In Russia This Week, you will find links to the stories of Russia Update in the last week and to special features, plus an article following up on the news and trending topics below.
– From Medal of Valor to Ubiquitous Propaganda Symbol: the History of the St. George Ribbon
– After Putin’s Call-In Show, Where is the Reality?
– What Happened to the Slow-Moving Coup?
– All the Strange Things Going On in Moscow
– Remembering Boris Nemtsov, Insider and Outsider (1959-2015)
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With an article appearing in Gazeta.ru headlined “‘Novorossiya’ Project Closed,” there’s been a readiness of Western and Russian analysts to declare the Kremlin-curated separatists’ entities by this name dead as well — and even go so far as to say it is a concession to bring about peace.
“Novorossia died a quiet death this week,” said Brian Whitmore of RFE/RL’s Power Vertical.
Yet as we’ve found, Russian-backed separatists are still going strong,
and their supporters in Moscow and other Russian citizens are continuing
to send them aid under the “Novorossiya” flag.
Gazeta.ru interviewed Oleg Tsarev, a businessman from Dnipropetrovsk
and former parliamentarian from the Party of Regions expelled in April
2014 who became the “speaker” of the notional “Novorossiya” parliament, who said the
project was closed (translation by The Interpreter):
“The activity of the structures of Novorossiya is frozen,
since it does not fit into the plan for a peace settlement, signed in
the presence of the countries of the ‘Normandy Four.'”
As for the “Novorossiya” political movement within Ukraine, here
Aleksandr Kofman, minister of foreign affairs, concedes that Ukrainian
forces have suppressed the separatist movement in Kharkiv and Odessa.
As a result more than 40 of our guys were killed in
Odessa, many activists were arrested in Kharkiv, and the republics which
were supposed to be created in these regions ended up leaderless.
Therefore the project ‘Novorossiya” is closed for some time — until in
all these regions, a new political elite grows up capable of heading the
Trenin’s tweet most of all is meant to confirm the pundrity that “Novorossiya” is “out” and persuade the US to think this development is the result of Secretary of State John Kerry’s “pressure” on Putin during their recent meeting in Sochi — although note that even he uses the term “on hold.”
Says Andrei Kolesnikov (translation by The Interpreter):
It is symptomatic that these events occurred after the visits of Secretary of State John Kerry to Sochi and Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland to Moscow. Despite the fact that representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry said there would be no bargains (and who will speak publicly about bargains) judging from everything, this is exactly the procedure that took place. It is quite obvious that the “Novorossiya” project did not close without a clearly-expressed pressure from Moscow on the separatist leaders. Russian ultraright ideologue Aleksandr Dugin even a week before these events said in his column on the Novorossiya news agency site that a deal could take place “Crimea in exchange for Novorossiya”: that is, observation of the Minsk accords and an attempt to build the autonomy of the DNR and LNR within Ukraine. It is possible that his prognosis turned out to be close to reality. In fact, long before Dugin, far more serious authors wrote about such a trade.
Novorossiya turned out to be a geopolitical chimera, born at meetings in the Kremlin and on Staraya Square, as plastic an innovative image as the one conceived several years ago, “sovereign democracy.” The project fell apart in practice — accordingly, its theoretical basis was annulled. In fact, long ago: even the word itself disappeared from the radars after the first Minsk agreements. And everything had started so well, when Vladimir Putin personally introduced the term “Novorossiya” into usage and palace historians with an excessive enthusiasm for exaggerations fell to writing the history of a fantasized country, repeating the path of the authors of the Short Course of History of the VKP(B), which had a weak relationship to the true biography of the party of Bolsheviks.
Rolling up the project — if, of course this does not get disrupted — is a defeat for the Kremlin which will be passed off as a victory and display of humanism. Although the map of the world changed thanks to its efforts, it is not to such an extent as the Russian government would like. The management model, which could be reminiscent of the current Chechen model in some way did not work in south-east Ukraine, and in fact begin to have serious breakdowns at the same time in the Chechen Republic itself. The Russian radicals and ultrarights see in this dumping of the [Novorossiya] project the victory of the “Atlantic Forces” inside the domestic elite, which they call the “sixth column.” And that means the radicals will be unhappy now personally with the supreme commander-in-chief [Putin].
