Inaction in Ukraine threatens Putin’s image at home

Russian leader is seen as weak
By Marc Bennetts
The Washington Times | Monday, July 7, 2014

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.

On 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, no-nonsense 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.”


Ukraine Rebels Call Putin a Coward After Russian Inaction
Simon Shuster
TIME | July 9, 2014

Early promises of help from Russia go unfulfilled

The rebel commander in eastern Ukraine was sure Russia’s tanks would soon come grinding over the border to his rescue. He even had an idea of what would provoke the invasion—“130 corpses,” he told TIME. “When they see that on Russian TV, they’ll come and help us.”

That was in the middle of April, and since then the body count in eastern Ukraine has far surpassed that figure. Even the commander himself, who went by the nickname Romashka, is now among the dead, having been shot by a Ukrainian sniper in his stronghold of Slavyansk at the beginning of May. No Russian troops ever came to help him.

For the Ukrainian government that has been a saving grace, allowing its army to force the pro-Russian militants into retreat over the weekend, killing scores of them in the process. But for Russian President Vladimir Putin, this turn in the conflict presents a painful dilemma. His pledges of support for the separatists now seem like false promises to the rebel leaders—and to their many supporters in Russia—and they have begun openly accusing Putin of cowardice and betrayal. The patriotic spell that he cast on his electorate with the annexation of Crimea in March now seems to have lifted, and his sky-high approval ratings are now likely to come down to earth.

The change in tone is already evident on Russia’s propaganda channels, which still depict the rebel fighters as heroes and martyrs—but not a part of any Russian war. “No one is talking about sending in troops anymore. That conversation is over,” says Mikhail Leontiev, one of the leading spin doctors on state-controlled TV. “Now the people need to understand that if Russia falls into this military trap, it will be worst of all for the people of eastern Ukraine, even for the fighters among them,” he tells TIME.

The fighters would beg to differ. In endless missives to the Russian leadership over the past few months, they have asked with growing anger and desperation for the Kremlin to send in troops or at least provide them with advanced weaponry. “We don’t have the means to fight so many tanks,” Igor Girkin, the rebel commander in eastern Ukraine who goes by the nom de guerre Igor Strelkov, said in a video appeal to Moscow on June 19. “I’m still hoping that Moscow has enough shame to take some kind of measures.”

But instead of offering much material assistance, Putin’s allies seem to have launched a slander campaign against Girkin and his men, even accusing them of “crying like women” about a lack of firepower before abandoning the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk this weekend. “He gave up the city without any pressure from the Ukrainian side,” Sergei Kurginyan, another prominent Kremlin propagandist, said in a video denunciation of the rebels. “No one was advancing against him.”

This claim seemed out of sync with the fighting on the ground. For days before the rebels fled Slavyansk on July 5 the Ukrainian army had besieged them, bombarding their positions with heavy artillery and cutting off supplies of food, electricity and water. Indeed, in the first week of June, Kurginyan had himself campaigned for Russia to send military contractors to assist Girkin and his men.

But that was before Putin made his sudden turn toward the role of a peacemaker in Ukraine. His reasons were pragmatic. Western sanctions had already broken financial ties—and frozen bank accounts—that Kremlin elites had spent years nurturing. The next round of sanctions would likely have sent Russia’s economy into a recession, putting at risk the state programs and paychecks that feed Putin’s loyal bureaucracy. A full-scale invasion would also risk a military quagmire that would further drain the Russian budget, as Ukraine’s army has mustered a force impressive enough to put up a serious fight. So in late June, Putin asked his legislature to withdraw his permission for the use of military force in Ukraine, and he began calling for peace talks in league with Western mediators.

The rebels were not the only ones to see this as a sign of duplicity. Russian nationalists have begun to turn on him as well, posting diatribes and even music videos that seek to goad Putin into war, juxtaposing his pledges to “defend the Russian world” with images of bombed-out villages and Russian corpses in Ukraine. “We gave them hope,” Alexander Dugin, one of the leading nationalist ideologues in Russia, said during a television appearance last week. “When we said we’re a united Russian civilization, this didn’t just come from a few patriotic forces. It came from the President!”

And it will not be easy for Putin to back away from those promises. A nationwide poll taken at the end of June suggested that 40% of Russians supported military intervention in Ukraine, up from 31% only a month earlier. This segment of society is largely made up of young, poor and undereducated nationalists, as well as elderly people nostalgic for the glory of the Soviet Union, according to Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center, the independent polling agency that conducted those surveys. After the Russian annexation of Crimea, the euphoria among these parts of the electorate helped push Putin’s approval ratings toward record highs of over 80% “The revival of those strong imperialist feelings, playing on the idea of a fallen nation rising up, all of that ensured the sudden upswing in support for Putin,” Gudkov said. “But I don’t think that can last, probably not even past this fall.”

The all-time peak in Putin’s popularity, Gudkov points out, came right after the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, when his approval ratings jumped to 88% before quickly getting dragged down by the effects of the global financial crisis. By the spring of 2009, they were down to 55%—propped up by what Gudkov calls the apathetic mass of civil servants and state dependents who support Putin “because there is not other choice.”

That slump is now likely to recur. The Russian economy is once again stagnating, this time from the effects of the Western sanctions, and there are already signs that consumers are suffering from the resulting slump in the value of the ruble. New car sales, for instance, fell by a remarkable 17% last month, and the estimated cost of developing Crimea—roughly $18 billion—will put further strain on the federal budget. Such bread-and-butter problems are not enough to dissuade the jingoist minority in Russia, and they are certainly not much help to rebels fighting and dying in eastern Ukraine.

But as the last few weeks have shown, Putin is not the Napoleon many of them believed him to be.


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