The flagging pro-Russia rebellion in eastern Ukraine has a new leader fighting to keep control of the militants' most important stronghold following the resignation of a Russian citizen who had directed the insurgency since it began more than four months ago.
Alexander Borodai, a Moscow native who has claimed to be prime minister of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk since May, resigned on Thursday and handed the reins of the unraveling independence drive to Donetsk native Alexander Zakharchenko, according to news agencies reporting from the embattled city.
Separatists, who Kiev and its Western allies say are armed and encouraged by the Kremlin, have lost more than half of the territory they seized in the spring, after Russian President
Putin has denied that he or Russian troops have played a role in the eastern Ukraine conflict, which has taken nearly 1,400 lives, including 298 aboard a Malaysian passenger jet shot down July 17. Borodai's decision to leave the territorial dispute to a Donetsk native came after a visit to the Kremlin, where he said he was conducting business on the occupied region's behalf.
"I am a Muscovite. Donbass should be led by a genuine Donetsk native," Borodai said, according to the Kyiv Post, referring to the heavily industrialized basin that stretches between the Don and Dnieper rivers.
But the departure of the most visible connection between the rebellion and the Kremlin could signal a desire by Putin to avoid incurring further sanctions on the Russian economy, already hit hard by declining stock values, a ruble plummeting against sturdier currencies, and the flight abroad of more than $75 billion in foreign capital in the first six months of the year as investors flee uncertain markets.
At least for domestic consumption, Putin has brushed off the economic hits, which have affected government and businesses' ability to borrow at affordable rates. He has also dismissed as meaningless and counterproductive Western measures barring top Kremlin officials from obtaining visas as punishment for their perceived roles in the Crimea grab.
If Borodai's return to Russia is part of a Kremlin decision to retreat from the eastern Ukraine fighting, Putin could face a loss of the resounding Russian public support for his takeover of Crimea, which has gained him record approval ratings this year, as high as 85%.
Unlike Borodoi and Russian special forces veteran Igor Girkin, another Kremlin proxy leading the separatist forces, Zakharchenko has made no appeal to Moscow for more arms or mercenaries to fight off the encroaching Ukrainian army.
The new Donetsk leader expects "only moral support" from Russia, he told reporters at the commandeered regional government headquarters, the Associated Press reported Friday.
Girkin, who goes by the nom de guerre Strelkov, or "The Shooter," commanded the separatists' battles in and around Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, two strategic towns north of Donetsk retaken by Ukrainian government troops a month ago.
He has made impassioned appeals for Putin to come to the aid of the besieged insurgents, now thought to number about 15,000, and he has rocketed to stardom in the eyes of Russian nationalists who applaud the takeover of Crimea and the struggling effort to add eastern Ukraine to Russia.
In an ominous move that suggests Putin is at least keeping open the option of an invasion to secure the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which produce vital components for the Russian military-industrial complex, the Kremlin leader has restored a troop buildup on Russia's border with Ukraine.
Ukrainian and NATO officials report that 20,000 soldiers and nearly 1,500 tanks and armored vehicles have taken up positions on the volatile frontier, leading U.S. and European security officials to warn that Putin might be preparing for an invasion if the rebellion collapses.