian spring,” he joined the brigade of militants under the command of Russian FSB colonel Girkin-Strelkov and occupied Sloviansk with him. He participated in the battle of Ilovaisk, one of the largest in the whole Donbas war, where thanks to the Russian troops that crossed into Ukraine, the Ukrainian army suffered a devastating defeat. Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers were killed and many more hundreds were taken prisoner.

According to the military prosecutor’s office of Ukraine, Givi as the leader of the Somali brigade organized assaults on ATO forces and tortured POWs in the period between May 2014-January 2015.

Videos depicting Givi’s torture of Ukrainian POWs appeared in January 2015 when the Donetsk airport, a stronghold of Ukrainian forces, fell to the hands of the Russian-separatist forces after 242 days of round-the-clock attacks. Givi forced the Ukrainian captives to stand on their knees and eat their epaulettes, which he cut off their uniforms, beat and derided the prisoners, and has been reported to kill POWs. RFE/RL made a detailed overview.

Relations with “DNR” chief Zakharchenko

Givi met Zakharchenko, currently the “Head of DNR” in 2014 and actively supported his policies. According to unconfirmed data, their relations went sour in October 2016 after recurring attempts of Givi to sabotage orders that “DNR” gave to Somali, espreso.tv reports. Zakharchenko was said to be annoyed by Somali’s demonstrative loyalty to the Russian curators of “DNR” and sabotage of his orders.

The elimination of Givi

Attempts to assassinate Givi started back in 2014. Some of the most famous ones took place in March 2015, when his car was shot at by unknowns as he was driving to the Donetsk airport. In April 2016, unknowns attempted to blow up the car which was supposed to carry the militant. Reports of Givi’s death appeared in the summer of 2015 when a shell of Ukraine’s 95th brigade hit the militants’ HQ in Donetsk, but it turned out that it was another militant that died and not Givi.

Givi’s Somali battalion participated in the latest escalation near Avdiivka which started on 30 January 2017,, where he was wounded in a battle near the Avdiivka promzona. Then he reported that his battalion lost 4 militants.

Who did it and why?

Hours after Givi’s death, “DNR’s” leadership came out blaming the Ukrainian special services for the assassination, which the representatives of the SBU deny. The Donbas “republics” chieftains have blamed the SBU for the assassinations of other commanders, such as Motorola and “LNR” field commander Onyshchenko who was killed only three days before.

Regarding the death of the latter, Ukrainian military expert Dmytro Sniehyriov saw three possible theories explaining his death Onyshchenko: that it was an internal job of the Plotnitskyi gang, that it was the job of the Russian curators, and that it was actually the Ukrainian special services. Those three theories have been used to explain Givi’s death. As we have no way to confirm which one is more likely, let’s consider them all with the help of a review by wz.lviv.ua.

It was “DNR chief” Zakharchenko

So thinks military analyst Dmytro Tymchuk. According to him, it was clear that Givi would be next in line to be assassinated after Motorola’s death in October 2016. Rumors among the militants gave away a developing conflict between chief warlord Zakharchenko and Givi, who started ignoring his superior’s orders and attempted to gain the trust of the Russian curators over the “DNR.” A good moment came after the Avdiivka escalation, during which Givi made reckless orders to go into battle without proper preparations, over which the militants themselves started hating Givi, Tymchuk noted.

It were the Russian curators

The liquidation of the first participants of the “Russian spring” is an old and tested tactic of the KGB and FSB

According to Ukrainian MP Viktoriia Siumar, the Russian special services kill the militants who have become difficult to control in order to strengthen their influence over the occupied Donbas, and demonstrate the instability of the situation there, as well the desire of Russia to have everything under control.

Ukrainian army general and ex-intelligence chief Mykola Malomuzh considers that the Russian special services were definitely interested in the operation, even if they didn’t carry it out themselves. According to him, there are internal struggles between the militants and leaders of the armed brigades who compete for control over power and economic control over the smuggling and money flows. Russia supports these struggles, because they lead to the elimination of the odious figures which were needed to establish control over territory but are difficult to deal with now. As Russia seeks to initiate a new scenario for the political format for the territories, it needs leaders that are ready for negotiations and can enter the new government bodies.

Malomuzh thinks it’s unlikely that the Ukrainian special services carried out this operation, because, if the plot was uncovered, the geopolitical consequences for Ukraine would be too high.

Political analyst Vitaliy Portnikov thinks that the liquidation of the first participants of the “Russian spring” is an old and tested tactic of the KGB and FSB: they will be replaced with other figures who will implement the real “plan” for the occupied regions.

Ukrainian MP and ex-Donbas battalion commander Semen Semenchenko is sure that the FSB is behind the assassination, but doubts that it is merely clearing out unruly elements. According to him, killing the commanders who were participants of the Donbas war from the fist months and committed war crimes is the first stage to transitioning Donbas into a frozen conflict zone under Russian control. Then, the lower-rank militants without war crimes on their hands will be left, and passing an amnesty on them and moving on with the Minsk agreements will be easier. Thus, the FSB is clearing all the symbols of murder and torture which were committed in the Russian-backed “republics.”

Adding weight to the “Russian curator” version is the testimony of Vostok battalion commander Aleksandr Khodakovskiy, the last remaining “DNR” military commander, who in his livejournal called for the FSB to “kill him gently” and not in a car explosion, without risking the lives of surrounding people, already a year ago, expressing his intuition that Moscow has a grudge against him and has enlisted him for elimination.

Time to cheer?

A major witness and perpetrator of war crimes and the original tactics of Russia’s hybrid war in Donbas is now carrying his secrets to his grave

Though Givi’s death was (understandably) cheered in Ukrainian social media, his assassination means that a major witness and perpetrator of war crimes and the original tactics of Russia’s hybrid war in Donbas is now carrying his secrets to his grave. Sooner or later, the international community will have to confirm Russia is guilty of initiating the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, and the next step would be making Russia pay reparations for the devastated territory, for which Ukraine will seek international arbitration. Eliminating the witnesses who can testify to Russia’s role is therefore in Russia’s interests, while Ukraine’s interests would be to retain as many such witnesses as possible. Similarly, Ukraine had hoped to have Motorola tried at the Hague International Criminal Court. His assassination in October 2016 has made this impossible.

Thus, the lives of the militants are getting more expensive with each day, for Ukraine and Russia alike.

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