Ukrainian Crisis 2: NovoRossiya, Minsk, and the Return of Civilising Europe

As with Crimea, Russia’s involvement in the East ofUkraine was preceded by an active media campaign. Anti-Maidain protests, organised by the local elites in regional centre in the East and South of Ukraine, were gradually subsumed by a new separatist project—NovoRossiya. The brand “NovoRossiya” is very suggestive as it alludes to a vast prefecture that the Russian Emperors created during the time of Russia’s expansion to the Black Sea and the Balkans in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. The very reference to this period suggests that Kremlin spin- doctors working on the project were emphasising references to the historical narrative of Russia’s great Powerhood, the period when the Russian Empire fought with the Ottoman Empire and dealt with European capitals in changing fates of the Balkan and Black Sea regions. One can identify that the practical element of Russia’s great power identity is far more important for the crisis in East and South of Ukraine.

Even though the start of the “NovoRossiya” project shared similarities with Crimea, it soon took a totally different turn. While the annexation of Crimea took place with relatively minimal bloodshed, the conflict in the

East was bloody. Conventional explanations for why the two scenarios developed with such varying outcomes attribute the differences to various exogenous factors and limitations. Ukrainian analysts argue that by April- May 2014 the Kiev government managed to stabilise its control over the military apparatus and mount a more effective resistance to pro-Russian separatists.37 Others argue that Russia was put off by the international pressure and far less popular support as displayed by local populations in Eastern Ukraine. Therefore, Russia did not want to commit resources to the project.38

However, all these explanations omit one very important difference in the way Moscow approached Crimea compared to South/East Ukraine. There were many similarities between the events in Crimea and East of Ukraine, such as rallies organised by pro-Russian activists and Russian agents, the capture of the administrations buildings and local police offices, referenda, and resolutions for local self-government. However, the main point of entry into the conflict was different—Russia did not deploy its best troops in the South or East of Ukraine. Even Ukrainian analysts recognise that Russia’s participation in the beginning of crisis in the East of Ukraine was limited to small groups of infiltrators from the Russian spetznaz forces. The primary forces in Eastern Ukraine were local pro-Russian movements, which were backed by Russian paramilitary units and coordinated by retired intelligence officers such as Igor Girkin and Igor Bezler. This Russian tactic at the beginning of the conflict suggests that Russia’s main aim was not the annexation of the South-East of Ukraine. The manoeuvres of Russian troops amassed at the Ukrainian border were aimed at disempowering the central government in Kiev from taking decisive action to put down the rebellion. Chaos and state- failure could be the only immediate outcome of such policies.

The pursuit of a Ukrainian state failure can explain further Russian policies in spring-summer of 2014. When the Ukrainian army and law enforcement agencies managed to encircle separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, Russia started to provide more significant, but limited support to separatists, claiming every time that no Russian troops were in the region. However, at crucial moments, the Russian army stepped in to save the separatists from crushing defeat. Even though the Russian army effectively invaded the East of Ukraine, it did not have the order to advance further westwards. A senior Russian representative at the early stages of negotiations, Vladmir Lukin, publicly admitted that Russia’s main goal in Eastern Ukraine was to support the separatist movement only to the extent that Ukraine would feel bound to start negotiations with representatives of the separatist republics.39 So Russia’s main goal seems to have been to show Europe that it could not take away Russia’s privilege to change the fate of Ukraine. At the same time, Russia did its best not to come across simply as an aggressor. Permanent policies of confusion and denial were deployed to depict the events in the East as an inter-ethnic conflict and to educate Civilising Europe.

This rhetorical strategy reached its apogee with the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17. Russian spin-doctors sent a wave of contradicting messages with the main goal of creating confusion.40 This tactic provides further evidence of the limits of discourse over human agency in Russian foreign policy. When Hopf defined this discourse as Liberal Relativist in 1999, it was understood by a narrow circle of intellectuals who depicted the entirety of Russian politics as virtual/media reality. Critical reflection and the existence of multiple perspectives, which made the existence of objective reality impossible, was a central element of this framework. Twenty years later, official Kremlin propaganda adopted this discourse. While the Kremlin itself functioned more in the framework of Essentialist Russian, which contraposed the unique Russian way to its European Other, and New Soviet Russian discourse, which celebrated the achievements of the Soviet past, the framework still managed to absorb rhetorical strategies of the Liberal Relativist discourse. This is not to say that human agency is superior to discourse, but at least in this specific case, creative use of various discourses and a combination thereof reveals the degree of human agency in discursive struggle. Having armed itself with these discursive devices Russia decided to re-shape Europe so as to re-gain its right to change fates of nations together with Brussels.

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