Is Putin abandoning Ukraine's rebels?

Aug 21, 2014

Analysts believe the Russian president may be looking for a way to save face by withdrawing support for pro-Russian separatists


President Putin appears to be moving towards a face-saving settlement in eastern Ukraine, but with Ukrainian government troops on the front foot it is unclear whether Kiev is in any mood to offer Russia an easy way out.

In the past few weeks, Putin has been withdrawing Russian commanders and diminishing his support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, the New York Times says.

The Russian president is searching for "a way to escape a losing situation without puncturing his strongman image or antagonising the ultranationalists at home who were expecting him to follow up his annexation of Crimea with an invasion of Ukraine".


The “Ukrainianisation” of the leadership

As recently as last month, many rebel leaders were either Russian, or had a connection with Russia. One by one, the leaders have stepped down to make way for Ukrainians.

Russian national Aleksandr Borodai recently resigned as prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in favour of Ukrainian Aleksandr Zakharchenko, in what The Guardian described as "a move aimed at dampening claims that the rebellion in eastern Ukraine is being masterminded by Moscow". Another Russian citizen, Valery Bolotov, announced last week that he has “temporarily resigned” as prime minister in the Luhansk region. A Ukrainian former health inspector, Igor Plotnitskiy, took his place.

And according to the New York Times, a collection of soldiers tarnished by rumours of involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 – including Igor Bezler, a Crimean native who once identified himself as a lieutenant colonel in the Russian army – have also gone missing.


A new conciliatory attitude

Putin is due to meet Ukraine's president Petro Poroshenko next week for the first top-level talks between the two countries in more than two months. But as the Daily Mail notes, a diplomatic solution at this stage "would have to resolve a contradiction: with his troops advancing and victory possibly within reach, Poroshenko has little incentive to offer the kind of compromises that would allow Putin to achieve a face-saving deal".


Is Putin just playing a long game?
Some analysts argue that Putin is playing a "long game" by continuing to supply weapons to the pro-Russian rebels, while protecting himself by withdrawing direct lines of command.

According to the incoming rebel leader Zakharchenko, Donetsk rebels have just been reinforced by 1,200 troops who "trained for four months in Russia".

The Daily Telegraph reports that on Friday Zakharchenko gave a speech to a "people's council" in which he said: "The following reserves have been gathered: 150 armoured vehicles, of which about 30 are tanks and the rest are BMPs and BTRs [infantry fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers], 1,200 military personnel, who are there now, who underwent training for four months on the territory of the Russian Federation. They were brought into action at the most crucial moment."


Or is a ceasefire imminent?

Despite the arrival of reinforcements, the New York Times says, the "rebellion is crumbling", which gives Putin an incentive to stop the conflict before the side he backed risks a humiliating defeat in battle.

As the meeting between Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart approaches, European and Ukrainian officials sound increasingly hopeful that a diplomatic resolution may be reached: "I have the feeling both are at the moment seeking ways to find a path to a ceasefire," German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the Wall Street Journal.

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