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New Russia - Putin’s Potemkin Village that could be

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New Russia - Putin’s Potemkin Village that could be 

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Consigned until a few months ago to the dustbin of history, this spring the old tsarist territory of ‘New Russia’ suddenly seemed about to be reborn. Several twists and turns in a now eight-month old crisis later, the embryonic territory still lies dormant, awaiting the breath of life from the only man who can breathe it upon it: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Having succeeded in March in a daring, and largely bloodless, annexation of the strategically valuable Crimea—object for centuries of Russian longing and a jewel in the old empire’s crown—, Putin trained his sights on Ukraine’s South and East. With spring now turned to summer, the Donbass hosts a low-level civil war. What’s at stake for Putin in control of Ukraine’s rustbelt?

The answer has less to do with the rights of Russian speakers so loudly trumpeted by the Kremlin (though across the former Soviet Union ethnic Russians’ concerns about the use of their language shouldn’t be dismissed as pure propaganda) than it does with old-fashioned geopolitics. For within their historical boundaries, the lands of New Russia were central to Russia’s status as a European great power.

Between 1774 and 1794, through a string of impressive victories over Ottoman Turkey, Russian Empress Catherine the Great opened up the rich, vast grasslands of South Eastern Europe to Russian settlers. In one the most prodigious expansions of human population before the opening of the American prairies, they poured in. Catherine named her conquest ‘New Russia’.

Ruled at first as a personal fiefdom by Catherine’s lover, confidante and soul mate, the bear-like Prince Grigory Potemkin, the territory remained a governorate of the Russian Empire until, in the aftermath of revolution and civil war, the Bolsheviks incorporated its fertile lands into the Ukrainian SSR.

But New Russia is back. In April, Putin used the term at a press-conference, when in reply to a question on his aims in Ukraine, he answered: ‘The question is to ensure the rights and interests of the Russian Southeast. It’s New Russia. Kharkiv, Lugansk, Donetsk, Odessa were not part of Ukraine in tsarist times, they were transferred in 1920. Why? God knows.’ (In fact, Kharkiv and Lugansk were never part of New Russia, having then been within the borders of the old, but the point remains the same.)

In the afterglow of the separatists’ May referenda, New Russia was named again by Paval Gybarev, leader of the so-called ‘People’s Republic of Donetsk, whom the Russian media affectionately call ‘the People’s Governor’. 

Asked about the importance of the previous weekend’s vote on self-determination (widely condemned by Western governments), Gybarev replied: ‘For us, the referendum is everything. It means independence, the creation of a new entity, the People’s Republic of Donestk. And this is just the first stage on the path to the creation of New Russia, formerly known as south eastern Ukraine.’
Locally, at least, a timetable for implementing the vote’s outcome had been drawn even before the result had been officially declared. According to Oleg Tsareb, leader of the ‘South East’ movement,
‘tomorrow at 5 o’clock […] we’ll call on all the people to come into the main square to celebrate the referendum results. We’ll celebrate with tears in our eyes.’ 

We now know that Mother Russia wasn’t prepared to let the party go ahead. Puzzlingly, given the role the Kremlin has almost certainly played in orchestrating the seizure of government buildings in eastern Ukraine, Putin called on organizers to postpone the referendum.

In a response that has been a study in ambiguity, the Kremlin said that it ‘in Moscow, we respect the will of the people of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and are counting on practical implementation of the outcome of the referendum in a civilised manner, without any repeat of violence and through dialogue.’

How self-determination and dialogue can co-exist wasn’t clear then and, with violence still simmering and Kiev’s writ shaky across the south east, it still isn’t. Though they now squabble as much among themselves as with Ukraine’s central government, local separatist leaders presumably still intend to march towards their dream of resurrecting the lost provinces of Catherine the Great’s New Russia.
As for Putin, most commentators have supposed he feared losing control of a movement whose momentum appeared to have passed into the hands of local heavies. But perhaps the real problem with May’s referendum was not so much that it went ahead too soon, but that it didn’t go ahead as planned—and that it didn’t include enough of New Russia.

Speaking in Copenhagen the week before the referenda, Ole Kværnø, dean of the Royal Danish Military  College, echoed warnings NATO’s top commander, General Philip Breedlove, had been issuing since April by affirming that of all the Kremlin’s strategic objectives in Ukraine, the famous port city of Odessa was, after Crimea, far the most important.

Founded in 1792—it was among the original ‘Potemkin villages’—, Odessa grew quickly. By 1900 it was the Russian empire’s fourth largest city, and the first to sport electric streetlights. Its bustling wharves expedited the booming wheat trade that helped finance the rapid industrialization that made Russia the world’s fastest growing economy in the lead-up to the First World War. As a naval base and a military camp, it allowed St Petersburg to intervene in Ottoman Turkey and become for the first time in Russian history, both a Balkan and a Middle Eastern power.

Throughout the twentieth century, it was one of the Soviet Union’s major trading ports and military centres. A city of a little over a million, it remains Ukraine’s second city and an important Black Sea oil terminal. Originally home to Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Romanians, Germans, Poles and Jews along with Russians and Ukrainians, the lingua franca always has been, and still is, Russian. (Though the horrors of the Second World War mean the city is considerably less cosmopolitan than it used to be.)

From the Kremlin’s perspective, Odessa has lost none of its attractions. Returning it to Russian rule would not only emasculate Ukraine, but also connect the newly annexed Crimea to the thousand or so Russian soldiers stationed in the self-declared ‘Republic of Transnistria’—a Russian-speaking enclave in the former Soviet Republic of Moldova and the eastern most reach of Catherine’s New Russia.

It would also signal its comeback as a Balkan power.
While NATO has worried most about what the Kremlin’s machinations in Ukraine mean for former outposts of empire in the Baltic, Russian grand strategy under both the tsars and the Soviets had a southern as well as a northern leg. Competition with Austria for the disintegrating Ottoman dominions in the former Yugoslavia plunged Europe into firestorm of the First World War.

To the extent, then, that the Kremlin sees Europe as a chess board and NATO its opponent, only the Balkans, broadly defined, offer a real opportunity to check its expansion and undermine its unity by increasing Russia’s ability both to woo still non-aligned and traditional Russian allies like Serbia and Montenegro and cajole fully-fledged but troubled NATO and EU members Hungary, Bulgaria, and Slovakia.

Not only do their authoritarian politics often chime with Moscow’s, their economies are among the most dependent on Russian gas in Europe. Slovakia has dragged its feet about building a reverse flow pipeline to supply Ukraine in the case of a Russian shutdown; until recently, Bulgaria has defied Brussels by awarding the contract to build the local leg of the Southstream pipeline to a Russian company under murky circumstances.

For all his reputation for realpolitik, however, Putin is instinctively cautious. The deaths in Odessa of 46 separatists in a blaze following fierce street fighting between the city’s pro-Russian and Ukrainian factions ten days ago must have brought home to the Kremlin the enormity of the bloodshed a Russian push towards the port city would lead to.

And without an easy victory in Odessa like the one deftly engineered in Crimea, New Russia loses most of its strategic value, ceasing to be worth the thousands of Russian lives the Kremlin calculated it would take to subdue it.

If Putin has his way, that may still change. In the West, the received wisdom throughout this crisis has been that his actions have been those of a desperate man, more a sign of his failure to draw Ukraine back into Moscow’s orbit over the past decade than the work of a strategic master mind.

Certainly, Odessa proves he’s not all-powerful and Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, has already showed that he’s far from a push-over. But when it comes to the resurrection of ‘New Russia’, Putin remains the only one really calling the shots.

About the author

Writer and foreign affairs commentator

Matthew Dal Santo