Note that while Tsarev and Kofman were only talking in their statements to Gazeta.ru about the political entity of the “parliament” of the two “People’s Republics” and the effort to establish “people’s republics” outside of Donetsk and Lugansk Regions, already Kolesnikov is claiming the entire Kremlin notion of grabbing Ukrainian territory has been erased. Then can we expect the separatists to stop shelling on and taking over little towns all along the front line?
Supporters of Kiev as well as believers in Moscow’s good intentions are all happy to see “Novorossiya” go because it ostensibly means, on the one hand, the obvious failure of the Russian-backed separatist movement to achieve its own political goals and its willingness to bargain, and on the other hand, Moscow’s pragmatism under Western pressure to roll up its war in Ukraine.
These ideas are cherished by some pro-Kiev and pro-Moscow forces, but for different reasons.
Many supporters of Ukraine believe that the “separatists” are wholly controlled by Moscow, and none of them would exist if it were not for the Kremlin pulling the strings, paying for their upkeep and supplying them constantly with tanks and troops. The job then is only to pressure President Vladimir Putin sufficiently that he rolls up the separatists like a tent. Indeed, the very word “separatists” is misleading, they say, because it implies there is some kind of indigenous movement native to the Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine that created this rebellion. They rightly castigate those who use the term “civil war” about this conflict.
With Russia’s clear support of the separatists, indeed it is an international war, and one that Russia started and continues to fuel.
And indeed, there was no native armed rebellion before Moscow began stirring up trouble. There were no mass demonstrations for the idea of “separatism” before Moscow began injecting massive numbers of its own activists to bolster locals, and then deployed actual military (not just “volunteers”), its armaments and its cash and supplies.
The appearance of demonstrations in Kharkiv, Odessa and other cities outside the combat zone were instigated by the Kremlin, as former staff who left the office of the Kremlin’s “grey cardinal” admitted. As we reported last year, Gazeta.ru ran an expose of this fact.
There weren’t demonstrations in Donetsk or Lugansk, either, or even isolated incidents of sabotage, let alone terrorism. All of this came after the Crimean Anschluss and after Moscow’s plan to stage insurrections with the takeover of more than a hundred administrative buildings in the Donbass — actions accompanied by mass numbers of kidnappings, detentions, torture and even killing.
Yet while acknowledging the nature of the armed resistance as mainly created and stoked from Moscow, it’s important to note that there are nevertheless indigenous separatists who want to establish a separate territory from Kiev and are fighting a war of conquest of such territories which along the way, has gathered more support as civilians suffered from shelling and both Moscow and the DNR and LNR could recruit them to their cause.
These people may not go away so easily even when their Moscow subsidies are cut, and to concede this is not to claim any victory for the Kremlin it does not own but to explain that Kiev faces real local and armed enemies in the long run who can always gather more Russian-speakers to their ranks particularly if economic conditions worsen.
On the other side of the aisle, some Kremlin supporters or advocates of the International Realism school of politics that it is simply not in Moscow’s interests anymore to pay for these “People’s Republics” and they want to acknowledge them as part of Ukrainian territory not only to end the war but make Kiev foot the bill. They also expect that without Moscow financial and military support, there will be no insurgency. In that scenario, some sort of deal will be worked out that will leave a “frozen conflict” advantageous to Moscow, but Kiev will be increasingly blamed for the plight of the 13% of the population whom they must subsidize despite their hostility and even armed opposition.
Foreign policy officials in the US and EU would also like to believe that the political task is just to pressure Putin enough with sanctions and persuade him to pull his ample support of the militants, which he partly admits and about which there is now ample proof, and the job will be finished.
Yet there is every reason to see the pronouncements of “Novorossiya’s” death as merely tactical as part of the optics the Kremlin is constructing during the current round of the “ceasefire” talks after the second Minsk agreement. The proclamations of “Novorossiya’s” death can be believed when Ukrainians’ soldiers deaths from Russian-backed forces cease yet they continue today as they have all week.
Periodically, we’ve seen the idea that “Novorossiya is dead” — or more often “Novorossiya is dumped” (its supporters betrayed by Moscow) surface in the past year. There have even been times of declarations that Moscow state television — a big factor for the war in Ukraine in both shaping public opinion and recruiting fighters — had even taken the term “Novorossiya” off the air.
