A week before he died, Aleksey Mozgovoi was dismissive about threats to his life. “They wouldn’t risk making anybody a hero,” he told The Independent. Those would be his last words on the subject. Seven days after his last interview, on Saturday at about 5.30pm local time, the outspoken rebel commander was assassinated in a hail of gunfire.
Mr Mozgovoi could not have failed to understand the dangers he was facing. Barely two months earlier, he survived an almost identical ambush on the Alchevsk-Luhansk highway just outside the village of Mikhailovka – almost the same spot where he would eventually meet his end. Then, Mr Mozgovoi escaped with minor shrapnel wounds: the directional mines used in the attack were too far from the road to cause serious injury. Mr Mozgovoi had described receiving death threats from “corrupt” people connected to the “feeding trough” of humanitarian aid. But he had always declined to name names.
Directional mines were again believed to be at play when he died. Investigators working at the scene told The Independent that they had found craters from mines as well as spent shells consistent with machine-gun and Kalashnikov fire. A trail of blood, glass and tyre tracks left no doubt as to the terror of Mr Mozgovoi’s final seconds. Six others were believed to have died in the attack, including Mr Mozgovoi’s press secretary and three civilians.
Authorities of the “Luhansk People’s Republic” have been quick to push a theory that subversive groups loyal to Kiev were responsible for the assassination. This has also become the official position of the acting commander of Mr Mozgovoi’s “Ghost” battalion, Yuri Shevchenko. “I believe that in the context of war, it is criminal to put forward other versions,” he told The Independent.
In the seemingly lawless rebel-held eastern regions of Ukraine, many factions of rebel groups have emerged in recent months. A “Ukrainian nationalist” group identifying itself as “Shadow” claimed responsibility for the attack. It has, however, made similar and generally unreliable claims in the past. Few in Mr Mozgovoi’s battalion seem convinced by the official story of Ukrainian subversive groups. Kirill Androsov, a deputy commander with responsibility for humanitarian aid, said he would “never” believe such a story. “His killers were internal,” Mr Androsov said elliptically, refusing to elaborate.
Another soldier on the highway, going by the nom-de-guerre of “Tiny”, said he did not believe Ukrainians had the capacity to launch such an elaborate attack deep inside rebel-controlled territory.
The Luhansk official press service issued a statement saying that the assassination of Mr Mozgovoi had been designed to “undermine the union between Alchevsk and Luhansk”.
It is well known that Mr Mozgovoi had difficult relations with the Russian-annointed leaders in the region. Separatist leaders in Luhansk, for their part, have made little secret that they considered Mr Mozgovoi to be an exasperating partner. After the removal of other outspoken leaders, Mr Mozgovoi had also become the most visible. In January, Alexander Bednov, commander of “Batman” battalion, a unit with strong Russian links, was killed in Luhansk under suspicious circumstances. Later, another field commander, Cossack leader Nikolai Kositsyn, was sent back to his native Russia.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
Yesterday, as the soldiers of Ghost battalion gathered around the Alchevsk security services building that Mr Mozgovoi had made his home, they mumbled about their shock at their commander’s death. Some had been drinking heavily through the night. Deputy Commander Androsov said he had lost a “father figure”. He said: “Aleksey changed me. Before, I always thought about myself, but now I think about the people.” Mr Androsov revealed that some soldiers had found Mr Mozgovoi’s methods “too severe” and had deserted. The people who remained in the battalion were hardcore “idealists”, he said.
Among the three civilian victims of Saturday’s attack was Yakov Tarakai, 37, and his heavily pregnant wife. Yakov’s mother, Raisa Tarakai, had also made her way to the gathering outside the Alchevsk security services building. Dressed in a black headscarf, Mrs Tarakai said her family had been against the war. “Everyone thinks we’re separatists, we’re rebels, but we’re peaceful people, and we just don’t want our kids to die,” she sobbed. “I just can’t imagine that I won’t be seeing Yasha again.”
Several of the soldiers were in tears. “Mother, forgive us, it’s war”, one said. “I can’t imagine that I won’t be able to go upstairs to see my commander,” added an emotional Mr Androsov, who promised that the battalion would cover funeral costs for the pensioner.
Unhappy with the suggestion of burying her son in military uniform, Mrs Tarakai eventually managed to persuade the deputy commander to buy him a proper suit. “He was a young man and he hadn’t prepared for his funeral,” she said.
Many now assume the future of Mr Mozgovoi’s battalion to be under threat following his assassination. Such a development would follow the example of Mr Bednov’s Batman battalion, which was quietly dissolved following his death. But representatives of the Ghost battalion said it would continue under a new commander, but they did not seem overly confident.
By 6pm last night, a crowd of about 600 soldiers and locals had gathered at the main square in Alchevsk, a town north-east of Donestsk, to mark the passing of a man who had become an unlikely local celebrity. They were treated to a reading of Mr Mozgovoi’s own, eerily appropriate poetry.
It’s not so bad to die in May
It’s easy to dig the grave
Nightingales will sing
For the last time –
And with it, an era seemed to pass.Reuse content