Experts view "rift" among Ukraine rebels amid "softening" Russian rhetoric

Text of report by Russian Gazeta.ru news website, on 10 July 2014; subheads as received

[Article by Vladimir Dergachev: "Patriots’ Donbass Games"]

A trip to Donetsk by Kremlin-connected political analyst Sergey Kurginyan, who made high-profile denunciations of military commander Igor [Ihor] Strelkov and spoke of direct arms supplies from Moscow to the self-proclaimed republics, have sparked a new wave of debate about the Kremlin’s links with eastern Ukraine. Gazeta.ru experts believe that Moscow is ready to bank on the more moderate groups in the separatist leadership, although the rebels’ military wing is prepared to act independently.

Who sent Kurginyan

Kurginyan’s main complaint was that, instead of defending Slovyansk to the end, Strelkov and his units retreated or, in Kurginyan’s opinion, essentially fled to Donetsk. However, from within the rebel movement the situation looks quite different.

As is known, during the siege of Slovyansk, Donetsk did not properly help the [besieged] militia with arms and manpower. During the months Slovyansk was besieged and the Ukrainian Army focused on that city, the Donetsk militia, unlike the LPR [Luhansk people’s republic], failed to form a single military command, disarm all Ukrainian security officials on its territory, and re-subordinate all government bodies to itself. Moreover, the old city mayor, Oleksandr Lukyanchenko, still worked in Donetsk and only evacuated following Strelkov’s arrival.

In informal conversations, militiamen have been attributing the chaos in the DPR [Donetsk people’s republic] to the figure of Vostok battalion commander Oleksandr Khodakovskyy. In Strelkov’s absence, it was he who was the most influential commander in Donetsk, with the most powerful group in the city being under his authority.

As is known, the militia groups fighting in the region include many Russian volunteers, including veterans of Afghanistan, the Dniester region, Nagornyy Karabakh, and Chechnya. They are being sent into Ukraine across the Rostov [Region] border. On the night of 24 May, one such combined group arrived in Donetsk in five Kamaz trucks. There they joined Vostok and were placed under the command of Khodakovskyy, a former officer of the Alfa unit of the SBU [Security Service of Ukraine]. Vostok cleared the administration building of "looters," with Khodakovskyy effectively re-subordinating all local armed groups to himself.

Even though in an interview with Gazeta.ru Aleksandr Boroday ["DPR prime minister"] said he was confident that Vostok battalion head Khodakovskyy was loyal to the cause of the insurrection, people in the city remember the battalion commander’s failed operations to seize Donetsk airport and the Marynivka border crossing. Before the operations, the militiamen were assured by their commanders that they had agreed with the Ukrainian military that it would surrender, but Vostok fell into a trap and lost tens of fighters. Many disenchanted volunteers were sure they had been betrayed by their commanders and left for their motherland.

Following Strelkov’s arrival in Donetsk, rumours started in the city about a behind-the-scenes struggle for power. Strelkov would not spend the night in one place, and Khodakovskyy is in hiding. Vostok has become the sole armed unit that has only partly switched to Strelkov’s side.

Later, this was confirmed by Interfax [Russian news agency]. According to its information, Khodakovskyy, together with several comrades-in-arms who remained loyal to him and with whom he had served in the SBU, fled from Donetsk to Makiyivka [town east of Donetsk] and barricaded themselves in a building belonging to Makiyivvuhillya [Makiyivka coal-mining company]. Following Khodakovskyy’s flight, rumours intensified about his links with Rinat Akhmetov [Donetsk-based billionaire businessman].

"This is speculation that is hard to rely on without direct evidence. I accept that he may have acted in Akhmetov’s interests indirectly, but I cannot claim that he has," Oleksandr Zhuchkovskiy, coordinator of non-humanitarian aid in the Donbass, told Gazeta.ru.

