New Russia, Old Problems

Is This The End of Putin’s ‘New Russia’ Fantasy?

Infighting, corruption and murder. Novorossia is falling prey to Russia’s old demons.

01.11.15 11:45 AM ET

Leaders of Novorossia, or New Russia, the pro-Russia separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, are publicly admitting their failure. The Kremlin’s ideologues wanted Novorossia to stretch from Donetsk to Odessa, and to provide a transport corridor to Crimea. Russian nationalists believed that Russia had to annex the entire Novorossia together with its rebellious Donetsk and Luhansk republics. But the Moscow-inspired and orchestrated project fell apart from the beginning—rebel leaders and warlords quit the movement one after another, or ordered one another’s murders.

In a recent interview, former prime-minister of Donetsk rebel republic, Alexander Borodai, and Igor Bezler, one of the most feared rebel commanders—both key Novorossia figures—admitted that Novorossia could not succeed in the current economic crisis brought on by the pressure of Western sanctions.

“There is no Novororssia,” said Borodai. “We all use that term, of course. But that was a false start, to be honest. It was a dream. ... It is an idea that never came to life.”

That “idea” was supported, and to a large extend inspired, by the Russian president. A result of that “idea,” more than 4,000 people died in eastern Ukraine.

Russian tsars conquered the south and east of present-day Ukraine using the term “Novorossia,” in the 18th and 19th centuries, but at least for now, the Kremlin’s imperial dream of repeating history seemed to be turning to dust thanks to a rash of infighting among field commanders in the war-troubled eastern regions of Ukraine. By the end of the first week of this year, 14 commanders and their fighters in the Luhansk region had been murdered, including a notoriously corrupt field commander, Alexander Bednov—known as Batman. The leaders of thousands of Cossack forces, which control an area containing more than 1 million people in the Luhansk region, blamed Moscow-appointed Novorossia politicians for abusing their power, ordering the murders of their militia allies, and stealing Russian money and humanitarian aid sent to the region.

On Sunday, Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Kremlin adviser, on the other hand, said on Radio Echo of Moscow that Russian-appointed leaders of Novorossia had deliberately “distanced themselves from rebel field commanders.”

On Jan. 2, seven rebels and their commander, introduced as Plastun, released a video statement claiming that the Luhansk People’s Republic Prime Minister Igor Plotnitsky had ordered Batman’s murder. The video featured a gloomy Plastun wearing a black sheepskin Cossack hat, his nose badly broken, saying that Plotnitsky had ordered the arrest of all commanders in their division. Plotnitsky “betrays all our ideas and achievements and gives us up to Ukropy law enforcement,” he said, using a derogatory term for the Ukrainian police. The commander sounded hopeless, predicting his own approaching end: “I am not sure we can resist this for a long time, as we don’t want to kill our own comrades.”

Another Russian rebel leader, Igor Girking, a former senior officer in the Russian Federation Federal Security Service who served as defense minister of the rebel Doentsk People’s Republic, explained why he had quit the struggle and retreated to Moscow: “I did not fight for power in Novorossia and quit my post to avoid such situations. So I call everybody to follow what I’ve done myself,” he wrote on the Russian Spring website, essentially calling for all Russian militia to withdraw from Ukraine.

Such news can’t be welcome in the Kremlin. Grandiose statements by President Vladimir Putin and his advisers suggested that Novorossia was meant to include most of Ukraine’s eastern and southeastern cities, including Ukraine’s strategic Black Sea port city of Odessa and the Azov Sea port city of Mariupol. But now, Novorossia is shrinking to just the two devastated portions of Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

“In Odessa we always looked at Putin’s Novorossia plan, as at a joke, represented by some bandits and drunks, or an odious local idiot, Valery Kaurov, who appointed himself to be the President of Novorossia from Moscow by Skype last April,” Vitaliy Kozhukhar, a commander of Odessa’s self-defense forces, told the Daily Beast on Monday. But the conflict was not over: Kozhukhar said a group of “Novorossia partisans” had planted seven bombs to destabilize life in Odessa over the past few weeks.

With the deepening economic crisis, Moscow seems to prefer that Kiev take responsibility for the semi-criminal leadership in Donetsk and Luhansk, and in the last two months, Putin has been avoiding the use of the term Novorossia and focused his major statements entirely on “sacred” Russian Crimea.