Given how often Vladimir Putin lies, it may be a mistake to make too much of any of his statements as an indication of where he is heading. But his use of the term “Novorossiya” in his statement yesterday, the first time he has talked about that space within Ukraine as a contemporary issue, is worrisome.
That is because it suggests that the Kremlin leader is doubling down on his invasion of Ukraine and plans to create a Transdniestria-like “partially recognized state” and “frozen conflict” in a large swath of southeastern Ukraine regardless of Ukrainian and international opposition to his aggression.
According to Ekho Moskvy journalist Vladimir Varfolomeyev, a search of the records of Putin’s official statements shows that Putin has used the term “Novorossiya” only once before, in the course of his conversation with Russian citizens, and did so explicitly in terms of history rather than current events.
On that earlier occasion, Putin said that Novorossiya included Kharkov, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa, areas that he said “were not included within Ukraine in tsarist times” but “handed over to Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet government. Why they did this, God alone knows,” the Kremlin leader said.
But as a result of that Soviet action, the “victories of Potemkin and Catherine II” were ignored and Novorossiya disappeared. “For various reasons, these territories disappeared,” Putin said, but the people there remained.”
(Although the Ekho Moskvy commentator does not point this out and Putin certainly does not stress, tsarist Russia was not divided into ethnic republics. There were Ukrainians and Georgians and Uzbeks, among others, but there as not a Ukraine or a Georgia or an Uzbekistan as an officially recognized entity.)
Now, as Varfolomeyev points out, unlike in his Putin’s April remarks, “’Novorossiya’ has been transformed from a subject of historical interest into a subject of policy. If of course,” the Ekho Moskvy commentator adds, “words today still have any meaning,” given Putin’s cavalier treatment of the truth.
Other Moscow commentators are also discussing the meaning of Putin’s attachment to the idea of “Novorossiya.”
One of the most thoughtful observations is provided by Vitaly Portnikov, who suggests that Putin sees Novorossiya as something he can seize and then create the kind of state he wants more generally.
The Moscow commentator says that Putin in some ways is like Stalin but in other ways is not. Like Stalin, he works at night at least when it comes to Ukraine, but he does this not because he prefers to sleep during the day as Stalin did, Portnikov says, but rather “simply because then Obama isn’t sleeping.”
But unlike Stalin, he continues, Putin didn’t take Russia away from his rivals but was handed it by his predecessor in order to save it. Novorossiya offers Putin a chance to seize something and thus make it his own in the way that Stalin made Soviet Russia his own via collectivization, the purges and war.
“Therefore,” Portnikov says, “for Putin, the first real country is not Russia but Novorossiya. He has taken it out of the hands of its own population and is now creating it according to his own image,” one that involves a situation in which “it is possible to shoot, kill and torture without punishment.”
“It is certain,” the commentator continues, that Putin “already feels himself president of both these countries … enormous Russia” which he did not seize earlier and “little Novorossiya” which he is in the process of taking and in which he is showing exactly what kind of a regime he would like to extend to Russia.
But Portnikov says, Putin is mistaken in this. “In Russia he really is president,” but “in Novorossiya, he is a night porter.” And “there where in battles and tortures is being creating the ideal Putinist Russia, he is not present.” But in some ways that makes his obsession with Novorossiya even more disturbing than as an occasion of military aggression.
That is because, the commentator says, it shows exactly what he wants to do in Russia itself and in any other territories he can, like Stalin, “take away” from someone else.