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Mainstream, VOL LV No 34 New Delhi August 12, 2017

Birth of Malorossiya? : Delivery Pains For Ukraine

Saturday 12 August 2017


by R.G. Gidadhubli

Ukraine has been a victim of crisis during the last few years—lost Crimea in 2014 by the alleged annexation by Russia, the ongoing conflict in the eastern part of the country adjoining Russia due to which about 10,000 people have died, and strained political relations with Russia. Even as Germany and France have taken the initiative in resolving this conflict under the Minsk Deal since 2015, durable peace is yet to emerge.

What has added to Ukraine’s problem is that on July 18, 2017 Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), announced the formation of ‘Malorossiya’ or ‘Little Russia’. Donetsk is a part of the macro region of Donbas in the eastern part of Ukraine in which people of predominantly Russian ethnic identity live. Adjoining the DPR is the Lugansk National Republic (LNR) which is a part of Ukraine. As pointed out by historians, this name Malorossiya was inspired by the old Czarist province which contained much of eastern Ukraine or the region held by ‘separatists’ at present. Even as expected, this hype has created a lot of controversy and criticism among politicians and analysts, Zakhar Prilepin, one of Zakharchenko’s advisers, frankly stated by declaring Malorossiya “we really wanted to make a surprise for Moscow, for Washington, and, of course, for Kiev”. Hence it is worth noting the reactions and responses from the concerned sections and political leaders.

At the outset it needs to be mentioned that there is instant protest and reaction by the Ukrainian leaders who have made allegations that this concept of Malorossiya is a Russian-inspired provocation. This is further evident from the candid statement of the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, that this is a part of the continuum of Kremlin’s acts “from the beginning of the military aggression against my nation, [during which] the Russian Federation’s goal has been to divide Ukraine into parts”. He has even asserted that Zakharchenko, the leader of Donetsk, and Plotnikov, the leader of Lugansk, are not political figures, but puppets that convey orders received from Moscow. But this may not be entirely correct in the present context.

At the same time it needs to be noted that the conflict in the eastern region has adversely impacted the economy of Ukraine. As rightly pointed out by Mark Galeotti, a Russia specialist in Prague, Ukraine has been spending a lot of resources in the conflict in Donbas and Lugansk and the expected return and economic benefits are uncertain. Moreover, strained relations with Russia have not only worsened its domestic energy needs, but has also resulted in its loss of revenue from energy supplies through the country’s pipelines from Russia to Europe.

As expected, the declaration of Malorossiya by Zakharchenko has been condemned not only by Ukraine but also by the Western powers since it is against the unity and integrity of Ukraine. The USA and European leaders are strongly supporting Petro Poroshenko, who has taken Ukraine more towards the West rather than towards Russia.

It is important to note that Igor Plotnitsky, who is Zakharchenko’s counterpart in the Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR), has stated that he had no part in this proclamation and that “at the moment the expediency of such a step raises big doubts”. Moreover, as opined by analysts, some leaders of the Lugansk region have contended that by making this declaration, Zakharchenko might seem to assert his own authority over the whole of the rebel Donbas while also asserting that Poroshenko’s regime has failed. This strong criticism of Zakharchenko by the LNR leaders and not associating with him on this issue might indirectly help the Ukrainian authorities.

Russia’s Response 

There are mixed reactions and responses from Russia. It needs to be stated at the outset that contrary to Poroshenko’s allegations, Russian leaders are surprised and the presidential spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has stated on July 19 that “the statement Zakharchenko made this morning about Malorossiya is his personal initiative and that Moscow learnt about it from the press.” He reiterated that Moscow is committed to the Minsk agreements with regard to the solution of the east Ukrainian conflict. In support of this official statement Boris Grizlov, an old-time Kremlin insider from St. Petersburg, has stated that the Malorossiya initiative “does not comply with the Minsk process” and that this issue could be treated as a discussion-point with Kyiev.

Secondly, the top Putin adviser, Vladislav Surkov, has opined that the declaration of the state of Malorossiya proves that there is internal conflict in Ukraine and that Russia has no role, which the West refuses to admit.

Thirdly, as reported by RIA Novosti on July 18, 2017, while some Russian parliamentarians have supported Zakharchenko, others expressed doubts, insisting that the Malorossiya idea is “impractical and badly thought through”.

Fourthly, within the Russian-controlled part of Donbas, different pro-Russia separatist leaders have also expressed misgivings about Malorossiya. In fact an opinion seems to have been formed in the Russian media that Zakharchenko is a crazy separatist, who does not really know what he is talking about and has embarrassed the Russian authorities by publicly under-mining the Minsk Two protocols, which Russia officially supports, as mentioned in Kommersant on July 20.

But at the same time it is important to note that this controversial statement suits some sections of the Russian leaders and media. In fact adjoining Ukrainian DPR is the territory of Donbas which is a part of the Russian Federation. Hence Donetsk leaders in Ukraine also get military supplies and economic support from some groups from Russia for sustaining their conflict with the Ukrainian leaders, notwith-standing denial by Moscow. Hence some Russian leaders might indirectly support the idea of Malorossiya, that is, those who are against the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko. More-over, the role or support of Victor Yanukovich, the ethnic Russian who was the President of Ukraine, may not be ruled out. Because Yanukovich was forced to leave Ukraine for his pro-Russia policy by the Poroshenko party’s supporters and has taken asylum in Russia and is interested to return to Ukraine. Similarly, Zakharchenko, with his declaration of Maloro-ssiya, might also get the support of Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian President and Odessa regional governor who has been stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship; at least this too cannot be ruled out. In fact, on July 27 he lashed out at Ukrainian President Porosheko and vowed to resist what he called the “cowardly” move and to “continue fighting for a real European Ukraine”.

Thus there are mixed responses on the issue of Malorossiya by the concerned sections in Ukraine and Russia. The fact that Zakharchenko has frankly stated that he is against any progress in the Minsk deal is clear evidence that he might be preventing the implementation of the deal in reality during the last two years. However, on July 24, 2017 the German Government officially stated that Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine have agreed on a number of “immediate measures” to push forward with a peace deal brokered in 2015 to end the bloody fighting in eastern Ukraine. They have called for the immediate halt to all violations of the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, where the Russia-backed separatists are fighting the forces of the Central Government in Kiev. Hence France and Germany have called on Russia to condemn the Malorossiya project as “unacceptable” and to concentrate on implementing the Minsk Two protocols.

In conclusion, whether Zakharchenko will succeed in his ambitious idea of Malorossiya is highly speculative. At the same time under the prevailing uncertainties and challenges in resolving the conflict, Ukrainian President Poroshenko has to face this additional problem. Thus even as Malorossiya is born and there could be speculation about its survival and growth, Ukraine is already suffering from delivery pains.

(July 31, 2017)

Dr R.G. Gidadhubli is a Professor and the former Director, Centre for Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.

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