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Kremlin silent as pro-Russian rebels retreat in Ukraine

As a Ukrainian government offensive sends separatists retreating from their strongholds in the country's restive east, there are signs that Moscow is seeking to distance itself from the pro-Russian rebels.

MOSCOW: As a Ukrainian government offensive sends separatists retreating from their strongholds in the country's restive east, there are signs that Moscow is seeking to distance itself from the pro-Russian rebels.

Facing the threat of biting Western sanctions that could further shake Russia's teetering economy, President Vladimir Putin has watched a string of rebel defeats without taking any action - drawing accusations from separatist sympathisers at home that he is betraying their cause.

Having initially vilified the government in Kiev as a "fascist" junta pursuing ethnic cleansing in eastern Ukraine, Russian state television has dampened its rhetoric in recent weeks.

And analysts say overt Russian involvement in the conflict threatening to tear apart the former Soviet state would simply be too costly for the Kremlin.

"There are rumours of a group of 'war hawks' who are pressuring Putin," said independent political analyst Maria Lipman.

"But military intervention may lead to serious, dramatic costs," such as deeper economic sanctions imposed by the West and the risk of becoming embroiled in an unpredictable war, she added.

Russia "is not seeking to help people who fight there, instead opting to leave them to their own devices," Lipman said.

The Russian parliament last month revoked a resolution allowing Putin to send troops into Ukraine - a move Moscow said was designed to help the faltering peace process - depriving him of the legal means to intervene, added Volodymyr Gorbach, an analyst with the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev.

And as Kiev's anti-insurgency campaign gathers pace in Donetsk and Lugansk - the two industrial regions where separatists proclaimed independence in May - the risk of Russian intervention is diminished, Gorbach said.

"That threat existed before, it was in the initial phase of the current crisis," he said.

"Nothing indicates that he will change his tactic" from implicit support of the insurgency to an open invasion, he added.

And there is a sense among pro-Russian separatists that they have been abandoned by Putin - who had pledged he would do all he could to protect Russian speakers everywhere.

During a popular talk show hosted by outspoken pro-Kremlin personality Vladimir Solovyov on Sunday, separatist Ukrainian politicians Denis Pushilin and Oleg Tsarev faced Russian foreign ministry official Konstantin Dolgov, demanding to know why Russia would not send in troops to support them.

Solovyov accused Ukrainian forces of attacking Russian border posts, and asked incredulously: "I understand that we are the angels of peace, but... can't we at least do something?"

"The red lines are being drafted as we speak, they are being drafted on an international level," Dolgov said defensively, to murmurs of discontent from other speakers.

The idea of international mediation has not been welcomed by the more strident Russian supporters of the insurgency, who have been given ample airtime on state media in recent months.

"I am bewildered," said Alexander Prokhanov, the editor of far-right newspaper Zavtra.

"How can you torture Russians for three months with horrific images of Russians being killed in the southeast, and at the same time assure the whole world that Russians will be protected across the globe by any means necessary?" he said Saturday on Echo of Moscow radio.

Dmitry Orlov, a political consultant with the Kremlin and majority party United Russia, said the separatist insurgency could backfire on Russia's national interests.

"Russia is interested in containing the aggressive groups that can threaten Russia's security," he told AFP.

"The aggressive militaristic spirit of the so-called Lugansk national republic and Donetsk national republic must not form a permanent trend in domestic policy."

In Ukraine itself, the rebel fighters who were once sure of Russia's support say they feel they have been left out in the cold.

Separatist commander Igor Strelkov, who perhaps embodies the militaristic spirit criticised by Orlov, and who has achieved a status of a maverick hero among nationalist circles in Russia, said last week his men could not hold their positions for long without Russia's help.

At the weekend, Strelkov retreated with his men from the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk, a flashpoint throughout the conflict, in what was hailed as a major victory for Kiev's forces.

But in an interview with the Life News website on Saturday, sitting in what looked like a rented flat with drab furnishings out of the 1980s, he vowed to fight on despite his "utter lack of ammunition".

"Strelkov became a hero for some Russians," said Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst who heads the Moscow-based National Strategy Institute.

But he said "Russia would like to get rid of him because he is uncontrollable."

"If he falls as a hero, so much the better for the Kremlin," he added.

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