Written by Nikolaus von Twickel
Wiretapped conversations released by Ukraine’s intelligence agency back the theory that the killing of separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko was organized by people in Moscow and Donetsk involving his Kremlin-backed successor Denis Pushilin. Both Pushilin and Luhansk leader Leonid Pasechnik are unlikely to face serious challengers in the November 11 “elections”.
Was Zakharchenko’s assassination planned in Antalya?
The Ukrainian intelligence service SBU published three recordings in relation to Zakharchenko’s August 31 assassination and the ensuing purge of his allies. The key recording, released on September 27, is an excerpt from a four-hour long talk between three men held in a restaurant in the Turkish resort of Antalya in June 12. The SBU said that one of them is Alexander Lavrentyev, an aide of Denis Pushilin, who then served as Speaker of “Parliament”.
In the five-minute recording, the man identified by the SBU as Lavrentyev mentions the necessity “to remove Zakharchenko without elections before September”. Zakharchenko was killed by a bomb blast on August 31.
The other two men were not identified but are thought to represent either the Kremlin or Russian security services. That fact that one of them is heard as saying “Zakharchenko is supported by Surkov” may indicate that Zakharchenko’s assassination was ordered by a Kremlin faction opposed to Vladislav Surkov, who as President Putin’s chief aide for eastern Ukraine is responsible for Moscow’s policies vis-à-vis Donetsk and Luhansk. Surkov has ostensibly backed Pushilin as Zakharchenko’s successor.
An analysis of the recording by Ukrainian journalist Serhiy Garmash concludes that the decision to remove the “DNR” leader was made because political compromise was impossible with Zakharchenko. Garmash speculates that the aim could be a peacekeeping force, which is currently being debated at the United Nations’ General Assembly, which lasts until 5 October 2018.
However, while Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko made another call for such a mission when he addressed the Assembly on February 20, no progress is in sight. Ukraine and her allies insist that peacekeepers must be deployed throughout the separatist-held areas including along the border with Russia. Moscow, by contrast, wants a force only along the “Contact Line” that divides the separatists from government-controlled areas.
Lavrentyev, who according to the SBU is a Kazakh citizen, says in the recording that his initial responsibility has been to provide security (to Pushilin). Garmash speculates that Moscow sent him to Donetsk in 2014 to protect Pushilin. The separatist leader was the target of two failed assassination attempts in June 2014.
The SBU said that it “obtained” the recordings but did not say from whom and how. Anatoly Nesmiyan, a prominent Russian blogger, speculated that the recording came from Turkish intelligence services.
Khodakovsky and Strelkov suggest the audio is authentic
However, two prominent former separatist commanders suggested that the recordings are authentic. Alexander Khodakovsky, the founder of the “Vostok” brigade, said in a September 27 Vkontakte post that Lavrentyev had been careless when discussing such sensitive plans: “He let a leak happen that put everybody in an embarrassing position,” he said.
Later the same day, Igor Girkin, the Russian FSB veteran who was first “DNR” Defence “Minister” in 2014, said that he had confirmation that the recording was real and that Lavrentyev had indeed worked closely with Pushilin. “I suppose that Pushilin’s team knew that ‘certain things’ would happen to Zakharchenko in September,” Girkin, who is known by his nom de guerre Strelkov, wrote on Vkontakte.
Trapeznikov discussed Timofeyev’s sacking
Three days earlier, on September 24, the SBU published recordings of two phone calls made by initial interim leader Dmitry Trapeznikov on the evening of September 6, one day before he was replaced by Pushilin.
In the first call, Trapeznikov tells Zakharchenko’s adviser Alexander Kazakov that Surkov is about to make a decision about the separatist leadership at a meeting in Moscow. In the second call, Trapeznikov talks to Pushilin about the imminent sacking of Zakharchenko’s powerful deputy Alexander Timofeyev and Kazakov’s possible detention.
Pushilin sacked Timofeyev on September 7, shortly after being elected interim leader by “parliament”. But while Trapeznikov accepted defeat and endorsed Pushilin, Timofeyev and Kazakov fled to Moscow, where they remain to this day. Timofeyev has been accused of large-scale corruption in official separatist media. After the SBU release, Kazakov wrote on Facebook that over coffee in Moscow he and Timofeyev laughed about the recording and suggested that it was fake.
