They have become the three most prominent figures of eastern Ukraine’s separatist uprising. All are Russian citizens, and all have admitted or are alleged to have a background in Russia’s secret service or military intelligence.
One is Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic”. Another is Mr Borodai’s associate, Igor Girkin, who goes by the name Strelkov (derived from the Russian for “shooter”), the republic’s military commander.
Strelkov recently admitted to being a former officer of the FSB, successor to the KGB – which Russian president Vladimir Putin once headed. Mr Borodai was reported by Russian media in 2002 to have been appointed a deputy FSB director.
The third is Igor Bezler, warlord in charge of Gorlovka, a rebel-held town 40km northeast of Donetsk – whom Kiev claims is a former Russian military intelligence officer. After flight MH17 was downed last week, Mr Bezler was allegedly heard in wiretaps released by Ukrainian intelligence reporting that the rebels had shot down a plane – though the rebels say these were faked.
Amid growing western pressure, Russia has said in recent days it will use its influence with the rebels to move towards a political solution in east Ukraine. Yet despite their apparent Russian links, it remains unclear how much control the Kremlin now has over the three.
It is not clear, either, to what degree they – and other separatist leaders – form a cohesive whole. Mark Galeotti, a Russian security expert at New York University currently based in Moscow, describes the uprising as a “coalition of warlords and field commanders”.
“Moscow can try and persuade them, and has a certain strong connection with them …they understand they need Moscow to survive,” he says.
Mr Borodai, who carries a pistol on his hip and uses the Soviet anthem as his ringtone, has become the rebels’ public face. Strelkov, meanwhile, has proven a capable commander – running the rebels’ stronghold in Slavyansk until it fell to Ukrainian forces on July 5, and they fell back to the regional capital, Donetsk.
One reason Russia’s influence remains murky is because Moscow relied on former intelligence officers and irregulars to work with the separatists so that it could preserve an arms-length deniability about its involvement in the uprising. Based on their military and intelligence background, Mr Borodai and Strelkov boasted solid credentials for such a job.
The two fought as volunteers alongside separatists in Transnistria, the pro-Russian separatist enclave in Moldova, in 1992. They later worked for a nationalist newspaper, Zavtra, and covered the Russian war against separatists in Chechnya.
Both have been cagey about their Russian links. Asked by the FT last month if he was being advised from Moscow, Mr Borodai said only: “I know some people in the Russian political elite.”
Earlier this month, at a press conference with Strelkov in Donetsk, Mr Borodai said it was “normal” that they, as Russians, were defending fellow Russians and Russian-speakers in east Ukraine. “There’s nothing terrible in this. We’re both volunteers,” he said.
But Mr Galeotti suggests Russia’s initial arms-length strategy has gone awry. Moscow intended, he believes, to stir up an insurgency in eastern Ukraine that would force Kiev to the negotiating table.
“The aim was very clearly to force Ukraine to back away from its drive towards Europe, to recognise its position within Russia’s sphere of influence,” he says. During his recent research in Moscow, however, Mr Galeotti says people from Russia’s foreign ministry and security apparatus have told him they were “taken aback and infuriated [that] Ukraine wasn’t fulfilling its part in the drama”.
The first turning point may have been the election of Petro Poroshenko as Ukraine’s president on May 25. Though Moscow had seen Mr Poroshenko as a figure it could deal with – and he did propose a peace plan and call a shortlived ceasefire – the new president also focused on rebuilding Ukraine’s ramshackle army in the east.
Then came the rebels’ flight from Slavyansk after intense bombardment from Ukrainian forces. That left Ukraine sensing it could potentially triumph militarily as Strelkov complained publicly about a lack of Russian support.
According to this analysis, Moscow was left with a prickly dilemma: allow the rebels to lose, or intervene militarily. Its solution appears to have been to increase covert support to the rebels.
“Moscow quite dramatically stepped up the scale and quantity of material they were providing, simply in hope they could bolster their proxies to hold off that terrible choice,” says Mr Galeotti.
After heavy and sophisticated Russian weaponry flowed across the border last week, the downing of MH17 may have been the tragic but unintended consequence.
Additional reporting by Roman Olearchyk in Donetsk, Guy Chazan in Kiev and Courtney Weaver in Moscow
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