A Field Guide To The Bizarre And Terrifying Pro-Russian Rebels In Ukraine

07/31/2014 02:19 pm ET | Updated Jul 31, 2014

Weeks after Flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, fighting still rages as the government battles with the obstinate, heavily armed separatists who remain in control much of the territory around the crash site.

In charge of the many masked rebel militiamen in the east is a collection of commanders and self-appointed politicians who are at turns ludicrous, unhinged and dangerous. With previous lives that reportedly range from Russian intelligence officials to Ukrainian candy salesmen, they now lead rebel forces flush with weapons capable of facilitating terrible atrocities and destabilizing an entire region.

The WorldPost presents a who's who of eastern Ukraine's separatist leaders, a group whose members are as strange as they are troubling.

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Igor 'Strelkov' Girkin

A key figure in the leadership of the Ukrainian separatists, and one that seems to pop up in every region that's causing chaos for Kiev since the Russian annexation of Crimea began. As the BBC reports, he is considered "one of the most effective military commanders the rebels have." Allegedly a former member of Russian special forces, the rebel commander is at the very least a serious military enthusiast and historical re-enactor.

As Oleg Kishin notes in his excellent profile of Girkin for The New Republic, the commander was avidly involved in events in which he would don period costumes to act out famous historical battles. A Russian livejournal page shows him in the heat of these pretend battles, including one particularly striking image of Girkin armor-clad as a Roman centurion. Among the many fascinating nuggets involved in Kishin's piece is a refutation by Kishin that he controls the social media pages that pointed to his involvement in the shooting down of Flight MH17. Instead, the article says, the only online activity known to be fully managed by Girkin is an online forum for trading antiques, where his username is Russian for "Cat."

U.S. intelligence says the MH17 was shot down by the rebels Girkin claims to command. Since the disaster, Girkin has relished the spotlight. Days after the event, the AP reports, he began pushing the grotesque conspiracy that the plane was already full of dead bodies before taking off. Of all his strange decrees, his latest proclamation may be the most ill-thought-out yet -- banning his forces from using bad words.

Igor Bezler yells orders at a group of new recruits in a video released in April, 2014.
Igor 'The Demon' Bezler

The man allegedly behind the shooting down of Flight MH17, if the leaked Ukrainian audio tapes said to feature his voice are to be believed, Rebel Chief Igor Bezler is perhaps the most fearsome and notorious of the separatist leaders. The claim to that title was strengthened by a recent report in The Guardian, in which Bezler threatens to have journalist Shaun Walker and his accompanying photographer shot to death.

Flying off the handle into a fury after being asked by Walker why he was keeping hostages in his compound, Bezler reportedly screamed, "Burn their notebooks! Seize their electronics! Search everything for compromising material and then destroy it! If you find anything, execute them as spies!”

Like the other Igor, Bezler is also thought to have been in the Russian army prior to his involvement in the Ukraine crisis. As Julia Ioffe of The New Republic notes, it's thought he drifted listlessly through a series of jobs after his army career, including security guard and funeral director, before dusting off the fatigues once more.

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Alexander Borodai

When the separatists handed over the black boxes from Flight MH17, it was Alexander Borodai who had his hands on the evidence. The Washington Post reports Borodai, the prime minister of the Donetsk People's Republic, has been in charge of the area around the crash site. A shlubby, eye-rolling figure who appears in civilian clothes rather than the masks and camouflage of those who usually flank him, Borodai is ostensibly the political figurehead of the separatists.

As the BBC reports, he has been the focus of worldwide anger over the inadequate security of the crash site and the mishandling of victims' bodies. In keeping with his habit of denying the separatists do anything nefarious, Borodai dismissed the serious allegations as "pretty impudent slander."

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Denis Pushilin

The Chairman of The Donetsk People's Republic, Denis Pushilin was a salesman in a pyramid scheme before his rise to power. As the Washington Post reports, his former employment was as meandering as that of some of the other leaders on this list: he worked as a candy salesman before joining up with what the Post calls "a company that runs a notorious Russian Ponzi scheme."

Apart from this colorful detail, there is actually not much known about Pushilin. His lack of documented history highlights how potentially ill-equipped the former salesman may be to deal with international diplomacy.

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Pavel Gubarev

The second member of this list with a recorded history of wearing absurd outfits, the People's Governor of Donetsk was allegedly worked as a former hired Santa Claus, according to a New York Times op-ed. Footage from one of his performances has made its way to YouTube, where it gives a bizarre look into the former life of someone now in part connected to the continued fighting and death that looms over eastern Ukraine.

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