Meanwhile, back in early May, following his release from SBU custody, [self-proclaimed Donetsk] people’s governor Pavlo Hubaryev [Pavel Gubarev] said in an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta that the "Donbass king" Akhmetov funded up to a third of the militias. Observers believed that Akhmetov had initially tried to blackmail Kyiv [Kiev], but then the insurrection got out of control and the oligarch had to flee to Kyiv.

Nevertheless, unlike Slovyansk and other militia strongholds, Donetsk, which is home to Akhmetov’s offices and outfits, has not come under air and artillery attack. Until just recently, Ukrainian government bodies operated in the city.

Kurginyan, who paid a surprise visit to Donetsk, supported the establishment of a council of military commanders. It means that he essentially supported Khodakovskyy being equal to Strelkov. The security of Kurginyan, who accused Strelkov of "treasonable surrender" of Slovyansk, was provided by Khodakovskyy and his Vostok fighters.

Following these odious statements, rumours started in the midst of the militiamen and their sympathizers that the Kremlin backed out of the Novorossiya [separatist] plan. Aleksandr Dugin accused the Essence of Time leader [Kurginyan] of working for a "sixth column," while Dmitriy Rogozin, the [Russian] deputy prime minister responsible for the military industrial complex, publicly expressed his disenchantment with the political analyst. In June, Dugin already said that the Russian Spring [separatist movement in Ukraine] is being betrayed by presidential aide Vladislav Surkov. Many militias linked Kurginyan to him. But in an interview with Gazeta.ru, Aleksandr Boroday said that he does "not link Surkov himself to the ‘dove party.’"

Meanwhile, a high-ranking source has assured Gazeta.ru that "Slava ([Vladislav] Surkov) is not linked to Kurginyan." Moreover, the latter is a figure quite independent of the Kremlin on some issues and has freedom to go on trips such as the Donetsk one without authorization from above. It is also possible that he was invited from outside.

Political analyst Gleb Pavlovskiy has described Kurginyan as a person who packs his connections (or his alleged connections) into his personal ideological shell.

"What is unpleasant is precisely the annoying flaunting of ideological commitment at a time when it is enough to say simply that he is defending certain interests…. He always speaks as an important person and alludes to some powerful connections, even on a global scale. This is leaving an archaic impression at a time when the crisis in the east of Ukraine requires more clarity and less ideological muddle. Hints about his connection with Surkov are likely to be nonsense. Many people do not like Surkov and link all the unpleasant things to him. As for Kurginyan’s security, miracles do not happen, and Sergey Yervandovich [Kurginyan] is no Joan of Arc. Someone was ordered to provide his security. It is unlikely that Kurginyan pays for his security. His personal bodyguards would not have helped him in Donetsk."

Softening of Russian rhetoric

Whereas there are major doubts about centralized Russian military assistance to the "republicans," media support is undeniable. Russian channels broadcast to militia-controlled territories, while LifeNews [pro-Kremlin Russian TV channel] is almost considered the militia’s official media outlet. A Gazeta.ru correspondent has himself witnessed how a press conference by Denys Pushylin, speaker of the DPR Supreme Council, was being postponed because they were waiting for the channel’s reporters to arrive.

Since the start of the insurrection in the east of Ukraine, offices and structures engaged in the provision of media support for the "republicans" and their leaders have started appearing in Russia. According to Gazeta.ru information, some of these structures are overseen by Vladislav Surkov.

However, the patriotic fervour in the media has recently subsided. The RBK news agency has reported, citing research by Medialogiya [Russian media monitoring and analysis company], that anti-Ukrainian rhetoric on federal channels and state news agencies has softened significantly. They have almost stopped referring to the actions of the Kyiv authorities as a "punitive operation" and to Kyiv’s adversaries as "supporters of federalization."

The rhetoric of the president [Vladimir Putin] has softened as well. On 9 July he called for humanitarian aid to be delivered to those affected by hostilities in Ukraine.

"Let us think how to do this properly and in a way that is comfortable to the people, the state, and our partners in Ukraine, so that this does not cause any rejection, but, on the contrary, all of this is used to help the people," said the Russian president, who as recently as April was referring to his current "Kyiv partners" as a "junta" and a "certain clique."

