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.
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