The leadership of the pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine has been thrown into disarray after the head of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic was killed in an explosion at a cafe designed to honor the separatists.
The death on August 31 of Aleksandr Zakharchenko at the Separ cafe — a separatist-themed establishment featuring camouflage netting hanging from its eaves — drove the separatist council into an emergency meeting and angered the separatists’ backers in Moscow.
Zakharchenko’s killing was the latest in a series of violent deaths of separatist officials and commanders in eastern Ukraine, where the Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting the central government in Kyiv since 2014 in a war that has killed more than 10,300. Many of the assassinations have been blamed on fellow separatists.
The TASS news agency reported that Zakharchenko’s bodyguard also died as a result of the blast, while a dozen others were injured.
The Donetsk News Agency said in a statement on its website that another separatist figure, Aleksandr Timofeyev, was injured in the blast and was in serious condition.
“According to verified data, the terror attack left two people dead. Those were Head of the Donetsk People Republic Aleksandr Zakharchenko and his bodyguard. Twelve people sustained injuries of varying degrees of severity,” Aleksandr Oprishchenko, health minister of the separatist entity that is called the Donetsk People’s Republic, was quoted as saying on September 1.
TASS and Interfax reported late on August 31 that Timofeyev’s condition had stabilized and his life was no longer in danger.
The TASS report quoted a separatist spokesman interviewed on Rossia-1 television as saying that a second, unidentified person had died from injuries sustained during the blast.
A reporter for the AFP news agency at the scene said police had cordoned off the block where the explosion occurred.
Local officials said traffic to and from Donetsk had been suspended and that the start of the school year would be delayed across the separatist-controlled region because of the attack.
Interfax reported that a curfew was reinstated in Donetsk starting at 11 p.m. local time on August 31.
TASS reported that the Donetsk separatists’ ruling council had gone into an emergency meeting.
Interfax and TASS reported afterwards that Dmitry Trapeznikov, the first deputy prime minister, had been named as acting leader. Reuters earlier quoted a source as saying that Denis Pushilin, head of the separatist legislature, would be named temporary leader.
Late on August 31, TASS quoted Trapeznikov as telling the Donetsk News Agency that “several suspects” in the blast were detained and in questioning “confirmed the Ukrainian side’s involvement in this crime.” The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has denied any role in the blast.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry was quick to blame Ukrainian authorities for the attack, saying Kyiv had decided to engage in a “bloody fight.”
Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova in an interview with Rossia-24 television early on September 1 claimed that “the Kyiv regime is driving its country to the verge of an all-out disaster at increasingly faster speeds.”
The Russian Investigative Committee announced an investigation into Zakharchenko’s killing while Zakharova called on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to also investigate.
“We call on the international community to wield its influence so that the investigation would be transparent, genuine, open, and prompt,” she told Rossia-24 television, according to TASS.
Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences for what he called a “contemptible murder,” adding that Russia’s state Investigative Committee was treating the killing as an act of “international terrorism.”
“The contemptible murder of Aleksandr Zakharchenko is further evidence that those who have chosen a path of terror, violence and fear do not want to search for a peaceful political solution to the conflict or have a real dialogue with the people in the southeast, but thrive on destabilization to bring the people of Donbas to their knees. This will not happen,” Putin said in a statement.
However, Ukraine’s security service said it believes the attack was the result of a conflict between “terrorists and their Russian sponsors.”
“We do not exclude an attempt by the Russian special services to eliminate a rather odious figure who, according to the information we have, was meddlesome for the Russians,” the security service was quoted by state media as saying.
The separatist movement has been plagued by infighting, with several leaders fleeing the region after saying they had been subject to threats from former comrades.
In February 2017, separatist commander Mikhail Tolstykh, 36, whose nom de guerre was Givi, died in an explosion in his office in Donetsk.
Another separatist commander — Arseny Pavlov, known as Motorola — was killed when a bomb exploded in an elevator in his apartment block in Donetsk in October 2016.
On January 1, 2015, Aleksandr Bednov, a separatist commander in Luhansk, was killed resisting arrest by fellow separatist authorities on charges he ran a torture chamber in the basement of a separatist-held building.
Since April 2014, more than 10,300 people have been killed in fighting between Kyiv’s forces and the pro-Russia separatists who control parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Moscow has denied providing the separatist forces with weapons despite what Kyiv and NATO say is evidence proving that it has done so.
Cease-fire deals announced as part of the Minsk accords — September 2014 and February 2015 pacts aimed at resolving the conflict — have regularly failed to hold.
Russia in 2014 also seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
The United States and the European Union have condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine and have slapped a series of sanctions against Moscow in response.
Zakharchenko, a former coal-mine electrician who was born in Donetsk in 1976, was sworn into office as the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic on November 4, 2014.
At one point, Zakharchenko announced plans to create a country called Malorossia — Little Russia — encompassing all of Ukraine with its capital in Donetsk.
However, in August 2017, Zakharchenko called off the plan, saying it “was rejected by many” after it was met with derision and criticism in Kyiv and the West and did not receive the Kremlin’s support.