On July 18, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, declared the independent state of Malorossiya, or Little Russia. The state was said to comprise the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, with the possibility of other Ukrainian regions joining and eventually replacing the Ukrainian state as we know it today. The city of Donetsk was meant to be the new capital.
These fanciful extensions immediately undermined the credibility of the plan. Nevertheless, the declared project has some real implications and provides a few clues about the political situation in Ukraine’s occupied territories. At the outset of a new round of negotiations in the Normandy format, which brings together the leaders of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine, it is important to understand these signals.
Little is known about the political dynamics and the population’s attitudes in the occupied territories. A May 2017 survey in the territories demonstrated that views about the future status of the area remain contested. An overall majority of respondents was in favor of remaining part of Ukraine, and one-third supported a special status for the territories within Ukraine. Another third backed a similar special status within Russia. Thus, the recent declaration of independence by no means reflects the preference of the local population.
The Malorossiya declaration sheds light on the political setup in the region. It confirms that the political leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic is not united. Moreover, the leader of the Luhansk People’s Republic, Igor Plotnitsky, almost immediately distanced himself from the declaration, emphasizing that he had not been contacted before the announcement.
Russia’s role in the Malorossiya project remains unclear. Initial reactions by Russian officials, including a Kremlin spokesman, seemed hesitant and negative, pointing to the need to continue the Minsk process, which aims to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s envoy to the Minsk talks, Boris Gryzlov, also dismissed the announcement.
By the time presidential aide Vladislav Surkov chose to comment, it was still not clear whether individual Russians such as Surkov or President Vladimir Putin had instigated the project. But the official Russian rhetoric now endorses the elements that suit the Kremlin’s agenda. Moscow’s emphasis on state creation rather than separatism in the declaration of Malorossiya is a message that will be lost on Western observers, but it plays into Russia’s domestic politics, where public support for Russia’s role in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region is less certain than for its March 2014 annexation of Crimea. Moving beyond the label “separatists” and focusing the debate on Ukraine as a failed state is meant to help boost support for Putin in the run-up to the 2018 presidential election.
The Kremlin is trying to utilize the provocative declaration of independence, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has stepped up his rhetoric about the need for reintegration. But the critical point about the Malorossiya declaration is that the chains of command within and across the self-declared republics and to the Kremlin are in flux. In the first instance, this means greater instability and a lack of control over the fighting.
The newly appointed special U.S. envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, has spent the first weeks of his appointment familiarizing himself with the situation in Ukraine. He has announced a series of recommendations on how the United States should adjust its policy on Ukraine and the ongoing war. And he has already added an important momentum to the discussion about Ukraine. On July 23, he traveled to Donbas and issued a statement that Ukraine was still experiencing a “hot war,” not a “frozen conflict.”
This statement comes as a useful reminder at a time when the war in Ukraine no longer occupies a central place in the European political and public debate and the term “frozen conflict” is widespread—either as a description of the status quo or as the seemingly best outcome under the circumstances. Having a new actor on the scene pointing out the fallacy of the notion of the frozen conflict is a much-needed intervention on the eve of a new round of Normandy talks.
On July 24, the four heads of state and government resume their dialogue about the Minsk process by phone; a face-to-face meeting later in the summer is a possibility. In the coming weeks and months, the interaction between the Normandy four and Volker needs to be established. One can expect the U.S. envoy to raise his voice and take the initiative in this early period of his appointment. This will add an element of dynamism to the otherwise fairly stale setting.
Also on July 24, Volker will continue his meetings with Ukrainian government officials in Kyiv. Then he is due to travel to Paris to meet French and German officials to discuss the Normandy and Minsk formats. Afterward, he will travel to Brussels for talks with the EU and NATO about Ukraine, before moving on to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna to discuss the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, which operates along the front line in the country’s east, and to the UK for further Ukraine-related talks.
The Malorossiya episode ran its course even faster than Novorossiya (New Russia), a short-lived concept invoked in May 2014 by Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The significance of the recent declaration is to highlight the lack of unity and control in the occupied territories. It is thus a stark reminder of the pressing need to rethink the Normandy and Minsk processes in cooperation with the United States.
Gwendolyn Sasse is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and the director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin.