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 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 Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine’s Crimea region and annexed it to Russia in March.
Putin has denied that he or Russian troops have played a role in the eastern Ukraine conflict, which has taken nearly 1,400 lives. 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 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.
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.