MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin ratcheted up his rhetorical-historical claims on eastern Ukraine Friday, even as pro-Russian rebels and their allies among the separatist rebels pushed forward there with a new offensive.
The lead headline on the Kremlin’s own Web site declared that Putin had “addressed the Novorossiya militia,” a clear and unequivocal sign that Putin is putting his own prestige on the line to back the separatist movement. That fact will make it harder for him to back down (if he had any such inclination) and therefore much harder for an increasingly fretful Europe and the United States to come to terms with him.
The statement made it obvious Putin does not consider the southeastern regions of Ukraine to be sovereign, but sees them, still, as part of Russia’s once and future empire. Putin even offered, in a gesture of noblesse oblige, to help evacuate Ukrainian soldiers trapped by the militias and troops he supports.
Praising these pro-Russian fighters, Putin highlighted their “major success in intercepting Kiev’s military operation, which represents a grave danger to the population of Donbass [that is, eastern Ukraine] and which has already led to the loss of many lives among peaceful residents.”
After months fed a constant diet of relentless, intensive reporting and propaganda about the suffering of Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, a majority of Russians now share Putin’s point of view and agree that Russia should be supporting “Novorossiya,” a shift from previously tepid Russian public support for the separatist cause. Independent social polls by the Levada Center showed that 64 percent of Russians blamed the West for the conflict in Ukraine, and 55 percent of respondents thought that Russia should be supporting pro-Russian rebel forces in the southeast.
In Mariupol soldiers are digging anti-tank trenches and mining the approaches to the town.
Later on Friday, Putin met with loyal followers at the annual Kremlin-arranged Seliger Camp, which draws tens of thousands of young people each year. The Russian president compared violence by Ukrainian forces to Nazis during World War II. Putin told the young activists that it was time for the West to realize Kiev was not capable of taking control of the eastern regions of Ukraine. Indeed, Putin mocked Western leaders: “Our partners’ position is clear to me,” he said. “’Yes, there should be talks, but in the meantime we need to let Ukrainian troops do a bit of shooting—maybe they will get the situation under control.’”
Observers, both in Russia and Ukraine, say the Novorossiya rhetoric is potentially very dangerous. Putin mentioned the word before, during the Crimea crises last spring before he annexed the strategic peninsula. But in Crimea a majority of the population wanted to live in Russia. In the southeastern regions of Ukraine Putin is confronted with a deeply divided population.
“All we really care about is that nobody bombs our homes, our schools and kindergartens,” Lyudmila Zakharenko told The Daily Beast on the central square of Sloviansk, which was once the center of pro-Russian rebel resistance. Most residents there switched their opinion from pro-Russian to pro-Ukrainian once the rebel forces were pushed out of town.
The Kremlin never bothered to find out the real support for Russian intervention among the people of Novoazovsk before it sent its troops to help take the town earlier this week. Neither has it asked the people of Mariupol, the port that seems to be next on the Russian/rebel line of march.
When Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov was asked if Purin really meant to signal his inclination to annex a large part of Ukraine, he danced around the topic. “If you look back at history, it was called Novorossiya for several hundreds of years,” said Peskov. “That’s why this is absolutely, say, the Russian name for that territory.”
People in Mariupol appear unconvinced. As the threat loomed of an imminent attack by the separatists, many Ukrainians decided not to wait for the day of annexation: middle class families packed up and moved further away, to Odessa.
Devoted Ukrainian patriots—and those who had no place to go—stayed to help the Ukrainian Ninth Battalion, the National Guards and the Dnepr-1 paramilitary force prepare to defend the city, where soldiers are digging anti-tank trenches and mining the approaches to the town.
Civil society groups, meanwhile, are training young people to provide each other with first aid. In downtown Mariupol, a seaport with a population of about half a million people, protesters came out in support of the Ukrainian government. “Mariupol is Ukraine!” read one popular sign among the demonstrators. “Where is Novorossiya?” asked another.