Crisis in Ukraine
'In Cold Blood' in Ukraine
The murder of a small-town politician is tied to the network of Russian agents, mobsters and local thugs now running much of eastern Ukraine.
KIEV, Ukraine — They left home early on the day he went missing—she for the clinic where she works as a gynecologist and he…she isn’t exactly sure where. It was April 17 and he had promised to be home early to prepare for Easter weekend but the next time she saw him six agonizing days later he was lying dead on a gurney with his face smashed.
Forty-two-year-old policeman-turned-politician Volodymyr Rybak was a city councilor in the eastern Ukrainian town of Horlivka, right in the heart of Ukraine’s so-called Bermuda Triangle where dozens have gone missing in the past few weeks, victims of pro-Russian separatist goon squads. He had angered militants by trying to pull down their flag atop a local municipal building to replace it with the Ukrainian banner. He had been bundled into a car by masked gunmen.
Friends had snuck Elena Rybak past pro-Russian separatist checkpoints and slipped her into the morgue of the neighboring town of Slovyansk, a stronghold of armed pro-Russian militiamen in the region, to confirm her worst fears.
“His jaw was shattered,” she says when we meet in Kiev. Tears are welling in her brown eyes. She didn’t have time to examine thoroughly her husband’s body, she says, there was danger being there and she was consumed with grief, as was the couple’s 25-year-old-son—but describing what she saw to The Daily Beast forces this medical professional to pause for a long time struggling to control her emotions at what had befallen the man she still loved passionately after years of marriage.
She turns to the couple’s thirteen-year-old daughter and tries gently to persuade her to leave. But the girl with long brown hair and dark circles under her green eyes jiggles her head, displaying all the stubbornness of her father. Forty-nine-year-old Elena brings a trembling hand to the bridge of her nose and makes a slashing movement across it. “They cut deep here, I think, with an axe, “ she says. Her daughter sinks deeper into the chair. “There was a hole behind his left ear about this size,” she adds, indicating the size of a coin. She doesn’t know what caused it—there was no exit wound.
Elena Rybak says the cause of death in the autopsy report given to her at the morgue by a nervous medical examiner on April 23 was a deep wound to the chest penetrating the lungs. The report, detailing multiple deep stab wounds to the stomach, suggests Rybak was dumped still alive in a river near Slovanysk where he was later found, officially noted as Easter Monday. The body of 19-year-old Kiev pro-unity student Yuriy Propavko was found nearby.
When news broke last week of Rybak’s gruesome murder there was outrage nationally and Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, cited his slaying in his call to relaunch Kiev’s off-and-on “anti-terrorist operation” in the region. But on Wednesday of this week Turchynov conceded finally that the resumed military campaign to restore order and to combat Moscow-backed separatists is hopeless, declaring that Ukrainian security forces have lost control of an industrial region with a population of more than six million abutting the Russian border.
Ukraine’s acting leader blamed security forces’ “inactivity, helplessness and even criminal betrayal” for what many in Kiev fear may mark the permanent loss of Donetsk and the Donbas region, the industrial powerhouse of the country.
If any murder encapsulates the impotence of the Kiev authorities to counter the threat of the separatists in eastern Ukraine it is Rybak’s. Neither his status as a former police detective in Horlivka nor his standing as a popular local politician protected him. His widow suspects members of the town’s police may have been involved or at least colluded in his murder. His slaying sums up the lawlessness now gripping the region and the impunity with which separatists can act.
Rybak’s murder also highlights the various strands woven into the insurgency in the east—Russian undercover agents, who the Ukrainian authorities say ordered the killing, local thugs and hoodlum bosses they rely on and associates and aides of the ousted Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, who now are emboldened enough to travel freely throughout the east to help oversee the insurgency and channel funds for it.
The aides include Yury Ivanyuschenko, a Ukrainian magnate, politician and Yanukovych business partner, once described by the Ukrainian media as the ousted President’s “left hand man” — “left” denoting shady in Russian. He has been traveling back and forth between Russia’s Rostov-on-Don and eastern Ukraine, anti-corruption officials tell The Daily Beast.
In press accounts of Rybak’s murder the motivation behind his slaying is put down to his confronting separatists and their anger at his effrontery in trying to haul down the flag of the self-styled Donetsk Republic and raise the yellow-and-blue standard of Ukraine in its place. On April 17 a videographer from a local news-site captured the confrontation when several masked men in camouflage manhandled the outspoken local politician outside Horlivka’s city hall.
Eyewitnesses say they saw him being bundled by gunmen into a Kia car later that afternoon, around 5:00 p.m.
The night before husband and wife had talked and Elena had appealed to him to be careful in his outspoken opposition to the separatists.
“There are many things he didn’t tell me,” she says. “But I asked him to be careful. He wasn’t the kind of man to hold back. His mentality was very European. He was very honest with himself and with people around him and made no secret of his views. He thought politics should be about improving people’s lives and not about lining your pocket. He was not a man just of words; he was a man of action.” They were all the qualities that attracted her to him when they first met at a party thrown by mutual friends.
In a quavering voice she says: “We met and we never left each other.”
The flag incident wasn’t the first time her husband had been confronted by separatists. The day before there had been an attempt to abduct him, she says. A fit man, he was able to break free. It was that kidnapping attempt that had triggered her appeal to him to take greater care.
“He warned me not to trust the police and said that half of the force was with the separatists and the others were scared and couldn’t be relied on,” Elena explains. He also told her that if anything should happen to him, she shouldn’t let the police into their house on the outskirts of Horlivka, a mining and industrial city of 275,000 about 60 kilometers to the southeast of Slovyansk.
And the police did turn up on the evening of April 17—the day he went missing.
