Putin and Ukraine’s Black Sea Lands: Another Iteration of Novorossiya?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 2

Vladimir Putin speaks during annual new conference, December 19, 2019 (Source: Kremlin.ru)

In his annual press conference, summing up the year just past (Kremlin.ru, December 19, 2019), Russian President Vladimir Putin questioned Ukraine’s title to the territory that Russian nationalists reference as Novorossiya; and he cast an irredentist glance at central Ukraine as well. Putin himself had launched a short-lived Novorossiya project in 2014, aiming at that time to create a Russian protectorate out of eight Ukrainian provinces, six of them along the Black Sea coast.

Putin refloated that theme under a different name, Prichernomorie (Black Sea coastal lands) in his 2019 end-of-year press conference: “When the Soviet Union was created, ancestral Russian territories [such as] all of the Prichernomorie and Russia’s western lands, that never had anything to do with Ukraine, were turned over to Ukraine.” In Putin’s telling, this territorial arrangement was Vladimir Lenin’s idea, which Joseph Stalin initially resisted but then accepted and enforced it. “And now we have to grapple with this.”

Putin had used the same argument in 2014 in contesting Ukraine’s title to “Novorossiya”: the Russian Bolsheviks gave that territory to Soviet Ukraine in 1922 (see below).

The term Prichernomorie, standard usage from Tsarist and Soviet times to date, is geographically more or less coterminous with Novorossiya, although the latter carries heavier political connotations. Prichernomorie encompassed the Russian Empire’s and Soviet Union’s territories along the northern shores of the Black Sea and Azov Sea, from Bessarabia to Kuban. Almost all of this coastal arc became part of Ukraine in 1991, excepting the Kuban (in the Russian Federation from its inception). Russia seized Crimea and the Novoazovsk district (part of Ukraine’s Donetsk province) from Ukraine in 2014.

Putin has now added the intriguing reference to “Russia’s western lands” (zapadnyie zemli rossiiskie), “ancestral” as well, on top of Prichernomorie, in his end-of-2019 press conference. It seems to hint at Russia’s capacity for irredentist mischief. In Tsarist Russia, Zapadnaya Rus’ was a commonly used, informal term that usually denoted areas in today’s central Ukraine and Belarus (Ekho Moskvy, January 9, 2020).

According to Putin at his press conference, it was Polish publicists who first inspired a Ukrainian identity to the Ukrainians. “Admittedly, a Ukrainian identity exists, it has taken shape… Some elements of a real identity developed at some stage. We should respect this, are doing so and will do so, particularly within Russia… Three million Ukrainians live among us, and a similar number have arrived after the tragic events in Donbas. People who come to us from Central Asia or the North Caucasus find it more difficult to adapt.”

Conceding a Ukrainian identity (a simple “identity,” not a national identity) is a slight variation on Putin’s habitual theme that Russians and Ukrainians are “practically one and the same people.” And in further remarks at the same event, Putin subsumed Ukrainians to a single “East-Slavic ethnicity: Russians and those same Ukrainians.”

In introducing the Prichernomorie theme, Putin draws on his 2014 Novorossiya rhetoric. He was saying at that time, “The Bolsheviks—let God be their judge—incorporated substantial parts of Russia’s historical south into Soviet Ukraine, without taking account of the ethnic composition of those regions, and now this is the present-day south and east of Ukraine.” He added, “We are not just close neighbors; we are essentially, as I have said more than once, one and the same people” (se EDM, March 19, April 17, May 27, June 24, 26, July 2, 2014).

The Kremlin suspended the political project of Novorossiya after forcing Ukraine to sign the Minsk armistice in 2014. From that point onward, Moscow strengthened its grip on the occupied territories while developing the “one and the same people” thesis, which extends to Ukraine writ large, not just its Black Sea coastal lands. Putin has now refloated Novorossiya for the first time in five years under the name Prichernomorie, which is understood to cover those same lands.

On December 23, Russia opened railroad traffic from its own territory to the occupied Crimea via the Kerch Strait Bridge, with Putin leading the first convoy.

These steps followed in the wake of the December 9, 2019, Normandy summit (see EDM, December 11, 2019). Apparently, Moscow intends to demonstrate that it retains the strategic initiative and coercive capacity vis-à-vis Ukraine. The Kremlin wants President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to fulfill the commitments he signed at that summit and report the fulfillment at the next Normandy summit in April. Both the Ukrainian government and the German and French participants in the Normandy process have failed to comment on the Kremlin’s post-summit moves against Ukraine.