Europe

Why Putin's Ukrainian "New Russia" Could Be an Ungovernable Mess


Pro-Russian protesters gather at the barricades in front of administration building in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine on May 3

Photograph by Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo

Pro-Russian protesters gather at the barricades in front of administration building in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine on May 3

Novorossiya, or “New Russia,” was a swath of what’s now southeastern Ukraine that Russian czars seized from the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. Could it now form the core of a new country?

As Ukraine teeters on the brink of civil war, some pro-Russian separatists are suggesting recreating Novorossiya as an independent state. Breaking away from Ukraine could defuse the protests and reassure the mostly Russian-speaking population, their argument goes. And it would avoid a military incursion or annexation by Russia—steps that most people in the region don’t want, according to recent opinion polls.

Anti-Kiev protesters have endorsed the Novorossiya idea at demonstrations and used it as a slogan on separatist websites and Twitter feeds. Russian President Vladimir Putin evoked Novorossiya in an April television broadcast, saying that only “God knows” why the Soviet Union in the early 20th century assigned the territory to Ukraine rather than Russia.

There’s no question that creation of a new Novorossiya would be devastating for the remainder of Ukraine. The boundaries being suggested by separatists include more than one-third of Ukraine’s present population, most of its industrial base, and all of its Black Sea shoreline. What’s more, it contains a major gas pipeline linking Russia to the European Union.

Putin probably prefers a nominally independent Novorossiya to outright annexation, because it would spare Moscow the expense of repairing the region’s decrepit infrastructure and supporting its aging population, says Christian Caryl, a longtime journalist in the region who’s now a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute, a London-based think tank. The government in Kiev “is so weak, it’s hard to imagine how they could prevent a determined effort to split off,” Caryl says.

But could the separatists actually pull this off? Writing in Foreign Policy this month, Moscow-based journalist Anna Nemtsova says that “a power struggle has broken out among pro-Russian leaders in Ukraine.” While agreeing that southeastern Ukraine should “join their self-proclaimed breakaway nation, they are divided over who should lead this new government.”

An even bigger problem is that most people living in the would-be Novorossiya don’t seem to want independence from Ukraine. A mid-April poll of 3,200 residents in the south and east found that only 15.4 percent favored seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia, and 64.2 percent wanted to remain part of a “unitary” Ukraine, as opposed to a federation of autonomous regions. The poll, conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology for the Kiev-based newspaper Mirror Weekly, didn’t ask specifically about establishing a new Novorossiya. In a U.S.-funded Gallup survey conducted in mid-March for the International Republican Institute, only 4 percent of people in eastern Ukraine and 2 percent of those in southern Ukraine wanted their country divided into separate nations.

While most people living in the south and east speak Russian, its population is far from homogeneous, says Svitlana Kobzar, a policy analyst at RAND Europe in Brussels. “There are different regions, different elites. There’s also divergence between the cities and the rural regions.” Many in the south and east opposed the pro-Russian government of former President Viktor Yanukovych, she adds, with surveys showing that about one in five protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square earlier this year came from southern and eastern Ukraine. In the April poll, only 19.6 percent of people in the southeast said they still considered Yanukovych to be the legitimate president of Ukraine, as Moscow contends.

Putin’s immediate goal, Kobzar says, “is to make Ukraine ungovernable.” But, she says, the separatists “don’t have a unified goal. There are a lot of differences within the movement itself.”

Just one example: The state-run Voice of Russia radio service reported last month that Valery Kaurov, described as “head of the Union of Orthodox Citizens of Ukraine,” had been endorsed by protesters in Odessa as president of the new Novorossiya. But since then Kaurov has vanished from the news, while other separatist leaders have emerged in eastern Ukraine, including Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the self-appointed mayor of the city of Slovyansk.  In the historically Novorossiyan region of Dnepropetrovsk, the government is being run by an oligarch appointed by the government in Kiev, and there has been little public protest.

Even agreeing on the boundaries of Novorossiya would be complicated. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, wasn’t part of the historic Novorossiya, but Putin cited it in his television appearance as one of the places that the Soviet Union shouldn’t have given to Ukraine.

Ukraine may indeed become ungovernable. But Novorossiya could be equally so. Says Kobzar: “Putin may be creating a very messy situation that he can’t easily fix.”

Matlack is a Paris correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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