That turned out to be incorrect, as the term in fact continued to be used and even a special broadcast on “Novorossiya” was aired on TV1, the leading propagandist for domestic Russian audiences with television sets as their main source of news. (RT.com is intended for foreign audiences, and even LifeNews attracts more of an Internet following.)
To assess the real prospects for “Novorossiya,” it’s worth noting that the term really means at least three things:
1. The aspirational realm including parts of Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus (and possibly more territories) that is an independent state allied with, but not subsumed into, the Russian Federation. This realm has parts of the historic “Novorossiya” of Catherine the Great, although parts of it were not actually in the tsar’s hands, notably Lugansk.
2. The collective term for the pro-Moscow political movement of various sorts, some conservative Russian Orthodox, others secular leftist or Bolshevik or even combinations of these tendencies, that unite Russians and Russian-speakers outside of Russia proper.
3. The term adopted for entities that unite the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “the Lugansk People’s Republic” with a joint parliament, a common flag (that is taken from the historic St. Andrew’s Naval flag of imperial Russia) and most important, a common armed forces.
We’ve seen that the term “Novorossiya Armed Forces” has mainly been used by pro-Kremlin bloggers in the West, not so much by the actual armed insurgents themselves. It was in use for May 9th:
Yet it’s important to note that outside of Tsarev’s “Novorossiya” parliament, which flag went up in Debaltsevo, the strategic territory that was in a “kettle” or salient that was
taken over by the Russian-backed militants.
The flag was the “Novorossiya” jack and a Buryat Mongol from the Russian
Federation climbed to the top of a building and placed it. The forces
that overtook Debaltsevo were actually from the “Lugansk People’s
Republic” (LNR) headed by Col. Kiselyev but this strategic hub linking the
two “People’s Republics” was claimed in the name of “Novorossiya.”
The armies are having trouble
uniting, but as needed, the flag of their shared purpose can be deployed. That flag may have been withdrawn from the military parade in Donetsk featuring
Givi and Motorola, but people in the crowd were still waving it — and
the group that made the film was called “Fund to Aid Novorossiya.”
joint army was always a fiction that was mainly used by leaders in both
“people’s republics” to consolidate armies on their territories under
the personal leaderships of the “prime ministers” of the republics,
Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky. Just as Kiev has had to rein
in the volunteer brigades with the most zeal for fighting the war, so
the DNR and LNR have had to address mavericks like Aleksandr Mozgovoy of
the Prizrak (Ghost) Battalion and integrate them into more centralized
The parliament was a fiction as well more for the reason that the
rulers of the DNR and LNR would rather have a more Soviet-style Supreme
Soviet than a more late-perestroika style Congress of Deputies. There
are many indications that these entities are installing authoritarian
systems under personal rule by terror, and parliaments, even docile
ones, can get in the way of those plans.
To be sure, their positions are shaky as they are highly dependent
on Moscow. We saw the Kremlin swiftly remove the first stage of leaders
of the “People’s” armed revolutions when Col. Igor Strelkov (Girkin),
Maj. Igor Bezler, and Maj. Vladimir Antyufeyev — all Russian citizens
with extensive combat experience in past wars instigated by the Kremlin
— were retired and leaders native to the Donbass but loyal to Moscow
were installed, notably Aleksandr Zakharchenko as well as “Givi”
(Mikhail Tolstykh) from Ilovaisk.
Givi along with “Motorola,” the Russian citizen named Arseny Pavlov
led the takeover of the Donetsk Airport and were celebrated as war
heroes on Victory Day.
Yet we should realize that these armed leaders of loyal
fighters have to some extent acquired a life of their own and the tail
can wag the dog.
In the report Putin.War which Boris Nemtsov was working on
at the time of his death and which his colleagues completed and released
last week, there is an estimate of how many fighters there are in total — 35,000, of which about 6,000-7,000 are from the Russian Federation and 28,000-29,000 are locals, i.e. ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers who are Ukrainian citizens.
There is also an important story that we covered at the time but
which went largely unnoticed in the mainstream press.
Minsk-2 was not a document signed by three EU leaders and Vladimir
Putin in the “Normandy Four” format — they only later approved a
document in fact signed by the five persons in the “Trilateral Contact
Group.” And that’s because Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky refused to sign
the document as it did not provide them enough autonomous rule and
concede their conquest of territory.
