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Out With A Whimper: Novorossia, 2014-2015

  • Daisy Sindelar

A rally in support of Novorossia in St. Petersburg in February

A rally in support of Novorossia in St. Petersburg in February

Novorossia has a flag, an anthem, and a news service. But it may no longer have a future, if it ever did.

The project -- to combine breakaway regions of Ukraine into an independent, pro-Russian state known as New Russia, or Novorossia -- appeared to breathe its last this week with an announcement by a top separatist official.

Oleg Tsarev, speaker of what separatists call the joint parliament of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk "people's republics," announced on May 20 that the activity of all Novorossia structures had been "frozen" in apparent compliance with the Minsk peace accord aimed at ending hostilities in eastern Ukraine.

"We're doing this because we don't want to be blamed for the breakdown of the Minsk agreement," Tsarev told the Russian News Service. "The document stipulates that the Donetsk and Luhansk republics will be an autonomous part of Ukraine. But there was nothing said about Novorossia."

Tsarev's words appear to close the curtain on a yearlong existentialist threat that, as originally conceived, would have ended with an enormous territorial patchwork -- stretching from Kharkiv to Odesa -- breaking free of Ukrainian rule.

The Novorossia project, inaugurated on May 24, 2014, in Donetsk -- with representatives from the Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhya, Odesa, Luhansk, Mykolayiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson regions -- delighted the Kremlin with its evocation of the Russian Empire's reach.

It dovetailed with Moscow's increasingly assertive articulation of its vision of a "Greater Russia" that began with the already-annexed Crimean Peninsula and would eventually expand to include the South Caucasus, Central Asia, and Moldova's breakaway Transdniester.

The word Novorossia had already crept into the Russian media around the time of the takeover of Crimea, and President Vladimir Putin began using it in public statements.

Nominally, he was referring to the separatist-held section of eastern Ukraine, but the implicit threat was clear, and the frequent use of the term fueled fears the rebels might seek to seize all of southern Ukraine, giving Russia unhindered access to both Crimea and Transdniester.

Concerns about a fresh westward push by the rebels remain strong. But press reports suggest even Moscow's support was not enough to nudge Novorossia from a theoretical idea to a political reality with a wide support base.

Part of the problem rested in the fact that Novorossia was never able to expand its membership beyond its two original members, the self-declared people's republics in Donetsk (DNR) and Luhansk (LNR).

Although May 11, 2014, referendums on self-determination were originally scheduled in eight regions of Ukraine, organized resistance by pro-Kyiv authorities meant they ultimately were held only in the separatist-controlled parts of Donbas, as the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are known.

The Russian news site Gazeta.ru cited an unnamed source as saying that, ironically, the Kremlin's propaganda onslaught -- with its portrayal of pro-Kyiv forces as "fascists" -- was partly to blame.

"When pro-Russian people heard references all day long to Ukrainian fascists who would burn anyone seen wearing a St. George ribbon alive -- in Donetsk, that mobilized people for the referendum," the source said. "In the rest of the regions, it scared them to death and they stayed at home."

Aleksandr Kofman

Aleksandr Kofman

Gazeta.ru also cited Aleksandr Kofman, the "foreign minister" of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk, as saying the Novorossia movements outside Donbas peaked too early and were soon "suppressed" by Kyiv.

"We weren't able to keep people coming out to the rallies," Kofman wrote on Facebook. "Our supporters in Odesa and Kharkiv came out too early. As a result more than 40 of our guys were killed in Odesa" -- a reference to May 2, 2014, clashes that ended in a deadly fire at the city's Trade Unions House -- "and many of our activists were arrested in Kharkov," the Russian spelling of Kharkiv.

The breakaway republics that were meant to be established in those regions, he said, were effectively "beheaded."

Even institutions with their heads in place proved problematic. Tsarev, a Dnipropetrovsk native who defected from Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada parliament to head the Novorossia project, proved a bad fit for Moscow and the composite republics, which preferred dealing with local elites like former Donetsk separatist chief Aleksandr Zakharchenko or his Luhansk counterpart, Aleksei Karyakin.

The final nail in the coffin, however, was Minsk. The peace talks, held in the Belarusian capital in September 2014 and February 2015, produced deals calling for limited self-governance in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk as long as they remain in Ukraine.

Once that tactical victory was scored, Novorossia as a concept became largely unnecessary. And these days, the term jars with the Kremlin's efforts to cast Russia in a cooperative light -- such as Putin's assurance last month that he is not trying to "resurrect the empire."

As recently as May 19, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists that Russia has no plans to annex the DNR and LNR.

"We have been saying at all levels...that we advocate their becoming part of Ukraine," Lavrov said.

Not all Novorossia advocates are willing to call it a day, however.

Denis Pushilin

Denis Pushilin

Denis Pushilin, the current head of the self-declared DNR, said the Novorossia project had not been frozen as much as moved to "another plane."

"There's no talk about any suspension or closure of the project," Pushilin told the Russian News Service. The Minsk agreement sealed in February, he said, gave the separatists "the possibility to go from militarized opposition to political opposition."

For now, he says, the onus is on Kyiv to uphold the terms of the Minsk deal. "At the moment, they haven't fulfilled any of the points in full," he says.

Such remarks suggest that the rebels, and Russia, may be biding their time and preparing to blame Kyiv if the accord falls apart and they mount a new offensive.

Meanwhile, the quiet demise of Novorossia has had no apparent effect on the ongoing conflict. Fighting has decreased under a cease-fire that was part of the Minsk deal, but casualties and claims of violations are reported on both sides almost daily.

The OSCE security watchdog reported May 21 that one Ukrainian serviceman had been killed and eight wounded in fresh separatist attacks.

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