Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s call for talks on the “statehood” of Ukraine’s restive southeast, how should the West respond? What are the implications of Moscow’s use of the historically loaded term Novorossiya? Six experts share their views.
As yet another nonstate entity, Novorossiya, is added to a long list of pseudostates, Russia is certain to draw parallels with Kosovo, despite the normative and political absurdity of this analogy.
Be that as it may, Russia preys on the fact that common EU or Euro-Atlantic policies ultimately entail a national rather than a collective cost. Russia’s grand strategy essentially has two pillars. First, Moscow cultivates strategic relations with individual NATO and EU member states, undermining the West’s policy resolve. Second, Russia creates nonstate entities, selectively invoking the principle of self-determination and seeking to position itself as the sole international context for regions that Moscow regards as its “near abroad.”
The lack of international recognition for these nonstate regimes is not a problem for Russia, but an objective. In the face of this repeated mockery of sovereignty as a foundational principle for international order, the only resolute strategic answer must be to reaffirm the West’s cohesion.
If NATO and the EU could pledge to share the cost of defending international norms, then Moscow’s Trojan horse stratagem would be unviable. In the short run, a Western declaration of “united we stand” would do more for the sovereignty of countries in Europe’s East than sustaining longer-term hopes of NATO or EU membership.
Novorossiya was originally a historical term, used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to refer to an area north of the Black Sea. It reappeared in early 2014, when Russian President Vladimir Putin used it to denote a region that is now part of Ukraine. In recent days, pro-Russian fighters have been seen wearing an insignia bearing the name, and a Novorossiya website has been launched.
What is behind the term? Moscow has invoked Novorossiya to put pressure on the government in Kiev to take peace talks seriously and is trying to create more pro-Russian sentiment across southeastern Ukraine. The region has strategic importance for Russia as it is key for supplies of electricity, gas, water, and food to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in March 2014.
How far Moscow is willing to go with its incursion will depend on the reactions of Ukraine and the West, but mostly on Ukraine’s internal cohesion. The more confrontation Ukraine and the West choose, the more Novorossiya may appear—according to Russia’s logic of path dependence. Since the breakdown in Ukraine’s central authority in February 2014, Kiev has been far from showing coherent governance, so Russia can continue meddling effectively.
What can the West do? First, it needs to take Ukraine’s current situation much more into account and put the crisis at the top of its agenda. The West focuses too much on Putin and too little on Ukraine’s financial woes or the more than 1 million displaced Ukrainians. Western sanctions are unlikely to alter Moscow’s policy and don’t help Ukraine. The country, which is essentially broke, urgently needs peace and Western assistance to focus on its burning internal issues.
In an interview with Russia’s Channel One television station on August 31, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed the need to start talks on the “statehood” of Ukraine’s southeastern regions. His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, explained that the president was insisting not on the regions’ status but on an “inclusive dialogue” with the insurgents of “Novorossiya.”
The term Novorossiya, which the president himself has cunningly avoided, is being actively legalized in the international debate by his aides. The word is used by Russian officials, media, and commentators, and appears on the presidential website. Russia’s conservative circles have even been given the green light to provide a scientific underpinning for the concept: a Novorossiya history textbook is being prepared under the supervision of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Putin himself prefers indirect references to Novorossiya, calling the territory “Russia’s historic south,” whose integration into the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1918 was—according to him—a historic injustice. By referring to Novorossiya, directly or indirectly, Russia seeks to impose its narrative and undermine modern Ukrainian statehood, dragging the debate away from the current international order and into a maze of arguable historical interpretations.
What should the West do in response? Be aware that words matter, too.
The less Western governments and media engage in the notion of “Novorossiya” peddled by the Russian government, the better. The term’s main purpose is to provoke the West by conjuring up historical comparisons with a territory that included many more regions than those currently fought over by pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army.
Instead of wasting more time on indignant outcries about Russia’s behavior vis-à-vis Ukraine, Western governments have to seriously commit to humanitarian aid and a plan for peace and reform. A regime of sanctions requires a parallel track of diplomacy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s call for “statehood” for Ukraine’s southeast should be read for what it is: a card in an increasingly risky gamble. But it is also a card that is ambiguous enough not to foreclose meaningful negotiations about a ceasefire and a number of medium-term issues that Western actors are still reluctant to tackle head-on. Those issues include Ukraine’s parallel trade relations with the EU and Russia; shelving the idea of NATO membership for Ukraine; and a concrete plan for Ukraine’s decentralization.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s first proposals on constitutional reform were flawed. The appointment of regional presidential representatives—ironically, something Putin introduced to regain control over Russia’s regions—would undermine the idea of decentralization. It is high time for a Western-brokered discussion of Ukraine’s state structure.
Theoretically, the West could deter Moscow from intervening in Ukraine beyond the country’s southeastern Donbass region by massively strengthening Kiev’s capacities to fight and by threatening Russian President Vladimir Putin with Iran-style sanctions.
But in reality, neither the EU nor the United States is ready to move toward full confrontation with Russia. In the calculation of Western capitals, the price—the risk of a proxy war with Russia and the potential damage to Western economies—is simply too high.
The West is clearly on Ukraine’s side in the conflict. But the level of engagement in favor of Kiev won’t go much beyond what has already been seen: serious sanctions, yes, but no cutoff of economic relations with Russia. And the West will be very reluctant to be involved in the military dimension of the crisis.
That means that Ukraine cannot win the war. Kiev can only raise the costs for Russia through resistance and by making the Russian advance more difficult. Ukraine cannot roll back Russia’s territorial gains.
How far Russia will go in southern Ukraine depends mainly on calculations in the Kremlin: How many casualties are acceptable? How much damage to relations with the West can be sustained? And can territory that has been conquered actually be administered under Russian control, or will it be subject to an endless partisan war?
The West and Ukraine can influence those calculations. But Ukraine is too weak to stop Russia, and the West has ruled out serious military involvement from the outset. Whether Novorossiya will be more than a propagandist term depends on decisions made in Moscow.
The West must keep a balanced approach in its response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s use of the term Novorossiya. Russia’s role in Ukraine has the potential to be destabilizing beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Putin’s cynical use of the concept of the responsibility to protect carries great dangers in a continent intermeshed with minorities. Already, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán views Russia as one of his model states—along with Turkey—and this has ominous implications for the role of Hungarian minorities in Romania, Slovakia, and elsewhere.
So the West must be firm in rejecting the idea that states have the right to protect ethnic or other minorities outside their borders and to create new states as a result. Putin has the great advantages of geographic proximity as well as an intense political interest in the outcome of the Ukraine crisis. Meanwhile, the West, especially the United States, has both fewer levers and weaker interests in the country. This is the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 in reverse.
The West cannot hope for a clear victory in Ukraine. Rather, it will have to find a compromise with Russia that maintains the territorial integrity of a federalized Ukraine without NATO membership but that rejects statehood for Novorossiya. To accept such statehood would be the beginning of the unraveling of the peaceful, multicultural Europe that has been painstakingly built since the end of World War II.
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