war crimes in Ukraine

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Russian-controlled ‘Donbas republic’ accuses Ukraine & USA of killing militant leader Zakharchenko

Halya Coynash
A Ukrainian held hostage since late 2017 has been shown on Russian TV ‘confessing’ to a Ukrainian Security Service plot to kill Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk people’s republic killed three weeks ago .

A Ukrainian held hostage since 30 November 2017 has been shown on Russian and pro-Russian television ‘confessing’ to planning to kill Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk people’s republic [DPR] on instructions from Ukraine’s SBU [security service].  Since Zakharchenko was killed on 31 August 2018, many months after Oleksandr Pohorelov was seized at a checkpoint, the Russian-backed story has required some rather bizarre adjustment. 

Pohorelov’s sister and friends sounded the alarm on 2 December 2017, explaining that he had set off in the direction of the Olenivka checkpoint (under ‘DPR’ control), and had disappeared. 

He has now surfaced, rattling off a story at machine-gun speed, with this alone making it highly likely that he is saying what he has been forced to say, probably under threat of further torture.

Zakharchenko was installed as leader, replacing Russian Alexander Borodai, on 7 August 2014.  This was just weeks after a Russian Buk missile downed Malaysian airliner MH17 over militant-controlled Donbas, and it was probably seen as strategically wiser to remove the Russian leaders and put Ukrainian nationals in prominent posts.  He remained in that post until he was killed by a bomb explosion in the ‘Separ’ [‘Separatist’] restaurant in the very centre of Donetsk on 31 August.   Zakharchenko was known to be very security-conscious, and the restaurant reportedly belonged to him.  Since the bomb was planted in a lamp or chandelier, even if it was, as asserted, detonated by remote control, the person who planted the device must have been somebody who was viewed as trustworthy.  As Zakharchenko was the only person killed outright, it sounds like the person detonating the device knew exactly when he was passing. 

It was to be expected that both the ‘DPR’ and Moscow would blame Kyiv for Zakharchenko’s killing.  Russia’s Investigative Committee even initiated a criminal investigation under Article 361 § 3 of Russia’s criminal code (international terrorism) with the Committee noting that “such actions are also aimed against the interests of the Russian Federation in the sphere of countering terrorism”.  TASS reported that Russian security service [FSB] officials had been sent to ‘help in the investigation’, which they  did by stating as early as 3 September that the SBU was probably behind it.

The problems with the ‘Ukrainian hand in it’ version were evident from the outset, given the maximum security around Zakharchenko and the placing of the bomb.  Kommersant reported a day after the killing that the culprits were being sought among those around Zakharchenko.

This does not appear to have stopped the militants from making mass arrests merely of passers-by.  Pavlo Lysyansky, the Ukrainian Human Rights Ombudsperson’s representative in Donbas, reported that he was aware of 19 people in Donetsk having disappeared.  His source had said that four of the 19 had already ‘confessed’ to working for Ukrainian authorities, almost certainly under torture.

There had been reports over the previous weekend that the militants were accusing the SBU of the killing and claiming they had received western help to do so. What these allegations were based on became clear on Monday, 17 September, when TV ‘Zvezda’, a channel linked to Russia’s Defence Ministry (and other Russian media) broadcast Pohorelov’s ‘confession’.  It is typical of such films that the ‘interrogator’ is not shown, however on this occasion, his voice was absurdly distorted, raising questions as to what it was they wished to conceal.

Pohorelov says on the tape that he was ‘recruited’ by the SBU in 2014, and adopted the code-name ‘Legioneer’.  He asserts that he earlier unsuccessfully planted a bomb in the Donetsk restaurant ‘Pushkin’.   Supposedly because of the difficulty in knowing where Zakharchenko would sit, it was decided that he plant an explosive device supposedly prepared by SBU technical specialists and with a video camera in the toilet.  Why it was supposed that this would kill Zakharchenko is unclear, and nothing is mentioned about why it didn’t work.  As is often the case with such suspect ‘confessions’, the video seems to be a montage. 

The distorted voice then asks if he knows about other such sabotage groups, and Pohorelov once again pours out an answer about how his recruiter ‘Sergei’ told him of another sabotage group planning an attack in another restaurant.  Although the answers sound as though learned by heart, he does need to be prompted.  The story that thus emerges is that the second group planned to use a new system for a remote-controlled explosive device able to recognize a signal at a distance of around two kilometres, regardless of walls, etc.  He asserts that this was tested in Kyiv but never used, and that it was provided by the US security service. 

‘Zvezda’ does note that Pohorelov had been seized much earlier, but claims that it was only after Zakharchenko’s killing, that the ‘DPR ministry of state security’ showed this footage. 

That would beg the question of why such an apparent warning was ignored.  It is not the only aspect of the story that seems entirely implausible, and still fails to answer fundamental questions like how the bomb came to be planted in a chandelier and detonated just as Zakharchenko was passing.  This, after all, was supposed to be one SBU-organized sabotage group working in parallel with another in which Pohorelov was supposed to just leave a bomb in a toilet since they didn’t know where the target might sit.  He might just be among the multiple victims of the second slap-dash plan.

It is perhaps no accident that the ‘Pohorelov story’ was made public on the same day as new Russian attempts to claim, against all evidence and the findings of the International Joint Investigation Team, that MH17 was downed by a Ukrainian-held missile, and not the Russian Buk missile.

Certainly Russian media chose to find nothing implausible about the Pohorelov ‘confession’.  Quite the contrary.  The state-owned RIA Novosti immediately posted an article entitled: ‘Analyst: Ukraine should be declared a terrorist state’.

The ‘analyst’ – Ruslan Ostashko – did not question any part of a story that failed to reach even a base level of credibility, saying instead that it “shows that Ukraine is an openly terrorist state which uses terrorist methods”.  He goes on to say that it’s no secret what the US provides to Ukraine and claims that this includes sophisticated equipment for terrorist acts in Donbas.

A number of militant leaders have died violent and / or unexplained deaths, including one or two in Russia.  One possible explanation considered by Ukrainian and western analysts is that Russia wanted the men dead.   In Zakharchenko’s case, he had many enemies and rivals, with that also considered a possible explanation.  

If Kyiv had been behind it, it is not totally clear why they should deny it, given Zakharchenko’s role in the death, torture, and illegal imprisonment of a huge number of Ukrainians.  Zakharchenko was also on record effectively admitting to war crimes and he would certainly have been somebody very many Ukrainians would have preferred to see alive, but on trial at the International Criminal Court.

This is not the first time that the ‘DPR’ have forced videoed ‘confessions’ from prisoners of war or hostages with the latter ‘admitting’ to carrying out killings, with both Ukraine and the USA blamed there too

(see, for example,

Captured Ukrainian soldiers ‘confess’ to militant killings & terrorism in Donbas & Russia

Kremlin-backed Donbas militants accuse Ukraine and USA of ‘terrorist’ killings

This time is noticeable for the leading role taken by Russian propaganda media.  Since the militants in Donbas have taken their lead with such videoed ‘confessions’ from Russia’s FSB, you would not expect the Russian channels to question how such ‘testimony’ was obtained.  It is, however, noticeable in most, if not all, of the reports, t that there is no attempt to even inform their audience that these are self-proclaimed ‘republics’ whom even Russia has stopped short of formally recognizing.

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