"Kurginyan is effectively diverting attention," Pavlovskiy explains. "Unfortunately, I am also familiar with this function from the past. Naturally, this is happening in the mode of (Moscow) distancing itself from Strelkov and the east of Ukraine because the authorities have driven themselves into a media trap where a sudden U-turn is impossible without serious reputational damage."

However, some experts suggest that the patriotic fervour being pumped into the population should not be overestimated. This is what political analyst Gleb Kuznetsov says:

"What is good about our TV viewers is that they have the worldview of fish in a tank. One thing can be pumped into them today and something else tomorrow. The propaganda system is so well-organized and the degree of trust in the government’s foreign policy is so high that anything can be explained. I do not share the view of our ‘hawks’ that there may be turmoil in domestic politics as a result of a failure to intervene in Ukraine militarily. It should be understood clearly that the charm of war ends at the point the first casualties appear. As much as a war is popular before it starts, it is hated while it is under way. Suffice it to remember the Russian-Japanese war, the First World War, and Afghanistan. There are more domestic political risks while there is a war than while there is not."

Valeriy Solovey, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, also notes the change of discourse and the weakening of "hawkish rhetoric" in recent weeks. However, the change of discourse, in his opinion, does not amount to refusal to provide assistance.

"If you wish, one set of people is responsible for discourse and another one is responsible for assistance. Moreover, tacit support for the republics is, in the view of the Kremlin, a key factor in increasing the level of chaos in Ukraine. It is likely that a rift in the leadership of the insurgents will be avoided. They are not stupid people and they realize that if they lose, they will all be destroyed. I am sure that Strelok [Strelkov] has a good chance of being a military dictator. He fits the bill nicely."

However, the Kremlin does not want Strelkov to get strong, Solovey says.

"That is precisely a factor that is being ignored. The trouble with these people (the establishment) is that they do not have a clear strategy. In the event of a rebel victory, which cannot be ruled out, but is not certain, a completely different game, with different rules, will start in Russia. I think it is still too early to speak about that."

War is not expected

It is worth noting that Kurginyan is not the only public critic of Strelkov. Following Strelkov’s repeated appeals for military assistance, Kremlin-connected political analysts have started talking about attempts to trap Russia by instigating military intervention. That is what Mikhail Leontyev, Nikolay Starikov, and Nikita Mikhalkov have said. Strelkov has come under moderate criticism almost simultaneously from several Kremlin-connected bloggers, such as Eduard Bagirov.

"On the same day, around 10 people connected with the authorities suddenly start attacking Strelkov from various flanks. This leaves an ugly impression even if you are not a Strelkov fan. After all, these people are under attack and face deadly risk, and suddenly you have some kind of Moscow farce.

"This points to the lameness of the political means at the Kremlin’s disposal in such a situation. Sergey Yervandovich [Kurginyan] may not be a thermal rocket to divert attention, but a Chinese-made firecracker. But such games are only good in peacetime," Pavlovskiy said.

Gazeta.ru has been unable to get in touch with Kurginyan himself, but his aide has said that he is already back in Moscow.

On the other hand, despite the weakening of Moscow’s bellicose rhetoric, the Kremlin is continuing sending out frightening signals through leaks by high-ranking sources about the start of an operation within 48 hours, military exercises on the border, and the recognition of the people’s republics by Moscow’s satellite, [Georgia’s breakaway republic of] South Ossetia. However, according to Gazeta.ru sources, official propaganda about the inadmissibility of war is close to reality and Moscow is not genuinely preparing for war.

"Indirect signs cannot be observed, although I do not have direct evidence. Indirect signs – that is no one is preparing for war in state structures. Usually, when they prepare for something, this is apparent from certain preparatory work, but this is not apparent," a high-ranking source told Gazeta.ru.

Source: Gazeta.ru website, Moscow, in Russian 0000 gmt 10 Jul 14

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