The death of Arsen Pavlov, 33, better known by his nom de guerre "Motorola," brought blame-trading on both sides of the conflict between Ukraine's Western-allied government and rebel factions with ties to Russia.
Many believed the blast was just the lasted in a series of killings that may be linked to a bitter internal purge of rebel leaders. Separatist officials, in turn claimed Ukraine's government in Kiev was behind the attack in Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city.
"I understand that [Ukrainian President] Petro Poroshenko has violated the ceasefire and declared war against us," said Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the separatists in Donetsk. "Now wait for it."
A video surfaced Monday on social media purportedly from anti-rebel factions showing a self-proclaimed fighter saying he was in Donetsk and claiming they “just liquidated the famous terrorist Motorola."
The origin and authenticity of that video quickly came into question and has not been corroborated by any other statements. The YouTube channel where the video was posted was only created several days before the killing, and Anton Shekhovtsov, a researcher of far-right movements, called the claim "just some thuggish boasting." A former separatist official, Alexander Khodakovsky, in remarks to the Current Time news service, was skeptical that outside forces could break into a highly guarded apartment block in Donetsk.
Pavlov, a native of the northern Russian Komi Republic and former car wash employee, arrived in Kiev during the 2013-2014 pro-European protests, and later joined anti-Western street demonstrations in Kharkiv and Donetsk. Reported to be a veteran of Russia's Second Chechen War, he led teams of separatist fighters in the extended battles for the Ukrainian city of Slavyansk and at the Donetsk Airport.
Kiev has called Pavlov a war criminal. Asked by the Kyiv Post last April about allegations that he had executed a Ukrainian defender of the airport, Pavlov responded: “I don’t give a f*** about what I am accused of, believe it or not. I shot 15 prisoners dead. I don’t give a f***. No comment. I kill if I want to. I don’t if I don’t.”
Pavlov first became known for strapping a GoPro camera to his helmet and then passing the footage to pro-Kremlin media outlets including LifeNews and Komsomolskaya Pravda. He granted generous access to friendly journalists, producing some of the best-known, and most infamous, videotaped scenes from the war.
One showed his fighters capturing Ukrainian soldiers at the airport in Donetsk. The men were later paraded through Donetsk, where locals threw stones and beat them, which Kiev called a violation of the Geneva Convention. A longer cut of the video, which we won't link to here, shows Pavlov dragging the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers out of the trunk of a car as another soldier covers his face in the background.
After the battle, he also brought captives to the airport to gather the bodies of their fallen comrades. According to a report by the Reuters news agency, he said they had been assigned the task because "it's not our job to recover dead bodies, it's our job to make them."
He "was one of the first to understand that the information component of this war was perhaps just as important as the combat," wrote Alexander Kots, a war reporter for the pro-government daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, adding that Pavlov liked "Russian rap and joking around" and that his friends called him "Motik."
In July 2014, he arranged one of the most bizarre events of the war up to that point: His own wedding, attended by members of Russian and Western media, that highlighted the manic, tragicomic (and highly media-sensitive) atmosphere of Donetsk in early 2014.
One week later, a Malaysian airliner carrying 298 passengers and crew was shot from the sky. A two-year, Dutch-led investigation last month said that the missile-launcher "came from Russia" and was fired from territory held by the separatists.
On Monday, Russian state television aired glowing obituaries to Pavlov and his role in the breakaway Donetsk People's Republic, or DNR. Others responded with gallows humor.
"The DNR fighter has changed his codename from "Motorola" to Samsung Galaxy Note 7," joked one anti-Kremlin account, in reference to the Samsung's exploding telephones.
Correction: This post and its headline have been corrected to reflect growing skepticism over the authenticity of a claim of responsibility for Pavlov's death made in a video by purported far-right militants.