Russian TV report parades “Ukrainian agent”
On September 30, Russian state TV news programme “Vesti Nedeli” broadcast a report from Donetsk, in which a handcuffed prisoner claims that he was part of an SBU-trained group which in 2016 killed field commander Arsen Pavlov (“Motorola”) and later plotted to kill Zakharchenko – a plan that was foiled by the separatists. The prisoner, identified as a local called Alexander Pogorelov, then suggests that another SBU-trained group carried out the successful attack on August 31 – with an American-made bomb.
Pogorelov has been paraded before on Russia’s “Zvezda” channel (see Newsletter 43) and his “confession” is just as dubious as previous ones published by the separatist “State Security Ministries” (MGB). However, the “Vesti Nedeli” report showed exclusive surveillance camera footage of the blast, which makes it clear that the organizers must have had privileged access to the Café “Separ” because the bomb was hidden in the entrance’s ceiling (earlier reports suggested that it was in a lamp). This and the fact that the report’s author does not address the question how this could have been achieved by a purported Ukrainian group, strongly points to an “inside job”.
Waning hopes for competition at “elections”
Meanwhile, it looked more likely that Denis Pushilin won’t face any serious competitors in the November 11 leadership “elections”. The last prominent opponent, Pavel Gubarev, faced pressure from authorities, but managed to hand in the necessary signatures for is candidature on September 30. It was unclear when the Election Commission will decide on whether to accept them or not.
On September 29, Gubarev said that his wife, Katya Gubareva, had disappeared and was not answering calls. Hours later, she reappeared, but only after a convention of Svobodny Donbass, the nominal opposition movement went ahead without her.
Gubareva explained that she had been summoned for questioning and that she had been told that the convention would go forward without her. She did not say who summoned her and who questioned her. “After her release she “ended up with D. Pushilin,” she wrote, without elaborating.
Gubareva, who served as the Donetsk separatist “Foreign Minister” in 2014, has been an MP for Svobodny Donbass since November of that year. However, she seems to enjoy only partial support and enough delegates were ready to attend the convention and approve the candidate list without her. The “DNR” Election Commission said on September 30 that the list had been passed without violations. The website of Svobodny Donbass and of Gubarev’s media outlets “DNR Live” and novorossia.su were offline for the whole weekend.
Also on September 29, a bomb exploded outside the house where the “DNR” Communist Party was holding a convention in Donetsk, injuring election candidate Igor Khakimzyanov. While the Communist Party is not registered, Khakimzyanov had been collecting signatures at the convention for his candidacy in the November election. As a result, he did not hand in any signatures and was subsequently excluded from the race. “DNR” official media accused him of staging the explosion in order to raise attention to his candidacy. Khakimzyanov served as the Donetsk separatists’ first Defence Minister for less than one month in early 2014.
Already on September 20, former field commander Alexander Khodakovsky, for years the most vocal critic of the Donetsk separatist leadership, was prevented from entering the “DNR” (see Newsletter 43).
Pushilin, meanwhile, took all hurdles for the November 11 “elections” by receiving official candidate status on September 28. Pushilin also assumed the chairmanship of the “DNR” ruling party “Donetsk Republic” after delegates approved him unanimously during a convention on September 25. The chair was previously held by Zakharchenko, while Pushilin served as executive officer until he was ousted last year (see Newsletter 24).
“Donetsk Republic” also received participant status for the parliamentary elections, which are scheduled to be held parallel with the leadership vote on November 11.
Pasechnik to face three obscure candidates
In Luhansk, the number of candidates that might stand against separatist leader Leonid Pasechnik has been reduced to three. The “LNR” Election Commission said on September 28 that only four of the eight registered candidates handed in the signature lists necessary to receive official candidate status. Pasechnik is one of them. The former intelligence officer, who has never been elected and came to power after a coup last year, is expected to win the election easily because there are no prominent figures at all among the seven original contestants.
Ukraine and her Western allies condemn the “elections” as violating the Minsk agreement, which stipulates the holding of local elections under Ukrainian law. If they are carried out, Russia proves its disdain for the obligations it took on in Minsk, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Ihor Prokopchuk, was quoted as saying on September 28.