Nemtsov and his colleagues quote from a story by Andrei Kolesnikov in Kommersant which is very telling:
“It seemed a trivial matter remained: we had to get the
endorsement of the “Complex of Measures” from Aleksandr Zakharchenko
and Igor Plotnitsky, leaders of the DNR and LNR, who were waiting just for that
moment in the DipService Hall, where at that time the Contact Group was meeting. With that
person, Vladislav Surkov, aide to the president of Russia headed to the DipService
Hall. I saw how he came out of the negotiations room and headed to the exit. At
that moment it was still not clear where he was going, but it was already clear
that the events were beginning to unfold with growing speed…And here the
president of Ukraine came out of the negotiations room…He was very dissatisfied
with something. Later we learned why: Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky
categorically refused to put their signatures under the document. Aside from
everything else, their signature could mean their political (and not only
political) death. But what can I say: all participants in the process were
taking risks with this document…It was the complete collapse of the
negotiations. Fourteen hours of time demonstratively wasted in vein.
At 10:40 Vladimir Surkov returned from the Palace of
Independence and walked up to the third floor, where Vladimir Putin was located
at the time. In a little while, Francois Hollande and Angel Merkel also went
upstairs. They learned about the decision of the leaders of the militia
leaders…So what happened there on the third floor? I was able to reconstruct
these events. According to Kommersant’s information, Vladimir Putin told his
colleagues that they had to explain to Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Igor
Plotnitsky why they were wrong. “I will not pressure them,” he said
several times. But then what was all this? Angela Merkel proposed explaining
everything to the leaders of the DNR and LNR with reference to the meeting of
the EU Council of Ministers opening in Brussels. She said that the militiamen
had to be informed: they had one-and-a-half hours of time. No later than that
would the leaders of France and Germany leave and never return again, and no
negotiations would be possible at all. The Russian leader also had to confirm
this as well. So he confirmed it…Then they waited. Vladimir Putin went out
and once again came into the negotiations room, when two minutes were left
before the deadline of the ultimatum expired. He said that he had called
Vladimir Surkov and announced: ‘They have signed everything.'”
Signed — but never fulfilled, as since the February 12 Minsk-2 agreements, the Russian-backed forces have not only taken over Debaltsevo but a total of 28 towns and are positioned now in Shirokino near Mariupol. We have mapped the towns now in separatists’ hands:
And sure enough, an analyst had to concede that the “Lugansk
People’s Republic” didn’t seem to be getting with the program devised by
Donetsk leaders for “closing” Novorossiya.
This statement about the “closure of the project” was not made on the part of the “Lugansk People’s Republic,” and no information about this has come from our side yet, the LNR press service told Govorit Moskva.
Meanwhile on social networks, Tsaryev also noted that the activity of the united parliament of Novorossiya was frozen because “neither it or its deputies could not influence the situation in the Donbass. The maintenance of the web site of the movement was also suspended.
This overlooks the fact that other “Novorossiya” resources are not suspended at all. In Russian-occupied Crimea, Golos Sevastopolya, whose editor is the blogger known as Colonel Cassad, is going strong and has not retired the “Novorossiya” theme, and in fact uses the term in many headlines. Recently he suffered attacks including the closure of his YouTube channel which he blames on Kiev.
His latest post describes his running around to meetings in Moscow, including to the parliament:
I’m running around to various meetings — we’re registering an NGO, tomorrow they are to register media for us, and we held a number of productive meetings on the topic of increasing help to the DNR and LNR. I had a chance to look in on the State Duma (even a mini-trou around the parliament was organized for us) on this question and we met a number of famous people related to deliveries to the territory of the Donbass. I can’t go into details for understandable reasons but I can say with confidence that definite material assistance has gone, is going and will go in the future (if they just don’t close the border).
With a high degree of likelihood the delivery of cargo for the militia of the DNR and LNR from our warehouses in Rostov will go even more intensively — now from 10 to 20 tons a day go in (who is interested can find several fresh reports and photographs of the delivery destinations at Golos Sevastopolya). Understandably, they try to crush this media-wise — yesterday they blocked the [Live] journal Redrat, for sending information about material aid to the militia. There is nothing new here, the question of whom the administration of LiveJournal is serving is strictly rhetorical.
