The idea that the rebellious part of Ukraine is really something that historically has been its own country is increasingly being pitched as a thing in Russia. This country is allegedly called Novorossiya, or New Russia.
Russians have a long history of discounting Ukrainian nationality. A Russian foreign minister in the later tsarist days, Pavel Ignatieff, referred to Ukrainians as “little Russians”. (Decades later, while running for a seat in the Parliament of Canada, his grandson Michael Ignatieff repeated this characterisation to howls of protest from Ukrainian-Canadians in his riding, so I can tell you from some experience that this sort of thing dies hard with Russians, as well as with their Canadian descendants.)
There is a city that goes by the name of Novorossiysk in a nearby part of what is uncontestedly Russian territory today, but not far from the territory being claimed in Ukraine as part of some new Novorossiya. If there were to become some new independent Novorossiya, it would be logical that Novorossiysk were in it. But of course, Novorossiya is only meant to disrupt the Ukrainian state, not the Russian state. No one expects Putin to rah-rah if there is any question of New Russian nationalists splitting off part of Old Mother Russia into an independent New Russia.
There is a certain logic to dredging up New Russia as a nationalistic idea. Certainly in Donetsk oblast, the latest of the purported breakaway regions, the idea is popular. It is also popular in Transnistria, a Moldavian separatist stronghold and de facto independent nation where more of the public does speak Moldavian/Romanian rather than Russian (and many also speak Ukrainian), but which is both fiercely loyal to both the historical legacy of the Soviet Union and to today’s Putinism.
The election data also indicates that it was the “New Russia” oblasts that voted repeatedly and by large margins for Viktor Yanukovych, the now-impeached pro-Russian president. That’s a pretty clear indication of how people in those oblasts see themselves in relation to the Euromaidan, the recent Ukrainian political changes, and to Old Mother Russia.
It’s one thing for Ukrainian nationalists to be critical of the usual Russian disdain for Ukraine’s status as a nation, but it may be another to expect that Ukraine’s central government is likely to win any popularity contests throughout this “New Russia” region.
This being the case, should Ukraine fight this or just let it happen? I’ve made the case that letting it happen might be preferable on “Michael Collins” grounds – that partition is potentially the “freedom to achieve freedom” at some later date for the partitioned territory. But there is one wrinkle that Ireland didn’t have to consider in Ukraine’s current situation. The oblasts with the highest GDP are ones in the “New Russia” area or near it – specifically Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Zaporizha, Poltava and Kharkiv oblasts. If Ukraine ceded those territories either to Russia or an independent New Russia entity without a fight, that means the industrial centres of the country are now no longer part of the country.
It’s unlikely Ukraine will want to see that happen, even if the only way to prevent it is a federalist strategy designed to keep pro-Russian oblasts happily in the Ukrainian family (though independent in economic strategies and trade agreement arrangements).
I still think the arrangement with Europe will be so useful for western Ukraine that outright partition would still be better. It is possible the east has higher GDPs not because they are obviously more productive, but because Yanukovych gave them better opportunities. Western Ukraine might well blossom if freed from eastern political interference.
There are no easy answers for Ukrainians right now, but there are pretty clearly obvious components to the right answers. Any answer that ignores that the “New Russia” oblasts are different is likely to be unrealistic. Likewise, any answer that ignores that Ukraine is a real country with real interests in deepening ties with the European Union is likely to be unrealistic.
A flexible Ukrainian federal state may be an answer, but if it weakens ties between Ukraine and the EU, it will be an unsatisfying one. More likely, a consolidated western Ukrainian state is going to be the answer. That choice may empower a “New Russia” to emerge in eastern Ukraine, but that may be the temporary price of showing the world that Ukraine can make its own decisions, independent of Moscow’s bullying tactics. If that works as I think it should, “New Russia” may move heaven and earth at some later date…to rejoin Ukraine.