Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dream of uniting the self-declared separatist republics in eastern Ukraine under the banner of Novorossiya, or New Russia, was put on hold indefinitely last week as Moscow moves to abide by the terms of February’s ceasefire deal.
Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian state-owned newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta that “we say that we want [these republics] to become part of Ukraine.”
His comments echo those of Alexander Kofman, the defence minister of the separatist-run Donetsk People’s Republic, who told Vechernyaya Makeyevka newspaper: “The Novorossia project is frozen until a new political elite emerges in all these regions that will be able to head the movement. We don’t have the right to impose our opinion on [the Ukrainian cities of] Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, and Odessa.”
The move is likely aimed at ensuring the Russian side lives up to the commitments made in the second Minsk ceasefire agreement signed with Germany and France earlier this year. The deal called for local elections to be held in each of the separatist-held regions of Lugansk and Donetsk under Ukrainian law to decide on “local self-government” — a condition that could have been put under threat by the Novorossiya project.
Since the onset of fighting in east Ukraine following the collapse of President Viktor Yanukovych’s government, suspicions of Russian involvement both militarily and politically have been repeatedly raised. NATO command has openly accused Moscow of sending troops and equipment (including tanks and heavy artillery) across the border to support the Russian-speaking rebels against the government in Kiev.
Yet the end goal for many in the Kremlin has always been grander: The reformation of a large part of the former Russian empire through the unification of Russian-speaking people across the region.
Putin said as much in his annual televised Q&A session last year, recalling that the breakaway territories in Ukraine have a long, shared history with Russia:
I would like to remind you that what was called Novorossiya (New Russia) back in the tsarist days — Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa — were not part of Ukraine back then. These territories were given to Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet government. Why? Who knows. They were won by Potyomkin and Catherine the Great in a series of well-known wars. The centre of that territory was Novorossiysk, so the region is called Novorossiya. Russia lost these territories for various reasons, but the people remained.
At the time, effectively laying claim to regions that are formally part of Ukraine was seen as a quite extraordinary statement to make. But it is in keeping with the Kremlin’s broader strategic positioning over recent years.
Moscow has spent the past decade trying to rebuild economic and political ties with its former Soviet neighbours under the auspices of the Eurasian Union. Yet international sanctions against Russia and the collapse in the oil price over the past year have put serious strains on its ambitions.
In March, Putin attended a Eurasian Union conference with his Kazakh and Belorussian counterparts in the Kazakh capital Astana. Tensions were higher than usual with the government in Astana having to dip into its gold and foreign currency reserves to defend its currency and rein in rampant inflation over recent months.
In July last year, the Kazakh government passed a new law increasing the sentence for separatist activity in a possible hint that the Kazakh authorities are becoming increasingly concerned about a possible Russian land-grab, not dissimilar to what has been seen in the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine. The government had previously refused to sign up to Moscow’s tit-for-tat sanctions imposed on Western goods imports making clear that it views the Eurasian Union as a purely economic, not a political undertaking.
The apparent success of the Novorossiya project in Ukraine provided some welcome relief from these setbacks.
In August, Putin directly addressed the “Novorossiya militia” in Ukraine following the establishment of a so-called Union of People’s Republics between the rebel administrations in Lugansk and Donetsk. In effect, the Russian president appeared to be recognising the separatist republics as a unified political bloc — something that Kiev’s western allies have long refused to do.
Moreover, in February of this year
Russian TV station Channel 1 filmed the flag of Novorossiya flying over the key railway town of Debaltseve a day after rebels claimed to have captured the town after weeks of fierce fighting between the two sides.
The decision by separatist forces to raise the Novorossiya flag rather than that of their own Donetsk People’s Republic flag is itself interesting and potentially highly symbolic. Raising the flag could be seen as playing into the Kremlin’s narrative of the crisis, which is that the government in Kiev is trying to undermine the right of ethnic Russians in the east of the country to self-determination — albeit within Moscow’s sphere of influence.
However, that dream has now been paused indefinitely. Russia’s domestic economy has suffered from a combination of international sanctions and the collapse in global oil prices and, it seems, there now seems to be little appetite left to further the standoff over Ukraine.
How that will play with separatist leaders is an open question.
Last year, separatist leader Oleg Tsarov ruled out the possibility that the rebel-held regions could find a mutually acceptable compromise with Kiev saying “the reattachment of Novorossiya to Ukraine is not possible….it is not possible given the current government in Kiev.” He said those who had “experienced artillery bombardments, and who have lost comrades, who have lost relatives, whose homes have been destroyed” would never accept the current administration.
The two sides remain a long way apart, but without Moscow’s backing the People’s Republics would struggle to continue as independent entities. It seems the first step toward a dialogue on the future of Ukraine might just have been taken.
NOW WATCH: 11 mindblowing facts about North Korea
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.