Donetsk leadership in a nutshell


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By now, it’s pretty clear that the east-Ukrainian “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DNR”) and its sister “Luhansk People’s Republic” are Kremlin proxy states which exist thanks to Moscow. However, the daily operations are run by various groups which are often in conflict with each other. An analysis in the Ukrainian outlet Depo.Donbas sheds light on the processes going on in the “DNR.” It finds that Russia controls the overall situation in the pseudo-states via its law enforcement and military agencies. The local Donetsk and Luhansk authorities were created by Russia as tools of control over the regional economy and population, plus, the groups in power are used to create an illusion of legitimacy of the self-proclaimed statelets, with appear to have real political parties and government bodies, but in reality are anything but independent. Let’s take a closer look at the influential groups in occupied Donetsk.

Background of the takeover of Donbas

The protests against the Euromaidan (2013-2014) in Luhansk and Donetsk were mostly staged by pro-Russian local elites, linked to the Yanukovych’s Party of Regions (PoR). However, Russia supported any organizations and parties opposing the official Kyiv regardless of their ideology. The Russian intention was to sow chaos for creating the environment of uncertainty to instigate the separatist processes.  Local left parties were involved in protests, such as the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU), the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine (PSPU). Unpopular pro-Russian parties such as the Russian Bloc, “Ukraine’s Choice” were also active players.

The Local Donetsk and Luhansk elites were fooled about Russia’s plans. They believed that the Kremlin was once again their ally in bargaining more local power over the region from Kyiv just like the PoR did in 2005 after the Orange Revolution, or the elites were convinced that Russia was going to annex their Ukrainian regions as it did with Crimea. Neither was real.

The leaders of the local elites in two Eastern-Ukrainian provinces, head of PoR parliamentary faction Oleksandr Yefremov from Luhansk and Donetsk oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, probably believed that they had full control of the situation in their oblasts until they and most of their entourage had to flee the occupied territories later in 2014.

Read also: “Donetsk People’s Republic” ex-PM inadvertently admits he carried out Kremlin plans

As of February 2014, Donetsk Oblast was almost fully controlled by tycoon Akhmetov and the so-called “regionaires,” members of the Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. In the beginning of March, the separatists proclaimed Pavel Gubarev what they called a “people’s governor of Donetsk Oblast.”

Gubarev was a former member of a Russian neo-nazi party, the Russian National Unity (RNE). Denis Pushilin, a local representative of a Russian Ponzi scheme company MMM, became Gubarev’s deputy back then.

Aleksandr Zakharchenko, a Ukrainian citizen who was a chieftain of one of the Russian-trained militia groups that emerged in Donetsk in spring 2014, was appointed a “military commandant of Donetsk.” Later he became the “DNR head.”

One more prominent separatist leader in 2014 was Andrey Purgin, who had co-founded a separatist organization “Donetsk Republic” back in 2005. The “Donetsk Republic” wasn’t widely known until 2014, when the organization was promoted to a ruling party in the separatist pseudo-parliament.

The process of creating a fake statelet in Donetsk was controlled by Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov, who supervises the Kremlin separatist projects in the occupied territories of Ukraine and Georgia. Since 2015, he represents Russia in US-Russia talks on Ukraine. In 2015-2016, Surkov’s American counterpart was Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for Obama’s Administration and the negotiations were unofficial. This year, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appointed Kurt Volker as the United States Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations.

As of now, most of the leaders of occupied Donetsk are under the US and EU sanctions. Putin’s aide Surkov was placed under sanctions in mid-March 2014 as one of the organizers of the Crimean referendum staged by Russia to declare the Ukrainian peninsula independent and annex it a day later.

As of 2017, Aleksandr Zakharchenko concentrated most of the political power in Donetsk in his hands. His main political rival remains head of separatist government Denis Pushilin, who also represents Russia’s DNR in the Trilateral (Ukraine, Russia, OSCE) Contact Group on Ukraine, which was created to settle the military conflict in the Donbas.

Influential groups in occupied Donetsk

Depo.Donbas analyzed changes in the leadership of the so-called “DNR,” investigating what happened between the summers of 2016-2017. Euromaidan Press brings you a list of local Donetsk influential groups distinguished in the study, which we have translated and adapted, as well as updated and extended with the latest available data.

DNR influence

Graphics: Anna Naronina. Click to enlarge

Outsiders linked to DNR influence groups

Here is the list of personalities and organizations mentioned as linked to DNR internal influence groups outside the territory of the occupied areas of the Donetsk Oblast where the DNR operates:

  • Russia’s “Inter-ministerial Commission for the Provision of Humanitarian Aid for the affected Areas in the Southeast of the Regions of Donetsk and Luhansk” according to BILD is kind of a shadow government for the occupied territories of the Donbas, its mandate goes far beyond “humanitarian issues.”
  • Kremlin’s aide Vladislav Surkov has full control of both Donetsk and Luhansk “republics,” he is the Kremlin’s only envoy to the talks on Ukraine with the USA.
  • The GRU (Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces) is the Russian military intelligence service, its servicemen are directly involved in the military reconnaissance in the Donbas.
  • The FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service) control special services of the puppet republic.
  • The Staff of the Russia’s 8th combined-arms army of the South Military District of the Russian Federation has full control of the 1st Army Corps DNR, formed in Donetsk.
  • Vyacheslav Volodin was linked to Purgin group’s funding as he served as a deputy head of the presidential administration, later he became a Speaker of the Russia’s State Duma.
  • Essence of Time” is a Russian neo-Stalinist nationalist movement by Sergey Kurginyan, the movement is directly linked to its local group in Donetsk.
  • Russian deputy of the State Duma Kazbek Taysaev (Communist Party) is an intermediary of the Russian communists who fund the so-called Communist party of DNR.
  • Fugitive warlords  Yuri Safonenko, Igor Girkin, Igor Bezler, Vladimir Novikov who fled Donetsk to Russia usually criticize leaders of DNR and sometimes the pseudo-state in general.
  • So do fugitive radical separatists Yevgeny Shabaev, Roman Lyagin. The latter fled not to Russia but to Russia-occupied Crimea and became a harsh critic of the DNR.
  • Old Donetsk elite consists mostly former members of the Yanukovych’s Party of Regions who fled Donetsk in 2014 to Russia or Ukraine. Some of them departed merely after then president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych fled to the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don in February 2014, others left the province as the war burst out in the region between Ukrainian forces and the Russian-hybrid army (Summer 2014).

