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DNR leaks: “Rebel” leader infighting, Ponzi schemes, and Russian intelligence supervisors

Denis “Dan” Pushilin and Alexander “Zakhar” Zakharchenko at a press-conference in Donetsk on March 11, 2014. Photo: RIA Novosti
DNR leaks: “Rebel” leader infighting, Ponzi schemes, and Russian intelligence supervisors
Article by: Kirill Mikhailov
Edited by: Alya Shandra

Ex-DNR leader’s Denis Pushilin’s and his aide’s messages surface on the Internet  

“Ukrainian Cyber Army” hackers published messages of a former “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DNR”) leader and current DNR representative in the Minsk agreement contact group Denis Pushilin and his aide. Among the data, analyzed by Radio Liberty’s Russian service, are Pushilin’s Skype messages as well as well as an archive from the Viber messenger of his aide, Aleksandr SerovThese messages tell a lot about “DNR’s” inner workings and the life of its leadership. They contain everything from reports to supervisors from Russian intelligence to Pushilin’s attempts to work in the Amway multi-level marketing system, bypassing US sanctions.

Машина наблюдателей ОБСЕ в Луганске
OSCE monitor car in Luhansk

The messages cover a period from spring 2014 to summer 2015. Pushilin’s Skype contains little interesting information – most of the messages published are routine correspondence with DNR ex-“minister of information and mass communications”Aleksandr Khryakov and his successor Elena Nikitina. For instance, Khryakov complains to Pushilin on the lack of gas needed to drive Russian and OSCE members of the truce monitoring committee around the Donbas. The minister also doesn’t like that his and Russians’ documents are routinely checked at “DNR” checkpoints:

“I’m driving Russians at the head of the convoy and OSCE goes in line after me!!! And they ask for papers at military checkpoints (just so you know)!!! And, you aren’t gonna believe this, but a car needs gas to move, it won’t move without it, see!!!”

Denis Pushilin’s Skype message dated 24 July 2015 mentions he is outside Donetsk “at a meeting with V. Yu.” These initials may mean Vladislav Yurievich Surkov, a Kremlin official who, according to uncofirmed data, supervised the first stage of Putin’s “Novorossiya” project. Pushilin admitted plans to meet Surkov in an interview to on June 18. Later he wrote on Skype that the meeting went well and “everything is ok.”

Much more information on how “DNR” functions may be derived from Viber messages of a certain “Petrovich.” The messages tell us that this is a cover for Aleksandr Petrovich Serov, codename “Chapai” (Serov’s profile where he calls himself Sergey), an old friend and colleague of Pushilin since the times the latter was just a head of an “MMM” Ponzi scheme in Donetsk and Makiivka (cities in Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast).


МММ was a Russian company that perpetrated one of the world’s largest Ponzi schemes of all time, in the 1990s. By different estimates from 5 to 40 million people lost up to $10 billion. The exact figures are not known even to the founders.

Source: Wikipedia

This is indeed a cover: according to Serov himself, most of his acquaintances think he was “killed in a shelling in Donetsk airport,” and only his children, girlfriend (who later became his wife) and the closest friends know he’s alive. At only two points in the correspondence does Serov reveal his true name. He needs it for filing an official paper and so that a middleman through which he bought weapons in Russia would recognize him. The authenticity of the messages is confirmed by a lot of names, last names, codenames, dates and other details matching real events of 2014-2015 in Eastern Ukraine.

Денис Пушилин в роли представителя
Denis Pushilin acting as “DNR” representative in the contact group on Minsk agreement monitoring, August 2015

It’s unclear how the hackers managed to access Serov’s correspondence by hacking Pushilin’s computer. Probably at some point Pushilin bought a new phone, while Serov received his old one and started actively using it. According to the messages, Serov performed technical functions: helped his friends with transportation and weapons, discussed the “republic’s” internal politics and planned on becoming an MP of the “DNR people’s council,” arranged moving Russians coming in and out of the Donbas across the border and even found a way to register his boss Pushilin in the US marketing network Amway, bypassing sanctions imposed on Pushilin by the US. The messages also mention Russians – both “vacation soldiers” and supervisors from the FSB [Federal Security Service] and GRU [Main Intelligence Directorate].

The Ponzi revolution 

The war does not stop Serov from advancing his MMM Ponzi scheme through both Russia and Ukraine, registering people in the system left and right, while at the same time looking to buy a used car in Russia, ostensibly “for DNR purposes,” but really for personal use.

В феврале 2014 года Денис Пушилин лично участвовал в открытии первого офиса
Denis Pushilin opening MMM’s first office in Simferopol, Crimea, on February 2014

In between discussing Grad attacks, he also attempted (successfully) to register Denis Pushilin in a US Amway network for distributing cosmetics and healthcare products. The procedure was complicated by the US sanctions against “DNR” leaders, including Pushilin.

Serov persuaded his correspondents in Russia to register in the MMM pyramid, operating in Russia since 1994. “MMM people made this revolution, that’s a fact,” Serov boasted in one of the messages.

Spreading the “Ponzi scheme revolution,” Serov discussed with his MMM colleague in Kyiv ways to peddle their scam to National Guardsmen stationed in Ukraine’s capital. “Ukraine would indirectly finance DNR,” he noted triumphantly.

False reports and border crossings

In June 2014, Serov arranged moving several colleagues across the Russia-Ukraine border. Apparently they did so through official channels, as they spoke of forging migration papers.

