The death of Mikhail Tolstykh (1980-2017), better known by his nickname Givi, was affirmed on February 8 by Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the Prime Minister of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (DNR), a separatist enclave within Donetsk Oblast of Ukraine.
Tolstykh died when a bomb exploded in his office around 6am. Zakharchenko accused the Ukrainian authorities of carrying out a terrorist attack and vowed to carry out revenge. In turn Ukraine’s SBU denied responsibility and attributed the assassination to internal disputes within the DNR.
Tolstykh is the latest of several rebel commanders to die during the conflict that has now lasted almost three years. On October 16, 2016, the commander of the Sparta Battalion, Arsen Pavlov (1983-2016), better known as ‘Motorola’, was also killed when a bomb exploded in the elevator of his apartment block in Donetsk. Zakharchenko himself has survived several assassination attempts, illustrating the precarious existence of prominent separatist leaders.
The group includes two others who were especially prominent in 2014, the time of the pivotal battles at Ilovaisk and Donetsk Airport that saw separatist successes with the aid of the Russian army (“volunteers,” according to Russian president Vladimir Putin): Pavel Gubarev from Severodonetsk and Igor Girkin from Moscow. Girkin in fact, based on his regular Twitter feeds, has returned to Donetsk, though evidently not in a leadership role.
Tolstykh and Pavlov were quintessentially men of action with few scruples. Tolstykh, who served initially in the Ukrainian army, maintained in an interview that his only ambition in life was to be a soldier. He was an overt admirer of Putin and his style of leadership, a supporter of Russia and a self-acclaimed patriot of the Donbas, the place of his birth—he was born in Ilovaisk. Girkin and Pavlov, on the other hand, were born in Russia, and in the case of the former prominent on several battlefronts that involved Russian intervention, including in Bosnia and Crimea.
Tolstykh and Pavlov were guilty of abusing prisoners of war, and even appeared in several YouTube videos beating captured Ukrainian soldiers. In one chilling clip, Tolstyk interrogates four prisoners, hitting them, and then taking out a knife, removing their epaulettes and forcing the Ukrainians to eat them. During this process, he abuses them with foul language and threatens to kill the main officer. Pavlov confessed to killing personally fifteen POWs and maintained consistently that Donbas was Russian territory.
Both justified their savage treatment of prisoners, which violated the Geneva Convention, by stating that the captured troops were responsible for the deaths of women and children in the city of Donetsk during the ATO bombardment of the city. In fact the location of the separatist troops in Donetsk was a result, ironically, of Putin’s abandonment of Girkin’s army, formerly based in Slaviansk. Rather than submit to capture and execution, Girkin led the remnants of his army into Donetsk, knowing that any Ukrainian attack would inevitably result in hundreds of civilian deaths. There they have remained despite the removal of Girkin as commander.
Givi gave several interviews in 2014-16, some taken by the freelance British reporter Graham Phillips, who has unequivocally supported the separatist cause. Many are grim, others more convivial, such as dancing in fatigues with two similarly clad women to the former Soviet group Kino during an elaborate party for Givi’s 35th birthday in Donetsk.
In another, Givi conceded that most male residents of Donetsk had taken no part in military activities, adding to the reporter that: ”We must agree that they are not men.” He cited the example of several women who were commanding separatist battalions but the impression given was that he and his fellow soldiers represented a minority of citizens.
In contrast to the better-educated and more intellectual Girkin, it was always hard to comprehend his life goals—and he must have known that his time was limited given the deaths of more than twelve fellow separatist leaders over the course of the past two years. He appeared to represent that nebulous phenomenon of a Soviet man, disillusioned by events in Ukraine that heralded change, Western ideas, and threats to the quasi-Soviet lifestyle he embraced.
In Ukraine few tears will be shed for the charismatic Givi, and the separatist cause is now bereft of leaders with his commitment to the cause of the DNR and the neighbouring ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’. Neither can survive without Russian support but what they are receiving is spasmodic and uncertain. The sudden breakout and attack on Avdiivka seems to have receded with new Russian air attacks in Syria and perhaps because of stubborn Ukrainian resistance.
The apparent cordial relationship between Putin and new US president Donald Trump also brings uncertainty. Putin might perhaps refrain from further aid to the two separatist regimes if Russian control over Crimea is not contested in The White House (though it clearly would be elsewhere in the US administration). And there have been few clear signs that Russia wishes to annex the regions under separatist control. On the contrary, they represent an unsustainable burden during tough economic times.
Thus the eventual return of the separatist enclaves to the government in Kyiv appears plausible, albeit in some autonomous or decentralized federal structure. Very few people are talking about Novorossiya in February 2017. That is not to doubt the sincerity of a figure like Givi, the archetypal brave but ruthless fanatic, who ultimately failed to attract fellow citizens to his cause.