Ukrainian rebels: Putin aban­doned us

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY MARC BEN­NETTS

MOSCOW | Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s fail­ure to come to the res­cue of be­lea­guered pro-Moscow rebels in east Ukraine threat­ens to both shat­ter his im­age as a strong­man leader and fo­ment dan­ger­ous do­mes­tic dis­con­tent among na­tion­al­ist groups, his sup­port­ers have warned.

“We sup­port Putin be­cause he is strong,” Alexan­der Du­gin, an ul­tra­na­tion­al­ist thinker whose ideas are re­ported to have in­flu­enced re­cent Krem­lin pol­icy, told The Wash­ing­ton Times. “But many people feel cheated by his re­fusal to use mil­i­tary force [in east Ukraine]. Rus­sian pa­tri­ots are close to turn­ing away from Putin.”

The com­ments came as Ukrainian forces re­cap­tured the key city of Slavyansk over the weekend, forc­ing sep­a­ratist fighters to make what they de­scribed as a “tac­ti­cal re­treat” to the re­gional cap­i­tal of Donetsk — set­ting up a show­down be­tween rebels and govern­ment forces.

Mr. Du­gin warned that Mr. Putin — whose ap­proval rat­ings shot up to over 80 per­cent af­ter Rus­sia an­nexed Ukraine’s Black Sea penin­sula of Crimea in March — was on in­creas­ingly slip­pery ground over his re­luc­tance to get in­volved in a mil­i­tary cam­paign in Ukraine.

Last Mon­day, three bridges on key roads leading into Donetsk were de­stroyed in what some spec­u­lated was a rebel ef­fort to slow the ad­vance of Ukrainian forces. The rebels re­port­edly blamed the blown bridges on Ukrainian forces in­tent on dis­rupt­ing their sup­ply lines.

Rebels over­ran Slavyansk some three months ago, which had be­come the fo­cal point of their op­er­a­tions. Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko de­scribed the rais­ing of the coun­try’s blue-and-yel­low flag over Slavyansk as of “mas­sive sym­bolic im­por­tance.”

Mr. Putin has built his al­most 15-year rule around his rep­u­ta­tion as a tough, nonon­sense leader who is will­ing to de­fend Rus­sia’s in­ter­ests wher­ever the Krem­lin sees fit.

“He is en­ter­ing the most fright­en­ing pe­riod of his pres­i­dency be­cause he risks los­ing the sup­port of the masses,” Mr. Du­gin said.

In an in­ter­view aired late last week by Life News, a pro-Krem­lin web­site, Igor Strelkov, a Rus­sian na­tional who com­mands the rebel forces in east Ukraine, said sep­a­ratists would be “de­stroyed” within the next two weeks if Rus­sia did not in­ter­vene mil­i­tar­ily in the con­flict.

There seems lit­tle like­li­hood, how­ever, that Mr. Putin in­tends to ride to the rebels’ last-minute res­cue.

In­deed, Mr. Putin asked Par­lia­ment last month to re­voke per­mis­sion to use mil­i­tary force in Ukraine, sig­nal­ing a dra­matic turn­around from the ex-KGB of­fi­cer. Mr. Putin had ear­lier threat­ened to send the Rus­sian army into east Ukraine to de­fend eth­nic Rus­sians from what state me­dia and govern­ment of­fi­cials had de­scribed as the “fas­cist junta” that came to power af­ter pro­test­ers had top­pled Ukraine’s pro-Moscow pres­i­dent, Vik­tor Yanukovych, in Fe­bru­ary.

The Rus­sian army sub­se­quently massed on the bor­der with Ukraine, spark­ing the worst cri­sis in East-West ties since the end of the Cold War.

Mr. Putin’s new ea­ger­ness to avoid war in Ukraine has been de­scribed by an­a­lysts as at least par­tially due to his de­sire to avoid a fresh round of dam­ag­ing Western sanc­tions. The West in April im­posed sanc­tions against banks and en­ergy com­pa­nies con­trolled by some of Mr. Putin’s clos­est al­lies over the Krem­lin’s seizure of Crimea. U.S. and Euro­pean of­fi­cials have re­peat­edly threat­ened to move ahead with more se­ri­ous sanc­tions.

Al­though there was never any firm ev­i­dence that Rus­sia was plan­ning to in­vade Ukraine, the ap­par­ent re­moval of the mil­i­tary op­tion from the Krem­lin’s agenda has left sep­a­ratist lead­ers bit­ter and con­fused.

“They gave us hope and then aban­doned us,” said De­nis Pushilin, one of the key fig­ures in the in­sur­gency that has seized Ukrainian ter­ri­tory across what the rebels dub “Novorossiya” — “New Rus­sia” — in re­cent months.

“Putin’s words about de­fend­ing eth­nic Rus­sians — about de­fend­ing Novorossiya — were beau­ti­ful,” Mr. Pushilin said in on­line com­ments this weekend. “But they were just words.”

The si­lence of Rus­sia’s guns as be­lea­guered rebels suf­fer heavy losses has also dis­mayed vol­un­teer fighters, who flocked to east Ukraine from Moscow and other cities to take part in what na­tion­al­ist com­men­ta­tors dubbed the “Rus­sian spring.” On­line na­tion­al­ist fo­rums are full of de­scrip­tions of Mr. Putin as a “traitor” who has sold out the rebels.

“Putin un­der­stands very well that af­ter the war is over, Strelkov and his al­lies will re­turn to Rus­sia,” said Boris Nemtsov, an op­po­si­tion politi­cian and for­mer deputy prime min­is­ter. “And they will be fu­ri­ous at Putin be­cause they be­lieve he has be­trayed them by not or­der­ing the army in.”

Many of the Rus­sian na­tion­als who an­swered on­line calls to fight the “junta” in Ukraine come from mar­ginal na­tion­al­ist and left­ist groups that were ill-dis­posed to the Krem­lin even be­fore the cur­rent cri­sis. But their par­tic­i­pa­tion in hos­til­i­ties in east Ukraine will have proven a boost to their rep­u­ta­tions.

“They will be ex­tremely dan­ger­ous for the Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties when they re­turn, as they have gained re­spect within cer­tain cir­cles for their ac­tions,” warned Nikolai Mitrokhin, an an­a­lyst with the web­site. “The fight against them will be no joke.”

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