Shakeup In the Ukraine Rebel High Command

Several leaders of the rebellion are out, possibly because of the downing of MH17. This could be a prelude to peace talks—or intensified fighting.

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty

DONETSK, Ukraine — Even as Russia’s stealth invasion of Ukraine continues and intensifies, with British reporters spotting armored personnel carriers moving across the border, in the dead of night, the operations of President Vladimir Putin’s partisans in eastern Ukraine appear to be in disarray. The shadowy commander known as “Strelkov” (gunman) may have quit. Other rebel officials certainly have. And the Ukrainian army, slowly, uncertainly, but ineluctably, is closing in on this besieged ghost-town of a city.

Yet even where battle lines seem to be defined, the relations between ethnic Russian locals, supposedly supportive of the rebellion, and Ukrainian government troops, supposed to crush it, present themselves as much more complex and human than that.

On Thursday I watched as half-a-dozen Ukrainian soldiers sitting atop their Soviet-era BMD-1 armored vehicle, lurching and crunching in a dust-swirl down a rutted rural lane, looked like they would pass out in the scorching heat. Pedaling toward them came a heavily made-up older woman in a white blouse and slacks who paid them no heed whatsoever, seemingly determined to ignore signs of war on her eccentric afternoon bicycle ride.

Around a pond fringed with bulrushes, local girls saw the soldiers coming, and so did their boyfriends, who swelled their chests a little. The decrepit BMD came to a stop with a gear-clanking jolt by the water, and within seconds the soldiers broke out the vodka. A half-an-hour earlier they had been caught in the middle of a mortar barrage in a skirmish with separatists. Now they stripped down and loudly, laughingly dove into the cooling water.

They looked younger now than when weighed down in camouflage, flak jackets and helmets. This band of brothers looked like what they were before conflict came to Ukraine—accountants, shop managers, mechanics, courting beaux and marriage prospects. The girls giggled; their boyfriends frowned. The older men by the pond throwing back the vodka talked with the soldiers a bit, but for the most part there was uneasy separation.

I asked a Lieutenant Pavel how things were going. “We were in a village store the other day and they immediately protested how they were against the separatists,” he said. “We said, ‘Okay, but why are you telling us this? We just came in to buy some food.’”

A year ago Pavel couldn’t have imagined Ukrainians fighting each other, and for him the situation is doubly poignant—he is an ethnic Russian from the town of Dnipropetrovsk, three hours away. “Because of Russian propaganda they think we are fascists,” he says. “No one cared about language and ethnic issues before.”

He blames ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, arguing that he was the one who exploited for political reasons ethnic divisions in Ukraine. “This is Yanukovych’s war as much as Putin’s,” he says, offering me another vodka as in the distance a rumbling salvo of Grad rockets was launched.

For the Ukrainian soldiers, it is slow going. “I wish this would end soon,” says Victor, who is just married to his young sweetheart. “She worries about me and wants me home but understands why I am here.” This unit has been fighting on the northwestern side of Donetsk for three weeks now and progress is slow—if for no other reason than the hesitancy of their commanders in Kiev to order a full-scale assault on the city.

For now there is piecemeal movement and confusion as the news flowing in points either to the conflict worsening badly or, contrariwise, coming to a sudden end.

Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines were heartened by news Thursday night that the separatists’ sinister military commander in Donetsk, the Russian Igor Strelkov, had quit, a possible sign of increasing disarray among the factitious insurgent leadership. (Days earlier Strelkov, whose fearsome reputation is at odds with his delicate features and Proustian moustache, was reported gravely injured. But those claims later were denied.)

Strelkov—a 43-year-old Muscovite, whose real name is Igor Girkin—is one of the soldiers’ most hated figures. A suspected Russian military intelligence officer, Strelkov admits he was a veteran of several Kremlin military interventions in the so-called near abroad, including the 1992 war in Moldova’s Transdniester region and the first and second Chechen wars.

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Last week the prime minister of the self-styled Donetsk Republic, Aleksandr Borodai, another Russian, stepped down to be replaced by a Ukrainian native, and according to Borodai Strelkov also resigned. “You probably already know that he, like myself, has left his post,” Borodai said in a video posted by Russia’s pro-Kremlin Life News website. He said the “republic’s new military commander is Vladimir Kononov,” who goes by the nom de guerre Tsar. The rebel chief in Luhansk, former paratrooper Valery Bolotov has said he too was temporarily handing over to his defense minister, Igor Plotnitskiy.

Some Ukrainian analysts argue the shifts in leadership ranks and Strelkov’s departure, if confirmed, may be part of an effort to prepare for negotiations, with hardliners being moved out to make talks easier. They point to Putin’s call Thursday for a quick end to the fighting in a speech delivered in Crimea in which he said, “We will do all we can to stop this conflict as soon as possible.”

But others maintain the leadership changes are more a reflection of disputes within rebel ranks and Moscow’s embarrassment at the shooting down last month of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The Kremlin blames Strelkov for the downing of the jet—a propaganda disaster for Russia. Certainly in recent days insurgent fighters in Donetsk have been grumbling about tactical missteps and blaming Strelkov for the mistakes, criticism that was never heard previously.

Recent disciplinary orders to the fighters issued by Strelkov also have gone down badly. He banned cursing in rebel ranks, arguing in a decree, “We call ourselves an Orthodox Christian army. Foul words do not have a Russian origin and were used by Russia's enemies for the desecration of holy places." Also, he had banned alcohol from being sold in stores near the university dormitories that were being used by insurgents.

Former rebel leader Denis Pushilin, now in Moscow, told Russian television he has no doubt the rebels will fight on and that Strelkov had trained several capable commanders. And on the separatist frontlines there are no signs of a weakening will. The fighters are determined, albeit twitchy. Ukrainian Grad rocket salvos and artillery have them on edge. At a checkpoint near the city’s airport gunmen cursed at the Ukrainians, as another volley of Grads were unleashed. With me tagging along, they dove into a rudimentary, damp shelter they had dug in a wood nearby. “We won’t give in,” said one of them as he told me to hurry back into the city center, where minutes earlier a Grad had landed in a downtown residential district, killing one civilian and wounding four.

By Thursday night the shelling and Grad strikes had lessened. But the insurgents are prepared. They are spread out now throughout the almost traffic and pedestrian- free city using different buildings as command bases. And waiting.