KIEV/DONETSK, Ukraine - As Ukrainian troops gained ground in eastern Ukraine in early July, separatist leader, Aleksander Borodai, a Russian national, left for Moscow for political consultations.
After what he described as successful talks with unnamed people there, he returned to the rebel stronghold of Donetsk to introduce a new senior figure in his self-proclaimed republic, a compatriot seasoned in the pro-Russian separatist movement in Moldova and a war between Russia and Georgia.
Vladimir Antyufeyev was named "deputy prime minister" by Borodai on July 10, one of several native Russians to have taken charge of the separatist rebellion in Ukraine's eastern regions.
Joining Borodai and rebel commander Igor Strelkov, Antyufeyev's arrival underlines a change at the top of the separatist movement, highlighting Moscow's involvement in the conflict, Western officials say. The Kremlin denies any involvement.
"There has been a dramatic change in the leadership of the Donetsk People's Republic over the past weeks, which certainly gives the impression of a much more hands-on Russian directive role," said Geoffrey Pyatt, the US Ambassador to Kiev.
"These individuals are in regular touch with authorities in Russia." Ukrainian-born rebel leaders have been eased out, causing rifts among increasingly nervous separatists since a Malaysian airliner was downed over rebel-held territory just over a week ago.
Antyufeyev replaced Donetsk native, Alexander Khodakovsky, as the top security person in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. Denis Pushilin, another local once titled the republic's president, was dismissed.
Khodakovsky remains a top commander but has taken an increasingly independent line, telling Reuters that separatists had the type of anti-aircraft missile system that Washington says brought the plane down, killing all 298 people on board.
Borodai denied this assertion.
A Ukrainian official in the southern Azov Sea city port of Mariupol, which Kiev reclaimed from rebels last month, said Russians were taking over the entire rebel operation, sidelining or removing locals.
Antyufeyev aka Shevtsov
Antyufeyev, also known as Vadim Shevtsov, has a history of supporting pro-Russian separatist movements in the former Soviet Union, and brings a tough discipline and doggedness to the campaign in eastern Ukraine.
The balding, 63-year-old says he "fought national fascism"by supporting separatists in the pro-Russian region of Transdniestria in neighbouring Moldova, and in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia.
At his new office at the separatists' Donetsk headquarters, the Siberian-born Antyufeyev said he came to Ukraine because Russians were being killed by forces sent from Kiev. "I know what it is to fight for the rights of the people ... I know what hot spots are," he said in an interview. A picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin looked down on the table where he sat.