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Is Putin losing control of Ukraine's pro-Russia rebels?

Pro-Russia rebels march in Donetsk
Pro-Russia rebels march in Donetsk
Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images

Fighting in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, where pro-Russia separatist rebels have held control for weeks, rapidly worsened on Monday. The rebels attacked and seized the city's airport and fought for hours with the Ukrainian military, which appeared to finally push them out of the airport but not out of Donetsk. The fighting is so far inconclusive, but it indicates that the violence is getting a lot worse, putting eastern Ukraine a little bit closer to the full-blown guerrilla conflict that has seemed like an unlikely but dangerous risk.

So it's clear that the violence in itself is bad news. What's not clear is why the violence is getting worse and what it means for the Ukraine conflict. But it seems most likely that the pro-Russia insurgency is increasingly breaking away from Moscow's control and taking on a life of its own. If true, that would be both good and bad for the Ukraine conflict, but more than anything it would be dangerous.

It's probably no coincidence that the fighting occurred on the same day as Ukraine's national election, which is a major symbolic defeat for the pro-Russia rebels and for Moscow, which is widely suspected to give the rebels at least some support. The national vote has elected a new president who is less sympathetic to Russia than his predecessor and who has been vilified in Kremlin media; the election also formalizes the removal of now-exiled pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in protests that set off the crisis.

The big question right now is whether the pro-Russia militias attacked the airport at Moscow's behest or did it against Moscow's wishes. Either case is bad.

If the rebels attacked under Kremlin orders, which Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia suggested could be a show of Moscow's disapproval of Ukraine electing an unfriendly new president, then that would signal that Russia's recent conciliation with Ukraine was just an act and that it plans to continue fomenting disorder.

What seems perhaps more likely is that the pro-Russia rebels, buying into their own propaganda, are stepping away from Moscow's control and staged today's attack in spite of the Kremlin's recent efforts to make nice with Ukraine. It seems likelier because Russia's official stance, as well as that unofficially communicated through state media, has softened so dramatically on Ukraine in the last two weeks. This softening has been a bit of an embarrassment for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is not someone who tends to embrace international embarrassments easily. The rebels sowing violence in eastern Ukraine may be pro-Russia, but today's attack may indicate what has looked increasingly likely for some time: that they are getting further from Moscow's influence.

If this is in fact what's happening, it may be good and bad news for Ukraine. The good is that, as the rebels break from Moscow, then Moscow will feel less obligated or interested in helping them out. That means the tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border are less likely to invade, as Russia had been implicitly threatening, if the Ukrainian military moves against the rebels or if far-right anti-Russia militias kill more separatists. So Ukraine may have a freer hand to actually attack the separatist rebels.

The bad is that, if the rebels break from Moscow, they will be guided less by Russian foreign policy, which however aggressive was at least constrained by rational self-interest and could be negotiated with, and more by their own ideological zealotry. That can make for more irrational behavior, which could mean violence for the sake of violence, guerrilla fighting that lasts as long as they want it to last.

This is not to predict a specific outcome as the pro-Russia rebels start to act more under their own volition, as they may well have done in today's big attack. The point is that, as the rebels become maybe less a tool of Russian negotiation and more a self-propelled ideologically driven insurgency, the range of possible outcomes gets a lot wider and a lot more uncertain. This is a conflict that's already had plenty of uncertainty.