At first, Elena hadn’t worried when her husband failed to show up early as promised. “He was a tough man and I had faith that work was keeping him away,” she says. But in the evening she called the police saying her husband was missing. Later they arrived at the couple’s door and they asked her to come with them to the station, saying something had happened to Rybak and that he had been snatched. She recalled her husband’s warning, wouldn’t let the police in, phoned a neighbor to be a witness and declined to go anywhere. But later that night she went with friends to the station, where officers changed their story and told her that they thought Rybak had gone missing as a PR stunt.
Over the weekend she and political friends of her husband’s searched frantically for him, checking hospitals and morgues and phoning anyone they could think of.
On April 21 in Donetsk Vladimir Makovich, the speaker of the presidium of the self-styled Donetsk Republic, told The Daily Beast during a general interview that two bodies had been found in a river, but he didn’t identify the dead. Subsequent calls to various local officials and separatists to find out whether bodies had been found were met with denials.
Five days after her husband went missing a politician friend of the family contacted Elena and told her Rybak was dead.
Ukraine’s SBU security service officials blame Russian military intelligence agents for ordering Rybak’s abduction and killing and they think the Russians didn’t want the bodies to be found. Sandbags were attached to the corpses to make them sink but the disposal was botched. Elena suspects that’s true and that if she hadn’t gone to the morgue on April 23, the bodies would have been spirited away.
The SBU has released portions of intercepted calls in which on April 17 alleged Russian agent Igor Bezler orders underlings to capture Rybak. Bezler’s boss Igor Strelkov, a Muscovite whose real name is Igor Girkin, is heard in another subsequent intercepted conversation instructing the thuggish separatist leader in Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, to dispose of the body, which is “lying here and stinking.”
In the audio recording, Strelkov is heard to say: “Slava, please, settle the matter with the stiff, so that he is quickly dragged away from us today.”
Ponomarev responds: “I will go quickly and settle the issue of burying this bitch.” According to the SBU, Strelkov and Bezler are colonels in Russia’s GRU military service and were in Crimea previously, helping with the annexation.
There are suspicions that the flag incident wasn’t what sealed Rybak’s fate. It may be that the former detective knew more than was good for him. Elena says he kept a lot about what he was doing back from her, and a friend, who asks not to be named, gets the impression Rybak was investigating something.
The town to which Rybak was taken, Slovyansk, has become the poster town for the pro-Russian insurgency. One hundred kilometers north of Donetsk, it is controlled totally by separatists and it serves as the main base for the militancy across the region. People abducted in neighboring towns are transported to Slovyansk. According to the self-declared “people’s mayor,” Ponomarev, more than 40 are now being held there, including seven international military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Although Horlivka has a lower profile, it is also a key town in the Moscow-manipulated insurgency and is serving as an operations center for much of the clandestine organization of the militancy. The town is home to a powerful regional crime boss, Gagik Agavelyan, an Armenian who, Maidan activists claim, dispatched goons to try to disrupt their anti-Yanukovych protests in Donetsk last winter.
The ties between politicians, mobsters and so-called “red directors”—managers-turned-businessmen who are steeped in the ways of Soviet-style public sector corruption and deal-making—were fundamental to the Yanukovych government. Over the years, mobsters worked closely with Yanukovych, a onetime governor of Donetsk, now in exile in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.
In Crimea, Moscow helped install former gangland lieutenant Sergei Aksyonov as prime minister to help engineer the annexation of the Black Sea peninsula. The insurgency in east Ukraine bears similarities to the play in Crimea with many hardcore Russian separatists sharing sordid pasts that mix politics, graft and extortion in equal measure.
And in recent weeks Horlivka has taken on even greater importance in the pro-Russian insurgency, according to Ukrainian officials.
According to the deputy head of Ukraine’s new anti-corruption agency, Volodymyr Kochestkov-Sukach, Yanukovych’s sinister ally Ivanyuschenko has been basing out of Horlivka on his now highly frequent trips into eastern Ukraine. “He has been traveling back and forth between Rostov-on-Don and towns east and north of Donetsk overseeing funding for the separatists,” says Kochestkov-Sukach.
“The bulk of the funding underpinning the separatists is coming from Yanukovych and ‘the family,’” he adds, referring to the ousted President’s inner circle of relatives and associates.
In that circle no one is as important as Ivanyuschenko, who was born in the same small mining town as Yanukovych, Yenakiieve, 21 kilometers from Horlivka. Kochestkov-Sukach says most of the money Ivanyuschenko is arranging is “coming from Ukrainian companies ‘the family’ still control and from organized crime rackets.”
Until recently, top associates of Yanukovych, such as his former chief of staff Andrei Klyuyev, kept trips to a minimum. Now with the insurgency spreading and the government in Kiev apparently on the ropes, they have become emboldened and are spending more time in the east as they calculate the risks of capture have diminished.
Did Rybak pick up on Horlivka’s increasing importance in the organization of the pro-Russian insurgency?
Friends say he was a highly inquisitive man and kept his ear close to the ground. A local policeman who served with Rybak says he asked questions about car movements in the days leading up to his death. The assault and torture of Rybak once he was in separatist hands is prompting questions also: Was this a frenzied attack meant as a warning to other pro-unity figures, or was it an effort to extract information?
And then there is the question of the young student found nearby. Elena says she has never heard of him and never met him, but that her husband may have met him at Maidan protests he participated in during the winter. One of her fears is that the student’s abduction may have been a case of mistaken identity—he shares the same first name as her son’s and was not dissimilar in appearance.
The full reasons for Rybak’s murder may not be known until the Ukraine crisis is over, but until all the details have emerged Elena is taking no risks. She has fled to Kiev with her daughter. She believes that if she had gone off with the policemen who came to her house the night her husband disappeared, she might have ended up dead as well.