Influential groups of DNR

Actual influential groups in the temporarily occupied territory of Donetsk Oblast can be distinguished on the ground of researching the main military and political loci of influence of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (“DNR”) regardless the level of their involvement in the political process. Let’s take a closer look at the main groups as per the analysis of the centers of influence, having their branches (factions, separate groups). The analysis is based on the 2016-2017 data of DNR blogosphere and other open sources of information.

1. “Siloviki”

Siloviki is a post-Soviet term for “securocrats” – officers of all special services including army, police, spy agencies. This group includes members of law enforcement agencies of the “DNR” and the military operational command “Donetsk.” The group is under Russia’s full external control. “Siloviki” enforce the occupation policy in the background of the political structures formed in the occupied territory of the province to create an illusion of statesmanship of the proxy state. The subgroups within the group are as follows:

“The military” are officers of the operational command “Donetsk” (“the First Army Corps of Novorossiya”) and of the GRU (the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces). According to the Informational Resistance project, this Army Corps is under command of the Staff of the 8th combined-arms army of the South Military District of the Russian Federation.

“Law enforcers” (FSB group) is a subgroup containing officers of “MGB” (a security service named after WWII-times KGB’s then name), “MVD” (“Ministry of Internal Affairs”), “Prosecutor-General Office,” “Supreme Court,” “police.” Unlike “DNR’s” twin, the “LNR,” no serious conflicts have been recorded within this group. Members of this group are more probably struggling with the Russian officers ruling operational command “Donetsk” for the control of the Russia’s budget funding feeding Donetsk separatist forces.

Members of this group are Vladimir Pavlenko, Aleskey Dikiy, Eduard Yakubovsky, Aleksandr Kushch, Georgy Sepashvili, Igor Zagorodny, Andrey Spivak, head of Department of Organized Crime Control of MVD DNR Sergey Tishchenko etc. This group increased its impact since the beginning of 2016. The group is controlled by the FSB.

There was an attempt to take control of “police authorities” by MGB DNR. Conflicts were recorded with the group of Timofeyev-Kuleshov.

2. Aleksandr Zakharchenko team

This main influential political center was formed around the figure of Aleksandr Zakharchenko, Moscow-installed leader of the puppet Donetsk People’s Republic, on the ground of interests of several different military units and bureaucracy. The group includes the representatives of the so-called new Donetsk clan under the leadership of Zakharchenko, as well as Yanukovych-era bureaucrats from the oblast administration, city and raion councils. Subgroups within this influential center are as follows:

Zakharchenko subgroup is the group’s center acting as a moderator in the relations between other clans in the separatist power hierarchy.

So-called mayors of several cities gravitate toward this subgroup, such as Ivan Prikhodko (Horlivka), Andrey Darkovsky (Snizhne), Igor Martynov (ex-mayor of Donetsk) and other.

Aleksandr Kazakov, personal image-maker of Zakharchenko from Surkov’s team, can be designated as a member of this subgroup, as well as a string of the members of the People’s Soviet of DNR (fake parliament) such as Yekaterina Martyanova, Vyacheslav Soloshin, Andrey Borisov, Vasily Tkachuk.

Zakharchenko subgroup is consistently criticized by fugitive field commanders (Yuri Safonenko, Igor Girkin, Igor Bezler, Vladimir Novikov etc) and fugitive radical wing separatists (Yevgeny Shabaev, Roman Lyagin etc).

Timofeyev-Kuleshov subgroup is one of the most influential decision-making centers of the “DNR,” controlling small and medium enterprises by the means of “nationalizing” the markets and introducing a new taxation system. Leaders of this group, Aleksandr Timofeev (call sign “Tashkent”) and Konstantin Kuleshov are involved in high-scale schemes of the racket, seizing of businesses and real estates. The illegal armed group “Oplot” serves the subgroup’s leaders.

The group has ties to Vladislav Surkov and Aleksandr Babkov.

Timofeyev-Kuleshov subgroup conflicts with subgroups of Sergey Zavdoveyev (low-level conflict), Aleksandr Khodakovsky, “siloviki”, radical separatists.

Sergey Zavdoveyev subgroup includes militants of the armed gang “Unit of special risk Legion.” Sergey Zavdoveyev increases his power to control markets of the DNR for benefit of Zakharchenko (Legion gang is used for that) to diminish the influence of Aleksandr Timofeyev. Zavdoveyev also puts pressure on Zakharchenko key rival, field commander Aleksandr Khodakovsky. The subgroup’s leader is also a coordinator of the organization “Oplot of the Donbas.

Among other members of the subgroup there are:

  • deputy of the “People’s Soviet” Andrey Miroshnichenko;
  • deputy of the “People’s Soviet” Mikhail Tikhonov;
  • director of the state regulation department of appraisal of property Yelena Bort;
  • commander of the “Republic’s Guard” Grigory Belyayev;
  • head of the “Donetsk higher combined-arms command school” Aleksandr Kurenkov.