In Ukraine, West’s ‘Terrorists’ Are Russia’s Heroes

The Moscow Times

Dmitry Lovetsky / APA Donetsk People’s Republic fighter throwing a water bottle to colleagues as they arrive at gas station to refuel their tank in eastern Ukraine this month.

If President Vladimir Putin is facing the biggest international backlash of his 14-year reign, it is because he has — in the eyes of the West — violated the one great taboo of the post-9/11 world: supporting terrorism. The problem is, viewed from a Russian perspective, Putin has done nothing of the sort.

It would be impossible to understand the Kremlin’s stance on Ukraine without first taking into account the fact that the pro-Russian rebels branded “terrorists” in Western discourse are widely seen in Russia as noble freedom fighters.

Parallels can easily be drawn to the way the Islamic terrorists vilified in the West have been revered by their many followers at home — think Hamas in the 1980s. But possibly a better analogy can be found in the legacy of Che Guevara, who, prior to reaching posthumous superstardom, had been a communist icon loathed and hunted by the CIA as a public enemy.

In light of this global failure to see eye to eye, Putin is left without the option of abandoning the pro-Russian uprising even if he wanted to, as doing so would brand him a traitor, backstabbing the nation’s heroes, experts and activists told The Moscow Times.

“It has already been said that the new Russian generation is not ‘Putin’s generation,’ but ‘[rebel leader Igor] Strelkov’s generation,'” Russian nationalist ideologue Egor Prosvirnin said Sunday.

Betraying the Heroes

The insurgency’s popularity leaves Putin — whose approval rating has soared against the backdrop of his support of the rebellion — hostage to public opinion at home, Petrov said.

The president’s approval rating currently stands at 83 percent, the highest showing since 2008, according to a survey by U.S. pollster Gallup held between April and early June. The study polled 2,000 Russians and had a margin of error of 2.7 percentage points.

But as the insurgency bogs down and Western pressure mounts, the Kremlin is looking for ways to disassociate itself from the rebels — without alienating a public that holds the insurgency in such high esteem, experts said.

Analysts interviewed for this story declined to elaborate on the extent of negative implications for Putin in case he “betrays” the nation’s heroes.

But Petrov pointed out that a similar ideological U-turn in Ukraine triggered the string of protests that led in February to the ousting of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who abandoned a planned association agreement with the EU only days ahead of its signing last fall in favor of a snap alliance with Russia.

“Putin is definitely aware of how it worked out for Yanukovych,” Petrov said.