In a section called “Help to the Army of Novorossiya,” the latest story has a picture of a woman sitting in front of a “Novorossiya” flag from a video discussing rehabilitation of wounded fighters.
Various other twitter accounts associated with the separatists or Moscow ultranationalist groups remain.
Miroslav Rudenko, leader of the Free Donbass faction in the DPR council, was interviewed today with a “Novorossiya” flag on his desk.
Gazeta.ru cites an anonymous source that claims that after the September Minsk agreements, “Novorossiya” cease to be needed as a symbol (translation by The Interpreter).
There was an opposite task — to integrate the DNR and
LNR within Ukraine and not increase the territory under the control of
the separatists. “Accordingly, Tsarev and all that is connected with him
is no longer required.”
But this source is outright lying — after the September
agreement, the separatists took a number of towns and most visibly, the
Donetsk Airport in January 2015. After the February agreement, as we
noted, they took 28 towns so that today, Ukraine has ceded territory it
had battled back last spring, and the separatists in fact increase their
Ultimately, we have to view these declarations as tactical or
temporary at best or at worst as outright deception in Putin’s hybrid
Whether he calls the concept “Russian World” or “Novorossiya,”
Putin will likely keep pressuring all his neighbors and reserve the
right to intervene militarily any time he can invoke the excuse that
Russians or Russian-speakers are under attack. And Russians will go on
looking at these areas as “theirs.”
It’s instructive to look at a popular song, Moya Rodina (My Motherland) created by Kremlin propagandists with pro-Kremlin performers Vika Tsyganova and Pyotr Matrenichev soon after the Minsk-1 talks in September 2014.
The videos shows a perfect Russian family eating traditional
Russian dishes at a kitchen table and features Matrenichev playing what
sounds like a traditional Russian folk song on an accordian. It has 1.5
The introductory statement and lyrics are as follows:
Here’s what I’ll tell you, Mr. Western partners, study geography, study history. Hello, Psaki. Our reply to NATO.
From Kamchatka to Odessa
Moscow has interests
Because we remember the geography of our country.
From Neva do the Azov Sea Littoral,
from Kurile to Transnistria,
from Donetsk to the Kremlin,
This is my Motherland.
It cannot be divided.
This is Mother Russia, this is Russian land.
From Nadym to Crimea
Sacred Rus is not divisible
By God granted
Everything is dear to our heart.
From Slavyansk to Norilsk.
From Lugansk to the Kremlin.
This is my Motherland
The States and NATO know: we don’t need other’s land.
We do not take other’s land, but take back our own.
We know, we remember, we will not forget.
We will defend our country.
From Alaska to the Kremlin
This is my Motherland.
It cannot be divided
It is Mother Russia, it is Russian Land
Psaki was the former spokeswoman for the State Department who was made
constantly attacked and derided by Kremlin propagandists last year. The
lyrics include cities in Ukraine that have been strongholds of the
separatists or lost by them, such as Slavyansk. The linkage of Lugansk
to the Kremlin is a reference to the Russian backing of the “People’s
Republics.” The pair look mischievously at each other before singing
“From Alaska,” referencing the fact that Alaskan territory was once part
At the very end of the video, there’s a surprise
cameo appearance from a famous “Novorossiya” advocate, Pavel Gubarev,
the “people’s governor of Donetsk” who in fact doesn’t use the term
“Novorossiya” but says:
From Kamchatka to Odessa!
United and indivisible.
The “Novorossiya” cause in its larger form will not go away, and in
its smaller iteration as a device to unite the two separatist cities,
it was not effective. That doesn’t mean the separatists in fact have
conceded that they must be an integral part of Ukraine.
If a major
offensive begins now in Lugansk, as our editors James Miller and Michael Weiss have predicted (see New Putin Invasion Coming This Summer and as OSCE monitors have expressed concern about, we will
look back at these claims of “Novorossiya’s” death as a distraction. If
the couplet about the Azov Sea takes shape with a takeover of Mariupol
or a pincer on all its surrounding seas, will it make any difference if
the joint puppet parliament called “Novorossiya” was suspended by the armies that
take these towns?
Even if there is no immediate Russian offensive, we will see Moscow
continue to claim this area as a sphere of influence and we will see
forces on the ground in southeastern Ukraine that have as much a hold over Kremlin politics as
the Kremlin has over them.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick