Ukraine: A Rebel Leader Is Killed, Testing the Conflict's Limits

3 MINS READFeb 8, 2017 | 21:00 GMT

A rebel commander in eastern Ukraine was killed Feb 8. Mikhail Tolstykh, known by the codename Givi, was reportedly targeted by a Schmel anti-tank missile at his office in Donetsk just after 6 a.m. local time. Givi played an influential role as a military leader of the Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine, participating in key battles at the Donetsk airport and, most recently, in the city of Avdiivka.

Separatist leaders quickly blamed Ukraine for assassinating Givi, and a spokesman for the Donetsk People's Republic said the attack was organized by the Ukrainian intelligence services. Givi's murder was notable for its timing, just four days after a defense official of the Luhansk People's Republic was killed in a car bombing. It also comes just a few months after another rebel military commander known as Motorola was killed in an apparent hit in October.

Ukraine has denied responsibility for the attacks, though Kiev certainly has an interest in taking out the separatist military leaders, particularly those who are more aggressive such as Givi and Motorola. It's also been speculated that Russia could somehow be involved in the assassinations so as to reign in more unruly rebel elements, but the Kremlin has officially denied using the tactic. Regardless of who is responsible, Givi's death is notable for another reason: It comes amid the uptick in fighting in Avdiivka.

Over the past two weeks, the city has been under intense shelling by separatist forces. A temporary cease-fire was established over the weekend to administer humanitarian assistance with the help of Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. But artillery fire has restarted, albeit at a lower intensity and with fewer casualties. In the meantime, the Donetsk People's Republic revealed on Feb. 8 that it had presented Ukraine and the OSCE with a cease-fire plan that includes pulling back heavy weaponry from Avdiivka.

In the end, major fighting between Ukrainian and separatist forces is unlikely to erupt. Neither side has enough logistical support (i.e. tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers) in the area to launch a major offensive to capture the next town across the front line. It's becoming more likely that the flare-up was not intended to capture territory, but to raise attention of the conflict internationally. Ukraine and Russia want to test the new U.S. administration to see how it will react. In this context, it is noteworthy that more aggressive rebel leaders — Givi included — are increasingly coming under pressure.

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