Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ukraine/Russia: Two Senior Pro-Russian Rebels Resign, Ukrainian Forces Have Offensive Edge

According to Reuters, two of the most senior pro-Russian rebels battling Ukrainian government troops in eastern Ukraine quit on Thursday (August 14), deepening the disarray in a pro-Moscow separatist movement that is being pushed back by an Ukrainian military offensive.

The reverses suffered by the rebels could force a tactical rethinking by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While he has denied directly helping the rebels, his strategy of keeping Ukraine from integrating with the West has benefited from having a part of the country under the control of pro-Moscow separatists. 

COMMENT: The European Union and the United States accuse Russia of arming the separatists; they have imposed sanctions targeting sectors of the Russian economy, including energy, technology and finance.

In a speech to Russian ministers and members of Parliament assembled in a Crimean hotel, Putin struck a tone that was low-key and conciliatory, saying he wanted to do everything he could to halt bloodshed in Ukraine.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, however, that the Russian leader had sounded dovish in the past yet, had not followed up his words with concrete actions.

Illustrating the economic pain the standoff is inflicting on Russia, energy giant Rosneft asked the government to lend it $42 million of cash that had been earmarked for Russian pensioners to help it weather the sanctions.

Some Western officials have said they believe the convoy could be a cover for a Russian military incursion, something Moscow has described as "absurd."

By evening on Thursday, the convoy had stopped near the Russian settlement of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the border with Ukraine.

One of the truck drivers told REUTERS it would be heading to the crossing point at Izvaryne, which is held by the rebels.

If the convoy tries to enter Ukraine without the consent of the authorities in Kiev, there is a risk the Ukrainian government and its Western allies could view that as an illegal Russian incursion, further heightening tensions.

Kiev blames Russia and the separatists for the plight of the civilians, but their situation has grown more acute as the Ukrainian military has pressed its offensive, including in areas where civilians are living.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops have been slowly encircling Donetsk, the regional hub with a peacetime population of nearly a million.