DONETSK, Ukraine — Deep strains emerged Thursday in the ranks of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow insurgents as dozens turned in their weapons in disgust at Russian inaction and bickering broke out between rebel factions.
In the past two weeks, Ukrainian government troops have halved the amount of territory held by the rebels and have grown better equipped and more confident by the day. Once fearful of losing further pieces of Ukraine to Russia, they have shifted their strategy to containing the insurgents, whose pleas to join Russia have been ignored by President Vladimir Putin.
Pushed back into Ukraine’s eastern industrial city of Donetsk, the pro-Russia militias appear to be focusing their efforts now on hit-and-run operations, bombing transportation links and bracing for more assaults from government forces.
Signs of a rift within the rebellion became evident Thursday when the head of the influential Vostok battalion announced he would not submit to the authority of the military leader of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, Igor Girkin.
Girkin, a Russian better known by his assumed name Strelkov, has attained hero status among supporters of the insurgency. Ukrainian authorities have identified him as a former Russian military intelligence agent active in taking over Crimea before Russia annexed it in March.
Yet he has also been criticized by some for leading the rebel withdrawal last weekend from the eastern city of Slovyansk, 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of Donetsk, reportedly to protect civilian lives.
Vostok commander Alexander Khodakovsky alluded to that.
“There cannot be a single leader giving orders,” he declared. “Because if Strelkov suddenly decides what he wants is — in the interests of protecting the lives of Donetsk citizens and the lives of militiamen — to abandon Donetsk, then we will not follow his orders.”
Khodakovsky was speaking in Makiivka, a town just outside Donetsk, where his men relocated after a reported falling-out with Strelkov.
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