The resignation of Igor Girkin, the Russian military mastermind behind the takeover of large parts of eastern Ukraine by rebel fighters, this week was the latest crack to appear at the top of the months-long rebellion that has become increasingly strained.
His departure is the third high-profile change in the rebel hierarchy in the past week. Alexander Borodai, also a Muscovite, stepped down last week as prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. With Mr Girkin, he was part of Russian-backed separatist forces in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria in the early 1990s.
The replacement of both with Ukrainians marks a transition in the leadership from highly trained Russian military officers to locally recruited warlords in an increasingly tense stand-off with Ukrainian forces.
“It will be like Stalingrad,” an armed rebel nicknamed Taipan recently told the Financial Times, referring to the battle between the separatists and government forces that is expected in coming days and weeks.
Taipan is one of thousands of locals who have joined forces with Russian militants to fight Kiev’s army for control of Ukraine’s east. The government estimates the ranks of the rebel army have swelled to between 10,000 and 15,000 since fighting started four months ago.
To evade the increasingly frequent shelling by Ukraine’s government forces, the rebels have concealed their tanks and are finding more cover in Donetsk. They have also become more suspicious of the western media, fearing that their location could be revealed to Ukrainian artillery squads.
“If I see you here again, I will shoot you,” one separatist commander said when approached by western journalists this week.
“If any shell hits us, I will find you and I will kill you,” he said before photographing a journalist accreditation card.
Taipan, a former construction worker, describes a sense of righteousness in defending the city he has grown up in from what he calls a “fascist” pro-western leadership. He views Kiev’s plans to forge closer links with the EU as a plot by America to exploit the region’s potentially large shale gas reserves and weaken ties with Russia.
His views are reinforced in broadcasts by Russian television, which are received in Donetsk and other parts of eastern Ukraine. Kiev’s pro-western government channels have been cut off in the region for months.
“It’s time to take down Obama,” another rebel shouted at a roadside checkpoint claiming that the US president orchestrated the toppling of Viktor Yanukovich, the former Ukraine president.
For Taipan, standing up to Kiev’s army, even if it ends in death, is a worthy cause comparable to Soviet war veterans who defeated Nazi Germany.
The rebels claim the ideology of what they call “New Russia” is a mixture of traditional Russian Orthodox theology and cultural conservatism that they believe should reign in eastern Ukraine.
The views echo the social agenda of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, who routinely attacks western values as materialistic and immoral.
Guarding the MH17 crash site weeks ago, one rebel commander nicknamed Grumpy described Americans, Europeans, Catholics, Protestants and Westerners at large as “enemies”.
The website of Alexander Khriakov, a Donetsk-based rebel official, contains articles alleging that western policy is heavily influenced by Zionists.
Koba, a rebel spokesperson, dubbed the eastern Ukraine war as the frontline in a “civilisation war” between Russia and the west.
This is Ukraine. We need a return to our peaceful past. We don’t want this war or anyone to defend us in our land
– Olga, a pensioner living on the frontline on the outskirts of Donetsk
A South Ossetian, Koba and other fighters from Russia say they are in Donetsk “fighting for Russia, for Russian civilisation”.
“To learn what drives Russian civilisation, the Russian soul, you need to read Dostoyevsky. It’s a different approach to life,” says Koba.
Though militants claim to be upholding an internationally unrecognised independence referendum held in May in Ukraine’s industrial east populated by some 5m, many locals have fled rebel-held cities.
Once a sprawling city of 1m, Donetsk is largely deserted. Sporadic shelling this week reached the centre of the city, hitting offices and residential buildings.
Though there are no signs of looting, most shops and restaurants closed weeks ago and the police have disappeared.
Lugansk is more damaged by the four-month conflict which, according to UN estimates, has claimed more than 2,000 civilian and combatant lives. Without water, power and telecommunications for nearly two weeks, half of Lugansk’s 400,000 former inhabitants have fled.
Kiev describes the rebellion as a proxy war engineered, financed and armed by Moscow. Civilian allegiances are split, but increasingly many seem to yearn most for a return to peace and normalcy.
“This is Ukraine. We need a return to our peaceful past. We don’t want this war or anyone to defend us in our land,” said Olga, a pensioner living on the frontline on the outskirts of Donetsk.
Koba, who uses the same nickname Stalin had, is baffled by such views.
“I don’t understand the local population’s mentality . . . when they are bombed, but then return walking through the city, drinking beer and relaxing,” he said.
“I never saw this in Grozny or Tskhinvali [capital of South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia during the 2007 Russia-Georgia war]. Men are obliged to defend their land,” he added.
Frustrated that many locals are not joining rebel ranks, Koba claims to still be confident in victory.