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After Novorossia


A woman rides on the back of a truck holding a pitchfork and a flag of Novorossia last August in Donetsk.

A woman rides on the back of a truck holding a pitchfork and a flag of Novorossia last August in Donetsk.

Novorossia died a quiet death this week.

When separatist leader Oleg Tsarev announced the end of the scheme to unite the Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine into a single pro-Moscow separatist entity on May 20, it was the latest in a series of signs that the yearlong conflict in the Donbas is lumbering toward some kind of endgame.

In remarks reported by Gazeta.ru, Tsarev, the chairman of the self-styled parliament of Novorossia, said the project was being suspended because it "doesn't fit into" the cease-fire agreement signed in Minsk in February.

In reality, Novorossia was stillborn from the get-go. Unlike in Donetsk and Luhansk, where pro-Moscow separatism took hold, Russian-speakers in Odesa, Mariupol, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhya, Kharkiv, and elsewhere remained loyal to Kyiv.

But Tsarev's announcement was significant nonetheless. Especially as it coincided with remarks on May 20 by a spokesman for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic that efforts to unite it with the Luhansk People's Republic have been suspended indefinitely.

WATCH: Novorossia: A Short-Lived Mirage

Moreover, in an interview published a day earlier in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the official Russian government newspaper, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the two self-styled republics must be "part of Ukraine."

Russia had once hoped to partition Ukraine by seizing so-called Novorossia, which stretches from Kharkiv in the northeast to Odesa in the south, which would have given it a land bridge to annexed Crimea.

But having failed at this, Moscow is now seeking to keep the separatist-held enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk inside Ukraine in order to use them as a fifth column to paralyze Kyiv and keep the country from integrating with the West.

If and how these territories are reintegrated into Ukraine will be the main battleground in the coming phase of the conflict.

The Specter Of Republika Srpska

An oft-cited precedent for what Russia is hoping to achieve in Ukraine can be found in the dysfunctional experience of Bosnia-Herzegovina following its 1992-95 war.

After Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic failed in his bid to carve out a "Greater Serbia" through a proxy war and ethnic cleansing following the breakup of Yugoslavia, he signed the U..S.-sponsored Dayton peace accords.

The peace agreement succeeded in stopping the killing in Bosnia, but it also decentralized the country into two entities -- a Bosniak-Croat federation and Republika Srpska.

The two entities were, in fact, de facto autonomous states within a state with their own presidents, parliaments, and courts. The central government, with its tripartite presidency and ethnically fractured parliament, was largely impotent.

More than two decades after Dayton, Bosnia remains a dysfunctional state. And nearly a decade after Milosevic's death, Serbia continues to use Republika Srpska to paralyze and manipulate the country -- and cripple its efforts to join mainstream Europe.

A Bosnian-style decentralization of Ukraine to the point of dysfunction is clearly on Moscow's agenda and is the ultimate goal of the Kremlin's constant call for "federalization" and regional autonomy.

Just substitute Novorossia for Greater Serbia, Minsk for Dayton, and the Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics for Republika Srpska and you have Moscow's formula.

Ukrainian journalist Miroslava Petsa picked up on the perils of a Bosnia scenario for Ukraine during the negotiations in Minsk, tweeting:

The Srpska Krajina Precedent

But Republika Srpska wasn't the only part of Milosevic's plan for a Greater Serbia. And it isn't the only precedent from postconflict Yugoslavia for reintegrating the separatist-held territories of Donbas back into Ukraine.

One infinitely more palatable to Kyiv is the example of Srpska Krajina, the Serbian enclave Milosevic tried to carve out in Croatia.

After four years of war, from 1991-95, the territory was overrun by Croat forces, save a small 2,600-square- kilometer region called Eastern Slavonia, Baranja, and Western Syrmia. Under a 1995 peace agreement, it was administered by the United Nations until 1998, when it was reintegrated into Croatia.

Critically, although the peace accord created a number of minority Serbian institutions, the region was not granted any special status or autonomy, as was the case with Republika Srpska in Bosnia.

In 2013, Croatia joined the European Union as its 28th member state.

This is an outcome Moscow is going to desperately seek to avoid and will use all of its leverage to prevent.

The Frozen Option

In order to achieve its desired outcome in Ukraine, Russia is insisting that its interpretation of the Minsk peace agreement be implemented.

According to the agreement, reached in the Belarusian capital in February, Ukraine must carry out constitutional reform and a decentralization of power that grants special status to the rebel-held areas in Donbas.

Russia says this entails a federalization of Ukraine that would, in effect, grant these territories autonomy similar to that enjoyed by Republika Srpska in Bosnia.

For its part, Kyiv -- as well as various Western officials -- say the Minsk cease-fire is being violated by Moscow-backed separatists regularly. Ukraine also insists, and the evidence appears to support, that Russia has not honored provisions in the Minsk agreement requiring it to withdraw troops and weapons from the region.

Moscow is not required to return control of the portion of the Russian-Ukrainian border controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists until Ukraine's constitutional reform process is complete. It is unlikely to do so unless it gets a federalization plan it likes.

And without the border under Kyiv's control, reintegration is impossible.

So with a Srpska Krajina-type outcome unacceptable to Moscow, and a Republika Srpska-style settlement a nonstarter for Kyiv, the diplomatic endgame looks like it is headed for a stalemate.

And this means that there is a strong probability that the conflict will end up frozen, similar to Moldova's Transdniester or Georgia's Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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