Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, several Western news outlets have highlighted comparisons between Putin and former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević. Both Putin and Milošević, the story goes, manufactured tensions in a neighboring country by accusing their enemies of fascism. Milošević’s divisive tactics led to war, genocide, and eventually a trial at The Hague.
On June 17, eastern Ukraine’s rebel military commander accused Putin of repeating Milošević’s mistakes, though not in the way you might be thinking. Igor Girkin—more commonly known as Strelkov, which translates to something like “Shooter”—warned Putin that he’s not gone far enough in his support for the rebels. Half measures (like Milošević’s) could send Putin to the Hague, Strelkov warns.
Strelkov and other figures in the breakaway governments in Donetsk and Lugansk have appealed to the Kremlin repeatedly, begging for formal military support against Ukraine’s “anti-terrorist operation.” Moscow’s reluctance to wage a full-scale invasion outside Crimea has left the paramilitary groups in the so-called “Novorossiya” region in a geopolitical and legal limbo. Frustrated with this situation, Strelkov lashed out at Putin using the Milošević comparison:
Что касается моих вчерашних заявлений, то еще раз хочу подчеркнуть: нисколько не преувеличил и не преуменьшил серьезность ситуации. Все тщательно взвесил: каждое слово, сказанное и написанное.
Всерьез полагаю (и имею к тому основания), что мы имеем дело не с откровенным “сливом” Новороссии президентом РФ, а с системным саботажем на уровне олигархата и высшего чиновничества. Потому как для Путина разгром юго-востока объективно смертельно опасен и как для лидера России, и просто как для человека – он означает безвозвратное начало “пути Милошевича” (“сдавшего” некогда в похожих обстоятельствах Боснию и Краину, а потом добитого в Косово и закономерно-показательно “уморенного” в Гааге).
Regarding my statements yesterday, I want to emphasize again that I have not exaggerated or minimized the seriousness of this situation. I have weighed everything carefully—every word I’ve spoken or put into writing.
I seriously believe (and not without reason) that we are dealing not with the Russian President’s deliberate betrayal of Novorissiya, but with a systemic sabotage by the oligarchy and top officials. [I say this] because the defeat of [Ukraine’s] southeast would plainly be fatal for Putin, both as a Russian leader and as a man. It would mean an irreversible step down the “Milošević’s path” (who once “surrendered” Bosnia and Krajina under similar circumstances, was later finished off in Kosovo, and finally “expired” naturally and tellingly in The Hague).
Strelkov’s statement has a heavy helping of the “if-only-Stalin-knew!” worldview, a vain hope that government middlemen and not the nation’s leader are to blame for the country’s problems—a delusion that has colored Russian attitudes about the Kremlin for generations.
Writing on LiveJournal, Andrey Egorov dissected Strelkov’s comments about the saboteurs hiding around Putin:
Мрачный сценарий рисует Игорь Стрелков. Но в какой-то альтернативной реальности вполне осуществимый. Известное мнение, что “Царь хороший, а бояре плохие” в очередной раз прозвучало от главы ополчения Донбасса.
Igor Strelkov paints a grim scenario. But it’s entirely feasible in some alternate reality. The well-known opinion that “the Tsar is good, but the boyars are bad” has yet again been uttered by the head of the Donbas militia.
Egorov took the Milošević comparison in a different direction, drawing a parallel between Serbia’s former leader and Strelkov, implying that both men are foolish to have placed their faith in Russia.
[Bottom-right frame] Slobodan Milošević. Slandered and betrayed by all, he believed to his last day in the help of his Russian brothers.
In comments on a Facebook post by Pavel Gubarev, the Donbas’ “People’s Governor,” it is clear that the growing disillusionment with Russian support for eastern Ukraine’s rebel forces is challenging some people’s confidence in Putin, whereas others’ trust remains unshaken.
It seems like a lot of people in Russian have betrayed the President.
ввп слил Новороссию и это факт … бесполезно отрицать очевидное прикидываясь понимающими хитрые планы путина…их просто нет для Новороссии… а следом он сольёт и Россию…нужно смотреть правде в глаза…да в принципе Россия и сейчас оккупирована олигархами близкими ввп… он один из них а не герой одиночка борющийся за Россию…
VVP [Vladimir V. Putin] betrayed Novorossiya and that’s a fact…it’s useless to deny the obvious while pretending to understand the cunning plans of Putin…there simply aren’t any such plans for Novorossiya…and he’s going to follow this by betraying Russia…you need to face the truth…yes, in principle, Russia is now occupied by the oligarchs close to VVP…he is one of them and not some sort of lone hero fighting for Russia.
Since Strelkov’s “Milošević” comments, Putin apparently has distanced himself even further from the separatists. Last week, before heading to Austria for meetings with European leaders, Putin urged the Russian parliament to revoke Russia’s authorization to deploy troops to Ukraine. At the same time, Aleksandr Borodai—rebel Donetsk’s Prime Minister—conceded to a weeklong ceasefire. (How well either side of the conflict is actually observing this armistice is a matter of debate.)
Strelkov has gained a sizeable online following thanks in part to Aleksandr Dugin, a sociologist at Moscow State University and an outspoken Eurasianist ideologue (who was fired and then not-fired from his job last week over a blog post advocating the murder of certain undesirables in Ukraine). Dugin and his disciples are incredibly Web savvy—as adept at drumming up public support through social media as they are fervent in their belief that geopolitics demands a new Russian empire. In recent months, Dugin has backed Strelkov and called for a fight against Moscow’s “sixth column,” by which he means the bureaucrats in the Kremlin, who he believes have impeded a Russian victory in Novorossiya.