Going back to Russia included getting approval from pro-Russian fighters from Chechnya manning “DNR” checkpoints.

Бойцы из Чечни, воюющие на стороне сепаратистов
Chechen fighters forming parts of Russian hybrid troops

Other routine tasks include finding a drunken separatist fighter who went to Donetsk on foot or getting a template from “Luhansk Republic” officials for an appeal to another Russian-backed “republic” of South Ossetia to recognize “New Russia.”

In September 2014, right after the first ceasesifre was signed, Serov tells Alexau Muratov, head of “Donetsk Republic” movement in Russia and editor of a pro-“rebel” news websitе, to change the date of a video of a destroyed Ukrainian convoy in order to conceal a blatant ceasefire violation.

At some point, he also discussed “correcting” a Lifenews dispatch from Donetsk Airport, which showed the “rebels” being inept and lacking combat skills. The report, according to Serov, “didn’t follow the Guidelines.”

Something rotten in the Republic of Donetsk

Igor “Demon” Bezler

​Apparently Serov was close to Igor “Demon” Bezler, a terrorist commander in the town of Horlivka. On 1 July 2014, when Bezler refused to submit to “DNR” authorities and attempted a coup in Donetsk, Serov frantically wrote to a friend of his in Russia:

“Urgent: Bezler men (i.e. us) are declared terrorists and ordered to be shot on sight.” Serov considers fleeing to Russia, but doubts he would be safe enough even there. Apparently, he did manage to avoid persecution, since he didn’t move to Russia after all. 

Александр Бородай (слева) и
Aleksandr Borodai (left) with “DNR” “Prime Minister” Zakharchenko

Serov’s accounts tell of DNR’s internal strife, conflicts between Denis Pushilin and Aleksandr Borodai, a “political expert” from Moscow and another “DNR” “Founding father.” He wrote that Borodai was trying to push Pushilin’s dismissal through “DNR’s” “People’s council,” but the deputies were against putting the item on the agenda.

Serov blames another of the early “Novorossiya” leaders, Pavel Gubarev, for staging an attempt on his own life – in a message right after the media told about the incident.

Павел Губарев
Pavel Gubarev

Serov definitely envies media attention to Gubarev and reminds this is not the first “murder plot” against him.

Other messages speak of fierce competition between “DNR” units: Serov urges to film a report glorifying Bezler’s actions during the September 2014 Russian offensive, so that Motorola (another prominent rebel commander) or Zakharchenko’s “Oplot” battalion wouldn’t steal all the credit. 

In a July message, Serov admitted that “people [in Donetsk] say Putin is a d***head” and “Russians’ rating in Donbas is extremely low.” This may be related to Kremlin’s refusal to incorporate the “republics” into Russia via Crimea scenario.

In November, Serov planned to gain an MP seat during the sham “DNR” elections, but Pushilin would have none of it, which led Serov to complaining of forsaken ideals of their “revolution.” 

Later Serov also discussed Moscow plans to arrest Pushilin. This is perhaps why the frequent use of slogans like “Glory to Ukraine” in the messages may be not as ironic as it might seem.

Money, guns and loot

Владимир Путин с автоматом во время визита на Тульский оружейный завод в январе 2014 года
Vladimir Putin at the Tula weapons plant, March 2014

It turns out Denis Pushilin, who, according to a Russian investigation, was in charge of large sums of money for Kremlin’s “Novorossiya” project, didn’t give salaries to his aides, despite promising to “sponsor” them via “New Russia People’s Front”.

The “rebels,” however, did have the money to buy weapons at a plant in Tula, Russia. The list included “Kalashnikovs, handguns, RPGs, MANPADS, ammo and grenades.” This was done through “Eduard Popov,” “DNR” representative in Rostov, Russia, who may have arranged the deal via FSB.

In another July message, Serov describes “confiscating” a Renault Logan car as “humanitarian aid”.

The Supervisors

In Autumn 2014 Serov wrote to a certain “Roman Babushka” [“Grandma”] with detailed reports on raids and enemy movements. Babushka is one of the key figures in the correspondence; he renders artillery support to separatists during tough points in battle, organizes “supplies,” can “put a word to Zakhar” (i.e. promote someone to “DNR” head Zakharchenko). It’s “unwise to speak too much” about Babushka. It could represent a group of people (certain high-ranking Russian military or intelligence officials). At one point, Serov complains to Babushka that the “rebels” have no infrared sensors; at another, he boasts setting up a base in a luxurious mansion belonging to ex-president Yanukovych’s son.

From other messages, it becomes clear that any “DNR” appointment even at local level has to go through the ”supervisors” from Russian intelligence services. The procedure includes background checks and the candidates given a written agreement to cooperate with the intelligence operatives.

One of the Viber contacts (messages start in October 2014) is explicitly named “Konstantin GRU” (GRU being Russia’s military intelligence service). Upon Serov’s report on an unsuccessful raid, Konstantin notes sarcastically “I expected nothing else.”

Aleksandr Serov’s fate is unknown – his last VK message is dated 23 January 2015. Pushilin has been dismissed from leading “DNR” and keeps representing it in Omsk. Yevheniy Dokukin, the leader of “Ukrainian Cyber Army,” says the materials have been transferred to Ukrainian law enforcement and intelligence officials.

Edited by: Alya Shandra
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