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The reshuffling of Ukrainian rebel leaders may be a sign of an important change in tactics

An armed pro-Russian separatist stands in front of damaged buildings following what locals say was shelling by Ukrainian forces in Donetsk August 7, 2014. (REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin)

For months, Western experts have accused Russia of directing the efforts of rebels in eastern Ukraine. The extent to which Russia directly exerts influence over the rebels, however, has always remained uncertain. Publicly, the messages are mixed: When a new separatist prime minister in Donetsk, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, claimed this weekend that his militants had received 1,200 soldiers from Russia and obtained 150 armored vehicles from unknown origins, Moscow was quick to deny it.

Zakharchenko’s remarks were especially interesting because they come two weeks after he was named prime minister of separatist-held Donetsk amid a larger, confusing reshuffle among rebel leaders. Last Thursday, military leader Igor Strelkov (who is also known under the last name Girkin) became the latest separatist leader to resign. According to other rebels, Strelkov had temporarily left for a vacation.

This leadership reshuffle is important, as it would seem to show a shifting strategy. The change-over among rebel leaders had been preceded by territorial losses to the Ukrainian military and tougher sanctions implemented by the European Union and the United States. If Russia is directly controlling the rebels, the latest reshuffle could be seen from one of two perspectives: Either as part of a preparation for peace talks with Kiev, or an attempt at strengthening the rebels by correcting a flawed strategy.

There's no doubt that before the reshuffle, the separatists were in trouble, and there had been numerous indications of stronger Russian support over the past few days. Last week for example, a Russian aid convoy of nearly 270 vehicles moved toward the Ukrainian border, which was followed by the separatists’ claim that 1,200 fighters had arrived from Russia to stop the advance of the Ukrainian army.

One reason that Ukraine's army has been able to push separatists back was that the group's commanders failed to control their fighters. Nadiya Kravets, a visiting scholar at Harvard University's Russian and Eurasian Studies Center, says that separatists had a "lack of structural and organizational unity" with fighters on the ground acting independently and disconnected from their base.

Another problem is that many of the commanders were seen as proxies for Russia. This wasn't just because of funding reasons -- some had actually served in multiple campaigns of the Russian army and intelligence services.

One notable outcome of the recent leadership shuffle is that the Russian connections of those who have taken over are far less obvious than the affiliations of those who were in power before. For example, Alexander Borodai, a Russian citizen and former prime minister of the self-declared "Donetsk People's Republic," was replaced by Zakharchenko, the leader of a local militant group whose remarks on Sunday made headlines, and Russian citizen Igor Strelkov has reportedly made way for Vladimir Kononov, a local who graduated from the Slovyansk National Aviation College in eastern Ukraine.

After the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which killed 298 passengers and crew members, it has become hard to defend the actions of the rebels who allegedly targeted the plane, especially if they had significant links to Moscow. "The leaders who resigned were perceived as Russian agents by those who do not share their ideas," says Andriy Kulykov, a Ukrainian journalist who previously worked with the BBC. Kulykov points to frequent rumors that Strelkov was a Russian intelligence agent as an example, explaining that "appointment of someone who is not associated with the Russians is supposed to convince Ukrainians that Moscow is distancing itself" from the situation.

Eastern Ukraine's reshuffle could pave the way for negotiations between the rebels and the government in Kiev. But above all, Moscow would need to “Ukrainianize the conflict and to legitimize its leaders,” says Oleksandr Melnyk, who does research on the rebels in eastern Ukraine at the University of Toronto.

The interpretations of most scholars WorldViews has spoken to point at the same two conclusions: Russia could want to strengthen the rebels first to prevent them from being defeated by the Ukrainian military and give them more leverage. Second, by installing local leaders, Russia may want to reawaken the idea of a legitimate civil uprising. The ultimate aim here could be to federalize the eastern parts of the country through peace negotiations.

Will it work? Ellie Knott, a London School of Economics researcher who focuses on Ukraine, has doubts. No matter who leads the eastern Ukrainian rebellions, “the Ukrainian government will continue to see them as terrorists," she says.

Rick Noack writes about foreign affairs and is based in Europe.



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