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[Newsmaker] Putin eyes pro-Russian statelet in Ukraine

MOSCOW ― Russian strongman Vladimir Putin first used “Novorossiya” ― the loaded Tsarist-era name for what is now southern and eastern Ukraine ― just after annexing Crimea from Ukraine in March, sparking outrage in Kiev.

The Kremlin made a reference to the term again on Friday when it released Putin’s address to Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists, pointedly calling them defenders of “Novorossiya” (New Russia).

For analysts, this marks a significant development in nearly five months of conflict engulfing eastern Ukraine, with Putin sending a clear message of his determination to carve out a new statelet at all costs.

“Putin has definitively decided for himself the issue of Novorossiya,” said Alexander Morozov, a political analyst critical of the Kremlin.

“He believes that Novorossiya should exist,” Morozov told AFP, adding that Moscow would for the next few months work on defining the borders of the planned territory.

Konstantin Kalachev, head of the Political Expert Group think tank in Moscow, added: “It is quite obvious that Novorossiya will happen.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks to the media after his talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk, Belarus, Wednesday. (AP-Yonhap)
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks to the media after his talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk, Belarus, Wednesday. (AP-Yonhap)

Putin’s first mention of Novorossiya came in a televised call-in show with Russians in April when he argued that eastern and southern Ukraine were once part of Russia but were then transferred to Ukraine by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s.

“Why they did this, only God only knows,” he said, recalling the lands had been won by Russia in famous battles led by Catherine the Great.

Putin used similar logic to justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, saying Moscow was simply righting the wrong by returning a peninsula which was part of the Soviet republic of Russia before 1954.

His spokesman defended the use of the word in the Kremlin statement issued Friday.

“That is how the territory has been called historically and if you look at history it has been called Novorossiya in the course of several centuries,” Dmitry Peskov said on radio.

“This is an absolutely Russian name of this territory. This is how in Russia these lands were and are called.”

Putin’s latest use of the term comes amid a dramatic counter-offensive in east Ukraine, where rebels have snatched swathes of southeastern territory from government forces in recent days, halting the advance of Kiev’s troops.

The West and Kiev say Russian troops are not only behind the lightning operation but are also fighting on the ground alongside ragtag formations of Kremlin-backed separatists against Kiev’s forces ― claims which Moscow has repeatedly denied.

Independent political analyst Maria Lipman said the latest developments are a clear message from Putin to the West: “I am ready to go very far and you?”

“Putin literally shows the West that Ukraine is in the orbit of his vital interests,” she said.

Several rounds of Western sanctions have delivered a blow to Russia’s faltering economy but have not deterred Putin who has ordered a virtual embargo on EU and U.S. food imports.

His tough stance has been met with approval at home, with his domestic approval ratings soaring to record highs after the annexation of Crimea.

Some analysts suggest that Putin may now be seeking to mould Ukraine’s rebel-held regions into a statelet similar to Moldova’s breakaway region of Transdniestr.

Holger Schmieding, London-based chief economist at Berenberg Bank, said that Moscow’s latest manoeuvres in Ukraine indicated that Russia may be looking at carving “a Transdniestr-style bandit fiefdom out of the Donbass region to maintain a permanent foothold in Ukraine beyond Crimea.”

Kalachev said Putin appeared driven by a visceral desire to punish Ukraine after the ex-Soviet country chose to sign political and trade deals with the EU, a move seen as a snub to Moscow.

The analyst described the Ukraine crisis as Putin’s mission to vindicate himself and prove he is “the only leader with balls.”

“He needs a vassal state.”