MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s failure to come to the rescue of beleaguered pro-Moscow rebels in east Ukraine threatens to both shatter his image as a strongman leader and foment dangerous domestic discontent among nationalist groups, his supporters have warned.
“We support Putin because he is strong,” Alexander Dugin, an ultranationalist thinker whose ideas are reported to have influenced recent Kremlin policy, told The Washington Times. “But many people feel cheated by his refusal to use military force [in east Ukraine]. Russian patriots are close to turning away from Putin.”
The comments came as Ukrainian forces recaptured the key city of Slavyansk over the weekend, forcing separatist fighters to make what they described as a “tactical retreat” to the regional capital of Donetsk — setting up a showdown between rebels and government forces.
Mr. Dugin warned that Mr. Putin — whose approval ratings shot up to over 80 percent after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March — was on increasingly slippery ground over his reluctance to get involved in a military campaign in Ukraine.
On Monday, three bridges on key roads leading into Donetsk were destroyed in what some speculated was a rebel effort to slow the advance of Ukrainian forces. The rebels reportedly blamed the blown bridges on Ukrainian forces intent on disrupting their supply lines.
Rebels overran Slavyansk some three months ago, which had become the focal point of their operations. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described the raising of the country’s blue-and-yellow flag over Slavyansk as of “massive symbolic importance.”
Mr. Putin has built his almost 15-year rule around his reputation as a tough, no-nonsense leader who is willing to defend Russia’s interests wherever the Kremlin sees fit.
“He is entering the most frightening period of his presidency because he risks losing the support of the masses,” Mr. Dugin said.
In an interview aired late last week by Life News, a pro-Kremlin website, Igor Strelkov, a Russian national who commands the rebel forces in east Ukraine, said separatists would be “destroyed” within the next two weeks if Russia did not intervene militarily in the conflict.
There seems little likelihood, however, that Mr. Putin intends to ride to the rebels’ last-minute rescue.
Indeed, Mr. Putin asked Parliament last month to revoke permission to use military force in Ukraine, signaling a dramatic turnaround from the ex-KGB officer. Mr. Putin had earlier threatened to send the Russian army into east Ukraine to defend ethnic Russians from what state media and government officials had described as the “fascist junta” that came to power after protesters had toppled Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February.
The Russian army subsequently massed on the border with Ukraine, sparking the worst crisis in East-West ties since the end of the Cold War.
Mr. Putin’s new eagerness to avoid war in Ukraine has been described by analysts as at least partially due to his desire to avoid a fresh round of damaging Western sanctions. The West in April imposed sanctions against banks and energy companies controlled by some of Mr. Putin’s closest allies over the Kremlin’s seizure of Crimea. U.S. and European officials have repeatedly threatened to move ahead with more serious sanctions.
Although there was never any firm evidence that Russia was planning to invade Ukraine, the apparent removal of the military option from the Kremlin’s agenda has left separatist leaders bitter and confused.
“They gave us hope and then abandoned us,” said Denis Pushilin, one of the key figures in the insurgency that has seized Ukrainian territory across what the rebels dub “Novorossiya” — “New Russia” — in recent months.
“Putin’s words about defending ethnic Russians — about defending Novorossiya — were beautiful,” Mr. Pushilin said in online comments this weekend. “But they were just words.”
The silence of Russia’s guns as beleaguered rebels suffer heavy losses has also dismayed volunteer fighters, who flocked to east Ukraine from Moscow and other cities to take part in what nationalist commentators dubbed the “Russian spring.” Online nationalist forums are full of descriptions of Mr. Putin as a “traitor” who has sold out the rebels.
“Putin understands very well that after the war is over, Strelkov and his allies will return to Russia,” said Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician and former deputy prime minister. “And they will be furious at Putin because they believe he has betrayed them by not ordering the army in.”
Many of the Russian nationals who answered online calls to fight the “junta” in Ukraine come from marginal nationalist and leftist groups that were ill-disposed to the Kremlin even before the current crisis. But their participation in hostilities in east Ukraine will have proven a boost to their reputations.
“They will be extremely dangerous for the Russian authorities when they return, as they have gained respect within certain circles for their actions,” warned Nikolai Mitrokhin, an analyst with the grani.ru website. “The fight against them will be no joke.”