Democracy Lab

Novorossiya Is Coming Apart at the Seams

Moscow dreamed of transforming southeastern Ukraine into a client state. But the Kremlin's plans are fraying as Kiev pushes back.

The night was quiet and warm. Live jazz whispered in the outdoor cafe of Odessa's City Garden restaurant. The soft saxophone mingled with laughter of a few kids playing hide and seek, the scents of competing cuisines from nearby restaurants, and a salty breeze from the Black Sea. The mothers, in light and colorful summer dresses, were typing on their laptops using Odessa's free WiFi and sharing a bottle of red wine at a table outside the hip Klarabara restaurant. In the midst of the war, Odessa tried to celebrate peace and forget about the heartbreaking death toll and the brutal atrocities of the war in eastern Ukraine. (The photo above shows refugees from the area trying to cross the border into Russia earlier this week.)

Moscow, too, is in denial. The scenes of bombed eastern Ukrainian cities, the faces of tens of thousands of refugees looking for shelter in Crimea, the coffins bringing the bodies of dead fighters back to the motherland, and, perhaps most importantly, the Western sanctions that are increasingly threatening political and economic stability -- these things, too, Russian elites are trying to forget. And along the way, increasingly, they appear to be letting go of their dreams of the revival of the Russian empire.

Back in April, Russian President Vladimir Putin resurrected a historical term for the area that's now southeastern Ukraine: Novorossiya, or "New Russia." The separatists who supported the Novorossiya idea imagined a future southeastern Ukraine as a semi-autonomous entity maintaining good relations with Moscow, and looked to the Kremlin for support. But now, as Ukrainian troops threaten to crush the insurgency, Putin is nowhere to be seen. Rather than sending in soldiers to defend New Russia, the Russian president is getting rid of the leaders of the separatist republics. (Officially, of course, Russia denies having any ties to the rebels, but they speak quite openly of their ties to Moscow.) Among those who have lost their positions within the past few days are Alexander Borodai, the ex-"prime minister" of the Donetsk People's Republic; Valery Bolotov, the head of the Luhansk People's Republic; and, most notably of all, Igor Strelkov, the former Donetsk military leader (and alleged Russian intelligence officer) who is a hero of the rebels.

Pro-Kremlin think tank analyst and insider Yuri Krupnov explained the shift to me: "There's a crisis of management in Russia," he said. "Moscow elites have managed to convince Putin to give up the idea of Novorossiya. Many in Moscow can't wait for European Union sanctions to be lifted, so Putin will meet with [Ukrainian President] Poroshenko and [E.U. Commission President] Barroso soon and most probably cut a deal." But Krupnov hastens to add that Russia's willingness to bargain with Kiev does not signal an end to the conflict: "Moscow has betrayed Novorossiya," he says, "but that doesn't mean it will guarantee peace."

Not that long ago, the Kremlin was still keen to make Novorossiya a reality, hoping that it would serve as a buffer zone protecting Russia from the "fascist" Kiev government and NATO expansion. Proponents of a new Russian imperial expansion were convinced that the entire east and south of Ukraine, including Odessa (where about one million people live) and Nikolayev (home to another half a million), would join up with the eastern separatist areas in Donetsk and Lugansk to become a pro-Russian pseudo-state. Some, like pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov, haven't given up hope. After all, he says, it took months, if not years, to build up the ideology: "Soon we'll run a free and fair referendum to demonstrate that over 90 percent of people are in favor of joining Novorossiya, both in Odessa and Nikolayev," Markov assured me in a recent interview.

Bearing Markov's claim in mind, I spent a few weeks earlier this summer traveling around the Donetsk, Odessa, and Nikolayev regions, interviewing politicians, intellectuals, businessmen, and a cross-section of the public about the prospect of Russia expanding its borders. A century ago, under the Russian empress Catherine the Great, Odessa reached its zenith as the vibrant, internationally respected capital of Novorossiya. Reminders of the city's Russian imperial heritage can still found all over. Odessa's main avenues bear the names of famous Russian cultural and political figures: Pushkin, the Decembrist revolutionaries of the nineteenth century, and, of course, Russian Empress Catherine the Great, the city's founder. These days, though, few people know what Novorossiya was.

