Arsen "Motorola" Pavlov, commander of the Sparta Battalion of rebels in eastern Ukraine, was killed Oct. 16 when an improvised explosive device detonated in his apartment building. His bodyguard was also killed in the blast. Pavlov, who was Russian, arrived in Ukraine during the separatist uprising in 2014, after having served in the Russian army in other regional conflicts, including in Chechnya. He and his Sparta Battalion fought in some of the biggest battles of the Ukrainian conflict: in Slovyansk, where he gained media visibility; at the Donetsk airport; and in Debaltseve. His death comes amid suspicious circumstances.
It is unclear who is behind Pavlov's death. Several reports, rumors and claims of responsibility have surfaced, though none have been confirmed. The obscure far-right organization Misanthropic Division allegedly released a video claiming to be behind the attack, but it later denied responsibility, saying the video was a fake. Meanwhile, Luhansk People's Republic leader Denis Pushilin and Donetsk People's Republic leader Alexander Zakharchenko blamed the Ukrainian government for the hit. Kiev has denied involvement, saying that killing Motorola, a key witness of and perpetrator of war crimes, would contradict Ukraine's interest, given how valuable his testimony would have been in confirming Russia's role in the separatist movement. A third theory is that the attack is a result of infighting between different separatist camps. According to Ukrainian army support volunteer Roman Donik, Pavlov may have been killed on the orders of the commander of the 15th international brigade operating in Donbas because of unflattering comments his wife made against the people of Abkhazia.
Ukraine certainly has an interest in eliminating a high-profile leader such as Pavlov, but the residences of rebel leaders are guarded in separatist areas, and carrying out a hit would have been extremely difficult — but not impossible — for a Ukrainian agent. As for the possibility that the hit was a result of rebel infighting, there have been reports of intensifying rivalries between groups in Luhansk and Donetsk. It is also possible that Pavlov angered Russian agents with his criticism of Moscow for failing to mount a full offensive to annex Donbas.
Whoever is responsible, the attack was highly sophisticated. First, the ability to locate, research and infiltrate Pavlov's residence is significant. Even more significant was the intimate knowledge of Pavlov's comings and goings — down to the minute. The improvised explosive device was almost certainly detonated remotely, adding to the amount of tradecraft exhibited. Constructing such a device and then conducting the surveillance necessary to ensure its efficacy was not an easy task and was likely executed by a high-level operative, whatever his affiliation. It will be key to watch the security situation on the ground going forward. The hit could spark more fighting, as the Minsk agreement fails to gain traction and as the standoff over Ukraine between Russia and the West builds. In fact, other rebel leaders have already promised retribution for Pavlov's death.