Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of Russian-backed separatists of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic was killed on Friday in a blast at a cafe in downtown Donetsk.
The official media arm of the unrecognized republic confirmed Zakharchenko’s death — along with injuries to at least one other rebel government official — in an explosion it labeled a “terrorist attack.”
The assassination, the latest in a series against prominent pro-Russian rebels fighting in east Ukraine, risked reigniting already simmering tensions between Russia and Ukraine over the fate of a region that has emerged as a key flashpoint in the war in the Donbass.
Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly issued a statement to the Kremlin website expressing condolences over the loss and denouncing the assassination saying it was an attempt to further derail stalled international peace talks aimed at ending a conflict that has killed over 10,000 since it began in 2014.
“It is the latest proof: those who have chosen the path of terror, violence, (and) fear do not want to seek a peaceful, political solution to the conflict,” said the Russian leader.
“Instead, they put a dangerous bet on the destabilization of the situation, in order to put the people of Donbass on their knees. And that will never happen,” added Putin.
A statement by Russia’s Foreign Ministry went further — placing blame for the assassination directly on the Ukrainian government in Kyiv.
Ukrainian officials, in turn, said rebel infighting was to blame for the attack, while not ruling out a possible Kremlin motive.
“We don’t exclude attempts by Russian special services to rid themselves of a rather odious figure,” said Igor Guskov, the head of the Ukrainian Security Forces, suggesting Zakharchenko may have crossed Russian interests in the region.
Zakharchenko was a key figure from the beginning of pro-Russian rebels’ push for independence in the Donbass — a movement launched in the wake of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
He assumed the leadership post in April of 2014 — taking over the prime minister’s post from Alexander Borodai, a political operator from Moscow whose role in the Donetsk uprising seemed only underscore suspicions of Kremlin involvement, if not direct sponsorship.
“Crimea and the Donbass were part of Ukraine and now they’re both de facto no longer part of the Ukrainian state,” said Borodai, in an interview in Moscow earlier this year.
“The Donbass … ultimately, it will become part of Russia,” warned Borodai.
Moscow, however, insists it has no role in the Ukrainian conflict — describing Russian fighters involved in the war as merely passionate “volunteers” eager to defend the rights of Russian speakers following a street revolution that saw the overthrow of a pro-Russian government in Kyiv in February 2014.
While the Kremlin has repeatedly called the Kyiv revolution a “fascist junta,” it has slowly distanced itself from rebels’ calls to formally recognize the republic amid a raft of western sanctions issued over Russia’s actions in the region.