He has the reputation of a sour Soviet commissar. Vladimir Antyufeyev - a former intelligence officer, wanted for subversion and deadly repression by two of Russia’s neighbours - has suddenly taken charge of the rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The apparent power shift in the self-styled People’s Republic of Donetsk will decide the fate of desperate efforts to recover the last human remains at the MH17 crash site.
It may also signal an attempt by Russia's President Vladimir Putin to consolidate control over the separatists.
Mr Antyufeev is reportedly a “specialist for creating new independent states” and is suspected of helping orchestrate Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March.
He has taken over as "acting" leader after putative leader Alexander Borodai was this week summoned to Moscow for consultations.
Mr Borodai had been the face of the rebels, negotiating with Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak in the past fortnight to allow access to the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777.
There has been little explanation of Mr Borodia's trip to Moscow, who he is meeting or when he might return.
Russian-born Mr Antyufeyev had emerged only days before the attack on MH17 as “first deputy prime minister” in Donetsk, with control over security and the interior ministry.
Mr Antyufeyev has deep ties with Russia’s security services. He was a police commander in the former Soviet satellite state, Latvia, where he remains wanted over an attack that left six dead in 1991 after the country declared independence.
But he defends his past as a fight against “fascism”.
Mr Antyufeyev later became defence minister in Transnistria - a pro-Russian breakaway republic of Moldova.
He was dismissed in 2012 and returned to Russia and was later accused of abuse of power.
The European Union has blacklisted Mr Antyufeyev as “persona non grata”.
On Tuesday, he accused the Ukrainian government of stymying attempts by Dutch and Australian police to search for any remains of the 298 people killed on MH17.
“The Ukrainians have taken over a part of the crash site,” he said, and blamed government artillery shells for “destroying parts of the site where fragments of the plane are located”.
- FFX Aus