My local guide, an entrepreneur named Boris Khodorkovsky, found the Kremlin's plans for Odessa "absurd." We were talking beside a monument to the Duke of Richelieu, a French aristocrat appointed by Czar Alexander the First as governor-general of the province of New Russia in 1805. Looking at the worn inscription on the monument, my companion shook his head. "So what?" he said. "Novorossiya was a century of Odessa's history, but the city has been Ukrainian for the last 20 years, and that isn't going to change. Novorossiya dreamers ought to worry about the Mongols coming back to conquer Russia -- that would make more sense. The Mongols ruled Russia for three centuries."

A full-scale Russian fight for Novorossiya would mean an even bigger, bloodier war in southern Ukraine. The possibility can't be entirely dismissed: Many in Ukraine doubt that Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko can control the escalating conflict at this point, as thousands of armed Novorossiya rebels continue to fight against Ukrainian forces in the East. Since they're convinced that Kiev has sent an army of "fascists" to move against them, the separatists are determined to fight on: "They fear for their freedom and lives," Krupnov told me.

The fronts have hardened on both sides. Those who took part in the Euromaidan protests that brought down the government of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev in February blamed Russia, which they viewed as Yanukovych's main sponsor, for many of their country's ills. T-shirts with anti-Russian slogans and talk of Russia's "aggression" were ubiquitous. The activists were little inclined to talk with Putin even then. Now, months later, they've spent months at war with pro-Russian militias, firming up their resolve to prevent Moscow from controlling a part of their country. By now the war has taken the lives of hundreds of soldiers on both sides.

"Nobody in Nikolayev will allow any Novorossiya in Ukraine," Nikolayev's Vice-Governor Oksana Yanyshevskaya told me in an interview last month. "That's some sort of artificial idea that lives only in the minds of people in the Kremlin. We have 12,000 Ukrainian soldiers based in Nikolayev. Many local boys fought to defend Ukraine's border from Russian Grad rocket systems. We'll fight for our country, in their honor."

Rebel leaders in Russia and Ukraine still see their mission as "liberating" Ukraine from Kiev's "fascist" government -- or that, at least, is what I was told by Igor Druz, an adviser to Strelkov. Even now that his boss has been fired, Druz is convinced that the war will continue: "Our plan is to bring Novorossiya's social justice and Christian values to Kiev and dismiss the war criminal president Poroshenko," he told me on Friday. "The Kremlin made a mistake when it held back from taking over Tbilisi during the war in 2008. Now the Russians are hated in Georgia. The Russian army always won its wars; nobody expected us in Paris in 1815, either, but we liberated France from Napoleon." For Druz, at least, the dream lives on. But the chances that the Russian army will show up to help him and his friends appear to be dwindling by the minute.

Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Forgotten Victims of the War in Ukraine

We're right to mourn the dead of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. But that doesn't mean we should forget the others whose lives are being forever altered by the war.

DONETSK, Ukraine — In the last three months of covering the war in eastern Ukraine, I've often seen people's tears. Crying children, crying men, crying women of all ages: lost, despairing, torn by fear, absolutely heartbroken. The fight that broke out in the city of Donetsk on Monday morning changed many lives; it ended at least five of them. Grad rockets and artillery struck all along Slavatskaya and Kuibysheva streets and around the Zapadnaya railway station. Among the sites that were hit: a city market, a pharmacy, a local factory, high-rise apartment buildings.

Horror seemed to be concentrated in the stuffy and crowded basement of School 51, which was filled with thirsty, sweating adults and children. The dull thuds of rockets landing in the city outside filled everyone with panic. "Misha, what's happening there, can you see?" a middle-aged woman shouted to her husband, who was smoking by the door to the basement. (And yes, there were tears in her eyes, too.) He answered that the two of them could count themselves lucky: Unlike the three dead people whose bodies were lying in the courtyard -- the woman's head had been blown away -- they had made it to safety. Misha's wife, wracked with emotion, agreed.

Ever since Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 fell from the sky on July 17, TV news channels around the world have been covering the crash and its implications virtually nonstop. You'd think that was the only story happening in eastern Ukraine right now. But there's actually another big, newsworthy event that's going on, virtually unnoticed: the Ukrainian army's military offensive against the separatists holed up in Donetsk and its environs. And if the previous fighting in places like Slavyansk or Krasny Liman is any indication, civilians can expect to bear the brunt of it. (The photo shows a man in Donetsk inspecting a garage destroyed by a rocket.)

