For many Russians, it was an unfamiliar sight to see the faces of the two leaders of the pro-Kremlin proxy states in eastern Ukraine pop up on their television screens last Friday, announcing the mass evacuation of Donbas citizens to Russia.
Since then, however, Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik, heads of the self-proclaimed republics in Luhansk and Donetsk, have seen their political profiles rocket, culminating on Monday with the two leaders asking the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to recognise their “republics”.
“This is their golden hour; they are quickly becoming stars,” said the political analyst Konstantin Skorkin, a Luhansk native who focuses on the region.
Amid reports of Russian tanks rolling into the Donbas, questions have arisen as to what extent the separatists have been acting on their own accord or are just pawns in the Kremlin’s bigger geopolitical aims.
“They are simply puppets of the Kremlin and the recent events only confirmed this once again,” said Skorkin.
He points to how each statement that the two leaders made over the past week was quickly picked up by state media and the Kremlin. “The Russian leadership coordinated everything and nothing was left to chance,” the analyst said.
The two regions have been highly dependent on Russian support since their formation in 2014 as they suffered economic collapse during their eight years of unrecognised independence.
The regions’ People’s Militia is also fully armed by the Russian state, and Ukrainian officials believe up to 11,000 Russian soldiers are permanently stationed in the Donbas.
“They just simply wouldn’t exist without Russian support,” said Nikolaus von Twickel, former OSCE staff member in Donetsk who has written extensively on the Donbas. “But their relationship with Moscow has changed over the years.”
In the chaos that followed the 2014 Maidan revolution, a number of rogue and unpredictable local leaders emerged as heads of the two separatist states. Von Twickel said the Kremlin had since worked systematically to replace these firebrands with trusted loyalists.
Analysts see 2018 as a turning point in the relative independence of the region, when Alexander Zakharchenko, the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk people’s republic, was killed in a car bomb and replaced by the more reliable Pushilin. The Ukrainian security service said at the time Zakharchenko’s death was a result of an operation by Russian special forces.
“Zacharchenko had his own personal army, and the Donbas even had its own defence ministry – all of that has disbanded since. It was a clear signal that the rebels will only act according to Kremlin’s rules,” Von Twickel said.
And while experts now point to the very limited autonomy of Pushilin and Pasechnik, closely following the two leaders can serve as a good indication of what the Kremlin may do next in Ukraine.
Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk people’s republic. Photograph: Alexander Ryumin/Tass
The younger and more charismatic of the two, not much is known about Pushilin’s early days in the Donbas.
He first came to prominence in 2011, while working for the infamous MMM group, a notorious Russian Ponzi scheme that is considered to be one of the world’s largest fraud organisations of all time.
“He is your typical wheeler-dealer kind of guy,” said Von Twickel.
Pushilin joined the separatist cause early on in 2014, but in contrast to some of the other Donetsk leaders, he never saw any large military action, often sporting a suit in public, a habit he was occasionally mocked for by the other rebels.
But over the years, Pushilin looked to have gained the Kremlin’s trust as he became the head of the region after the murky murder of Zakharchenko.
Pushilin has repeatedly expressed his desire for the region to be part of a “renewed Russian empire” rather than an independent state. “Donbas should be part of the Russian empire. I don’t see anything bad in imperialism,” he once said.
Leonid Pasechnik during a meeting with Vladimir Putin. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Prior to the 2014 Maidan revolution, Pasechnik had a long career in the Ukrainian security services, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
He first received national attention in 2006 when in a special operation he intercepted 7.24m Russian roubles in cash (almost £2m) that was being smuggled across the Russian-Ukrainian border. Pasechnik reportedly refused to take a bribe from the smugglers in the operation, receiving a medal from the pro-western Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, for the operation.
Like many other generals in the Ukrainian security services in the Donbas, Pasechnik chose the side of the pro-Russian separatists in 2014, when he headed the notorious state security department of the self-proclaimed Luhansk people’s republic.
“He operated the main prisons and the so-called isolation cells, cellars where pretty sinister stuff happened,” said Von Twickel, referring to the many media reports depicting stories of torture of those who opposed the separatists.
In 2017, Pasechnik emerged as the victor of a violent power struggle with the then head of Luhansk, Igor Plotnitsky. Not much has since been heard from the camera-shy and timid Pasechnik, and he has somewhat looked out of place as he was suddenly sprung into the country’s spotlight.