Why Vladimir Putin's casual use of a forgotten geographical term has ominous implications.
A few days ago, during my stay in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, I found my way to the modest tent encampment in a park that has now become the spiritual center of the local pro-Russian movement. There, I met 39-year-old Yegor Kvasnyuk, a bespectacled lawyer who is one of the coordinators of what is widely known in Odessa as the "Anti-Maidan." As the name suggests, the Anti-Maidan forces strongly reject the current interim government in Kiev, born as it was from the Euromaidan uprising that toppled former President Viktor Yanukovych in February. (Kvasnyuk hastens to add that he never liked Yanukovych, and claims that he has often run afoul of the ex-president's political party, which remains a big force in Odessa politics.)
Kvasnyuk insists that successive Ukrainian governments have repeatedly failed to take the legitimate desires of the Russian-speaking population into account. Russian is by far the dominant language in Odessa (though many there speak Ukrainian as well). Yet Kvasnyuk says that he and other pro-Russian activists spent years trying to get official recognition for teaching Russian in schools and allowing the use of it on government documentation. The Anti-Maidan activists also cite the deep cultural and political divides between Russian-speaking easterners, many of whom feel considerable nostalgia for the Soviet Union, and the Ukrainian nationalists from the western parts of the country, who regarded Soviet power as their mortal enemy. "There are very few of those people here," says Kvasnyuk. "But there are a lot of them in the West, and they want to rule us."
All of which is why, Kvasnyuk says, that he and his colleagues have joined the push for wide-ranging "federalization," meaning extensive autonomy for Odessa and its surrounding province. If that sounds similar to the primary demand issued by the insurgents who have now taken control of several key government buildings in eastern Ukraine, it's no accident: Kvasnyuk wholeheartedly approves of their actions, which, he says, are simply a "defensive response" to repressive policies pursued by the revolutionary government. He claims, without offering specifics, that the Kiev government violently suppressed pro-Russian demonstrations in the East, prompting the current revolt there.
Kvasnyuk stressed that his movement isn't ready to give up on the idea of Ukraine altogether. "Right now we hope that we can solve our problems ourselves, without help from Moscow," he told me. But what if the government in Kiev doesn't offer quite as much autonomy as the pro-Russians want? "If we don't get federalization," Kvasnyuk told me, "then there won't be any way to preserve the integrity of Ukraine." So, in effect, secession. But what about after that? Would Kvasnyuk want to join Russia?
It was here that our conversation took a rather unexpected turn. No, he explained. It would make more sense for the other Russia-oriented parts of Ukraine to join together to form a new country of their own -- a country he referred to as "Novorossiya." His eyes sparkled. "A population of 20 million, with industry, resources." With advantages like that, who needs to become a part of Russia? "By European standards that's already a good-sized country."
"Novorossiya." I'd heard the term before -- but mainly in history books that described the 18th-century Russian wars against the Ottomans that resulted in the Russian Empire's expansion to the coast of the Black Sea. The newly conquered territories were dubbed "New Russia," a name that was still being applied to southern Ukraine right up until the late 19th century. My conversation with Kvasnyuk, however, was the first time I'd heard the term invoked as a possible state-building scenario in the 21st century.
But it will certainly not be the last. A few days later, on April 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin, no less, suddenly began using the word during his annual televised question-and-answer sessions with the nation. "Under the tsars, this region was called Novorossiya," he said. "These territories were passed on to Ukraine in the 1920s. Why the Soviet government did that, may God judge them."
So how seriously are we take all this? Was Putin's choice of terminology merely a bit of psychological theater on the same day that Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and the European Union were trying to work out an agreement in Geneva to prevent further escalation in Ukraine? Or does Putin regard this as a realistic scenario? There have long been rumors of maps of a correspondingly divided Ukraine circulating in the Kremlin. Or is that simply clever disinformation, designed to keep the West anxiously guessing?
It's worth noting that Russia has already rehearsed the Novorossiya option on a much smaller scale -- in the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (inside Georgia), and in the separatist enclave of Transnistria (in Moldova), which borders on Ukraine. In each of these places, disgruntled minorities seeking greater control over their own affairs have fought wars against their national governments, with Moscow's encouragement and support.
In the case of Transnistria, Russia ended the 1992 civil war there by introducing troops designated as "peacekeepers." Those troops are still there, ensuring that the territory -- which is inhabited largely by Ukrainians and Russians who have little interest in subjecting themselves to the rule of the Romanian-speaking Moldovans who mostly run the country today -- remains a "frozen conflict." Transnistria claims for itself the status of an independent state, though not even Russia recognizes it as such. (On April 16, the Transnistrian government once again emphatically declared its desire to join Russia, something it has done many times before; so far Moscow has declined to answer in the affirmative.)
That may be because little Transnistria -- despite its population of a mere 350,000 -- remains quite useful to Moscow as it is. The Russians have used the existence of the enclave to cause all sorts of trouble for Moldova, which the Kremlin would like to keep in its orbit. To name but one example, Russia allows the Transnistrians to swipe natural gas from the Russian pipeline that crosses their territory. But Moscow sends the bill for the gas to the Moldovan government, which is left to deal with the debt.
An independent Novorossiya may not need to engage in such tomfoolery, though. Merely by coming into being, this new entity would, at a stroke, reduce Ukraine's population and economic power by around half. Rump Ukraine would lose all access to the sea, as well as much of its heavy industry. Skeptics point out that much of that industry is largely obsolete and starved of investment, while eastern Ukraine's population is rapidly ageing -- all of which are good reasons why Moscow probably wouldn't want to assume the direct burden of dealing with such problems by annexing the territory outright. (The bill for absorbing the much smaller Crimea -- population 2 million or so -- is likely to be quite high already.)
Theoretically speaking, then, one can imagine that Russia might be happy to leave Novorossiya on its own (perhaps under the de facto control of some of the Moscow-friendly oligarchs who already control a disproportionate share of eastern Ukrainian industry). In any case, it's not only the gun-toting "little green men" in eastern Ukraine who seem to be keen on the idea. Earlier this week, pro-Russian activists announced the creation of an "Odessa Republic," potentially a first step toward realizing the Novorossiya idea. So far, though, this new entity remains more a creature of the Internet than a political reality. (As far as that goes, Novorossiya also has its own Twitter feed, as well as the odd website devoted to the idea.)
In any case, says Kvasnyuk, snuggling up too close to Russia isn't desirable: Having Moscow as a good friend is already enough. If the government in Kiev tries to intervene, the government of Novorossiya would need only to ask the Kremlin for help: "And then they'd send in the peacekeepers." And why not? It's been done before.
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