The following is a guest post from Florida International University Emeritus Professor of Geography Ralph Clem.
The specious and geopolitically destabilizing concept of “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”) is in the headlines again. In yet another of his frequent public discourses on the deepening crisis in Ukraine, last week Russian President Vladimir Putin proved once more that he is an adroit practitioner of strategic brinksmanship, and once more he caught Western observers and foreign policy makers off guard. Invoking anew this historical geographic term, he seeks to revitalize Russian claims to even more parts of Ukraine than his previous—and highly successful—gambit with regard to the annexation of Crimea. Given that U.S. and EU policy in this crisis hitherto has been reactive and not always based on a firm understanding of the realities on the ground, and that media coverage has frequently confused (or in the case of Russian media deliberately misled) the public on the situation regarding “Russians” in eastern Ukraine (who Putin says he is compelled to protect), it is crucial to understand what “Novorossiya” is and who in fact lived there historically and who lives there now.
As Adam Taylor described so well in The Washington Post, in Putin’s original statement on the subject in April of this year the Russian president provided his audience with what are ostensibly the antecedents of the putative “Novorossiya,” which, of course, happens now to be entirely within the present day sovereign state of Ukraine. Importantly, the use of the term “New Russia” suggests, at least to the uninformed, that these lands, incorporated into the expansionist Tsarist Empire during the time of Catherine the Great, are part of Russia. They are not. More importantly, the vast majority of people who live there have not been, and are not now, Russians. Briefly by way of background, once the northern littoral of the Black Sea and the adjoining Sea of Azov were secure, this vast, fertile agricultural frontier was rapidly settled, mainly by ethnic Ukrainians, also some ethnic Russians, and a host of other peoples who were either induced to settle there or relocated in servitude by land-owning nobility. In the latter part of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, large-scale industrial development in the coal and iron ore-rich areas in southern and eastern Ukraine likewise drew in migrants, again a combination mainly of ethnic Ukrainians and Russians.
So imagine for the sake of argument that somehow there is a new “New Russia”. The closest approximation we can construct of what the territory of the old “Novorossiya” would be in today’s political units would be the eight oblasts of Ukraine in the southern and eastern regions of the country: specifically, Odesa, Mykolaiv, Kirovohrad, Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson, Zaporizhya, Donetsk, and Luhansk. Not a perfect fit, but close enough. The earliest firm historical data we have to examine just who was living in this “Novorossiya” come from the first census conducted in 1926 by the Soviet government. In that enumeration people were asked to specify their ethnic identity, generally the best way to ascertain the ethnic composition of a population. Within “Novorossiya” as defined above, in 1926 just 16.4 percent of the population told census takers that they were ethnic Russians, whereas 65.8 percent declared their ethnicity as Ukrainian (the remainder were mainly Jews, Romanians, and Crimean Tatars).
After 1926 the ethnic composition of Ukraine in general and this “Novorossiya” area in particular changed significantly, with a large influx of ethnic Russians, especially to Donetsk and Luhansk with their giant iron and steel works and coal mines; the deaths of millions of Ukrainians in the famine of 1932-33; and the elimination of virtually the entire Jewish population by the Nazis in the Second World War. According to the most recent Ukrainian census (2001), Russians made up just under a quarter of our hypothetical Novorossiya’s population and ethnic Ukrainians just over two thirds. More specifically, of course, there are significant differences in ethnic composition across these eight regions, with appreciably higher percentages of ethnic Russians in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts that border on Russia and where the heaviest fighting has been. Regardless, according to the 2001 census count, ethnic Ukrainians constituted a majority in every one of these eight units, including Luhansk and Donetsk, although what the situation is now that over 260,000 people have been displaced from eastern Ukraine is anybody’s guess. Sadly, it may be that a significant numbers of ethnic Ukrainians have been ethnically cleansed from their own lands.
It is certainly possible, and probably likely that Putin’s “New Russia” rhetoric is just that, and is intended to keep his geopolitical opponents off balance and to stimulate his Russian nationalist domestic political base. Or perhaps he seriously intends to either annex at least Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (unlikely) or to create another “frozen conflict” pseudo-state along the lines of Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia (even less likely). As regards the latter option, on Aug. 31 Putin hinted at this, referring to the need to consider “statehood” for Donetsk and Luhansk, but his spokesman quickly walked that back, stating that what Putin really wanted to say was that the pro-Russian separatists must be included in talks aimed at ending the crisis and the regions’ interests must be taken into account by the Ukrainian government, which is a long-standing demand by the Russian side. Regardless, there is no serious basis in fact for considering any part of any version of “Novorossiya” as ethnic Russian lands, and it is time to dismiss that canard for what it is and stop giving it attention and legitimacy. In keeping with this thinking, in his speech in Tallinn, Estonia, on Sept. 3, in which he evinced a new, tougher line with regard to recent Russian actions in eastern Ukraine, President Obama made it clear that “…trying to reclaim lands ‘lost’ in the 19th century is surely not the way to secure Russia’s greatness in the 21st century.” Clearly there is a pressing need to work toward a negotiated settlement to this dreadful war, but that process should not begin with “Novorossiya” on the table.