Why Moscow Needs Its Warlords, And Why It Also Needs To Kill Them

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Saagar Enjeti White House Correspondent
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Russian-backed separatist leaders are increasingly being assassinated in eastern Ukraine, in what some say is a bid by Moscow to better control its proxies.

One prominent commander, Mikhail Tolstykh, was killed in eastern Ukraine Wednesday when an RPG went through his office window, killing him instantly. The separatists are engaged in an ongoing war with the Ukrainian military in a bid for supposed independence. Some members of the separatist movements have chafed under Moscow’s control.

The Ukrainian government believes Moscow is behind the killings, in order to reign in the more outlandish commanders. Tolystkh was one of the most high profile leaders of the separatist cause, and labeled by the Ukrainian government as a war criminal. Ukraine’s government refuses to engage in peace talks with rebels like Tolystkh. The New York Times noted Thursday that he may have been taken out in order to facilitate peace talks between the rebel leadership and the Ukrainian government.

The Associated Press also notes that amid the assassination campaign, a quiet effort to place more pro-Moscow bureaucrats among the breakaway republic’s staff has been successful. The AP elaborates:

While the unruly commanders were dying in car bombings, the leadership of the rebel-controlled parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions came to be dominated by bureaucrats with ties to ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Donbass native, rather than the commanders who led the uprising. Unlike the assassinated warlords, the Donetsk bureaucrats are seen as less extreme and more inclined to bargain with Kiev.”

Fighting in eastern Ukraine has ramped up in recent days, with dozens of casualties reported on both sides. Both the Ukrainian military and the Kremlin blame each other for the flare up, with some questioning whether it is Russian President Vladimir Putin testing President Donald Trump in his first days in office.

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