One woman, still shaking, scolded my photographer friend for taking pictures: "It's all your fault! Your Russian propaganda is to blame for this war!" My Italian friend didn't understand what the woman was saying, but she stopped taking pictures for a while. An older woman said she wanted him to go on, that it was important for the world to understand where Malaysia Airlines had crashed and how much the population of the area around Donetsk was suffering. "We have deep sympathy for the families of the victims of the Malaysian plane," an older woman told me, a cup in her hand. "But we want the world to hear us, too. We're being killed here. The Ukrainians are bombing us." Two women, still shaking from the shock, yelled at us about Ukrainian murderers and Russian murderers. You could hear the whole range of views in our basement -- as one might expect in a city with a population of 1 million.

Men listening to the murmur of artillery by the door spoke in words peppered with harsh Russian obscenities. If Kiev had decided to fight the war on the streets of Slavyansk, Luhansk, Donetsk, and the other cities in the region, why not declare a curfew and let people know when they could expect the fighting to start so that they'd have time to hide? A tall, gray-haired man told everyone that it was all easy to understand: "[Ukrainian President] Poroshenko is using the airplane catastrophe and the visits by foreign experts as cover for winning this war and clamping down on the DPR guys" -- a reference to the militia of the separatists' Donetsk People's Republic.

The world's attention is understandably focused on the downing of the Malaysian airliner, but in the process everyone seems to have forgotten that the war in eastern Ukraine is still going on. What both sides in the conflict seem to have forgotten is that they're fighting over places filled with civilians: Both the Ukrainian army and the rebels are using heavy weapons in a densely populated city. Sources at Human Rights Watch tell me that they've documented evidence in at least four cases proving that Ukrainian forces were responsible for Grad rocket strikes on residential areas. That's terrible news for people living in the region, since the operators of Grad batteries rarely have precise targeting information. It's a highly indiscriminate weapon.

Later that day, I called Kiev officials, who denied that any Ukrainian commander ever ordered a Grad attack on Donetsk or other cities. They did admit, however, that "a war without mercy" has finally entered its active phase in eastern Ukraine. And that, of course, means that we'll see more tears and broken lives. Donetsk is not the only city in eastern Ukraine today where citizens are sheltering in basements from bullets, shells, and bombs. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has reported 250 killed in neighboring Luhansk over the past few weeks. The map of hot spots is growing by the day. And one wonders whether the government of Ukraine is really helping its own cause. Its heavy-handed use of weapons like the Grad is radicalizing the population and driving many into the arms of the rebels.

Many people are fleeing the region around Donetsk. But leaving a home that's turned into a war zone is rarely as clear-cut as the superficial images of refugees might suggest. For every person who gets away there are loved ones, friends, and precious belongings left behind.

A few days ago I was trying to comfort a grown woman who was sobbing like a little child. It was a warm July afternoon, and we were standing under the apple and cherry trees outside her place of work. Larisa Zvereva, 49, is a teacher at the orphanage in Torez, the village at the center of the debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

In the past few days, she told me, she'd witnessed "the most unimaginable horrors" -- human bodies falling from the clouds. Eight of them landed on the street outside the orphanage fence, and two more fell right into the garden, as rebels and government troops fought a violent war just a few kilometers away from her doorstep. (As we spoke, the sound of mortar and artillery fire continued to murmur in the outskirts of Torez.) The worst part, she told me, was that the children at the orphanage, ranging in ages from 9 to 16, and already living in constant fear of the war, had also watched the bodies of the passengers falling from the sky. Some of the kids described them to me as "big birds."

How much longer, Zvereva asked me, will the people of the region wake up to the sound of shelling? How many more nightmares will they have to endure? She began to choke up with tears. "I'm so scared to tell anybody the truth about what I really want for my life, for the future of our orphans," she whispered to me. Unheard, misunderstood, the people who live in this part of Ukraine were already struggling to endure the horrors of war before the tragedy of MH17. Now many of them feel that the world is blaming them, on top of everything else, for shooting down a plane filled with men, women, and children. The realization that the rest of humankind has little idea of their daily tribulations merely adds to the pain.

Rob Stothard/Getty Images