Democracy Lab

Novorossiya Is Back from the Dead

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.

GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Imagining Invasion on Vladimir Putin's Doorstep

Life was already hard enough for Ukrainians. But now they also have to worry about a Russian army on the march.

ODESSA, Ukraine — On the night of April 12, inhabitants of this Black Sea city discovered that they had something in common: They couldn't sleep. Facebook, the most popular form of social media in Ukraine, was swamped by an unusual late-night surge of anxious commentary: Was Russia about to invade?

Earlier in the day, pro-Russian gunmen had stepped up their efforts to assert control over key locations in the country's East. Ukrainian TV aired dramatic footage of 20 masked, uniformed militants assaulting a police station in the small town of Kramatorsk. In Donetsk and Luhansk, other heavily armed men tightened their hold on other government buildings, repeating their demands for regional independence and holding referenda on the possibility of accession to Russia.

Early Sunday morning, it emerged that at least one Ukrainian officer had been killed and five others wounded during an attempt to recapture official buildings held by the gunmen in the small town of Slovyansk. That was the first reported bloodshed in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainians held their collective breath. The challenge to the post-revolutionary administration in Kiev was clear: A failure to respond firmly to the militias would undermine the authority of the government, but confronting them with force could also cause casualties that could be used by the Kremlin as a pretext to unleash the 40,000 troops it has massed on the border.

Most of the Ukrainians who self-identify as "Russians" or "Russian-speakers" live in the country's three eastern provinces -- which is presumably why it's those areas that have been targeted by the gunmen. But there's another part of Ukraine that has also been mentioned as the target of a possible Russian intervention: Odessa.

Capturing the city would rob Ukraine of its last remaining access to the sea and also enable Russian President Vladimir Putin to establish a corridor connecting Russia with the breakaway region of Transnistria in the Republic of Moldova on Ukraine's western border. (Transnistria is populated mostly by Russians and Ukrainians who mourn the collapse of the Soviet Union and who have repeatedly declared their desire for Crimea-style union with Russia.)

There are, undoubtedly, many Odessans who might welcome rule from Moscow. One hears little Ukrainian spoken on the streets; it's estimated that about 90 percent of the 1 million people inhabitants of the city prefer to use Russian in their daily lives. Politically, though, Odessa is sharply divided between those who applaud annexation by Russia and those who remain loyal to the goals of the Euromaidan revolution that toppled the government of President Viktor Yanukovych. (The image above shows pro-Euromaidan demonstrators gathering around an Odessa monument on March 30.) The two groups have been staging competing demonstrations over the past few weeks, sometimes clashing with each other -- as they did on April 10, when members of the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector blockaded a visiting pro-Russian politician in his hotel, and were surrounded in turn by his supporters. (The confrontation was ultimately defused without bloodshed.)

Yet despite the differences in opinion, it's hard to find anyone in Odessa who welcomes the possibility that Russian forces might invade. "I'm afraid of war," says Alina Savchenko, a 25-year-old teacher, who notes that her family has members in both Russia and Ukraine. "I live here. I don't want to see any conflicts among my relatives." She can think of little positive to say about the revolutionary government in Kiev, but says that she would prefer to see Ukrainians solve their own problems "without interference from the outside, whether it be from Europe or Russia." Poll figures suggest that Savchenko speaks for the mainstream. Recent surveys in eastern Ukraine have found that even there only a tiny minority -- from 4 to 4.7 percent -- want to break away from the country.

Many Odessans seem overwhelmed by the pace and intensity of change over the past few months. Ukraine's currency, the hryvnia, has lost 35 percent of its value since the start of the year, resulting in higher prices for many foodstuffs and imported goods. Gasoline and utility prices have also surged. Odessans worry that the all-important summer tourism season, the basis for many livelihoods, is already being undermined by the talk of war.

Meanwhile, the evening news bombards viewers with reporting on the frantic international diplomatic efforts to address the crisis, images of military mobilization on both sides of the border, and coverage of the political jockeying leading up to next month's scheduled presidential election. (No matter the network, the upper left hand corner of every TV screen currently bears a small Ukrainian flag and the hopeful slogan "The Country is One.") Just to add to the sense of general disorientation, Odessa has now become the homeport of the Ukrainian navy's flagship, the Hetman Sahaidachny, one of the very few vessels in the fleet that wasn't captured by the Russians when they took over Crimea.

Boris Hersonsky, an Odessan poet and political analyst, believes that Putin doesn't actually want to invade Ukraine. The costs of such a move, he says, would simply be too high -- in treasure as well as blood, given that Moscow would suddenly find itself supporting the heavily subsidized economy of Ukraine's eastern industrial region. He believes that it's in Putin's interest to keep Ukraine weak and off balance, fomenting instability that can then be exploited as the Russian leader sees fit.

Hersonsky admits, though, that the possibility of an invasion can't be ruled out altogether -- and he says that the prospect fills him with dread, even despite his strong emotional attachment to the Russian language. For all of Ukraine's problems, Hersonsky says, he wouldn't want to exchange Ukraine for Russia: "Ukraine's contradictions are still better than Russia's complete lack of contradictions." He and his friends cite a bit of black humor that extends the comparison between Putin's authoritarian Russian and the dysfunctional but relatively democratic Ukraine: "The pro-Russian forces are staging rallies in favor of a referendum so that they can join a country in which there are no referendums."

Zoya Kazanzhi, a journalist and Maidan supporter, says that the loss of Crimea prompted her and her husband to start talking about what they'd do if Putin decides to gobble up Odessa as well: "We've already discussed it," she says. "We'd leave." The idea is especially painful, since they've just witnessed the fate of a number of Ukrainian journalists who have sought refuge in Odessa after fleeing the Russians in Crimea, leaving everything behind. But Kazanzhi has already made up her mind: "We wouldn't want to live here if it becomes part of Russia."

For the moment, all Odessans can do is wait -- and go about living their lives amid a growing sense that their fate will be decided, not by them or their own government, but by one small man in an office in faraway Moscow. It seems profoundly odd that millions of Europeans should find themselves facing a situation like this in the second decade of the 21st century. Like it or not, that's where we are.

ALEXEY KRAVTSOV/AFP/Getty Images