This photo taken on March 18, 2015, shows a woman walking under a billboard featuring a picture of Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. The billboard reads: “We are grateful to the defenders of the fatherland” in Donetsk.
(John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)

Separatists in eastern Ukraine claimed Tuesday to have founded a new country — Malorossiya, which means “Little Russia” in English — that they hope will eventually overtake Ukraine.

“We offer Ukrainian citizens a peaceful way out of the difficult situation, without the war,” Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told reporters during a surprise announcement. “This is our last offer not only to the Ukrainians, but also to all countries that supported the civil war in Donbass.”

The move seems to undermine the faltering Minsk peace agreement, a 2015 deal reached between Russian-backed rebels and the government in Kiev that sought to end the violence in Ukraine's industrial east. News of the Malorossiya proposal quickly drew condemnation from the international community, with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko calling the Donetsk People's Republic “a puppet show that broadcasts messages from Russia.”

Notably, both Russia and other separatist movements in eastern Ukraine also distanced themselves from the move, with the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic saying it was not notified ahead of time about the announcement and that discussions about the project were “untimely.”

Despite this, the proclamation of Malorossiya was dubbed a “historic event” by the Donetsk People's Republic. In a map released by the separatists, all of Ukraine was portrayed as part of Malorossiya with the sole exception of Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in March 2014. Kiev would remain a “historical and cultural center without the capital city status” in the new state, according to the separatists' statement Tuesday, but Donetsk would be the new political center of Malorossiya.

Posted by dnr-online.ru on Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Donetsk People's Republic also released a flag, which it said was based on that of Bogdan Khmelnitsky, a 17th-century Ukrainian Cossack leader who organized a rebellion against Polish rule and transferred Ukrainian lands to Russian control.

Posted by dnr-online.ru on Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The rhetoric behind Malorossiya draws on the complicated history of Ukraine. Much of what now makes up the country was once part of the Russian Empire and later the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, a part of the Moscow-dominated Soviet Union, until it gained independence in 1991.

Many people in eastern Ukraine are ethnically Russian and speak the Russian language. Many Russians also hail their own historical links to Ukrainian land and the Kievan Rus, an East Slavic state that peaked in the 11th century and was centered upon what is now the Ukrainian capital.

As tensions flared between Kiev and Russian-backed rebels in 2014, separatists began to talk about the concept of Novorossiya — a concept that means “new Russia” in English. The name referred to what is now the east of Ukraine — lands that were taken from the Ottoman Empire by the Russian Empire in the late 18th century. Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to the historical concept during a December 2014 question-and-answer session.

However, Malorossiya is different from Novorossiya. The word is thought to date back as far as the medieval era, but came into widespread use under the Russian Empire in the 19th century when it was used to describe the land that now makes up Ukraine. The term has long been considered archaic in Ukraine itself; some nationalists use it disparagingly, and it is sometimes used as an insult to describe Russified Ukrainians in the country's east.

Importantly, the word is used to refer to almost of all of Ukraine rather than the eastern provinces that made up Novorossiya — implying increased ambitions for the Donetsk People's Republic. Zakhar Prilepin, a Russian writer who formed a volunteer battalion for the Donetsk People's Republic, told the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper that the ultimate aim of Malorossiya was to merge with both Russia and Belarus.

Despite these lofty ideals, there were signs that the announcement of Malorossiya was rushed. The statement announcing the proposed country referred to "19 regions of the former Ukraine” — an apparent error as Ukraine has 24 administrative regions and the Malorossiya map showed all these regions accurately. Documents claiming to mark the official establishment of the country were riddled with red squiggly lines, suggesting that they were images taken hastily from word-processing software.

More strikingly, although the news was covered exhaustively by Russian state media Tuesday, Moscow said it did not support Zakharchenko's calls for Malorossiya, and there was little sign of backing from other separatists.

Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov distanced Russia from Malorossiya, telling reporters that the proposed country was a “personal initiative” of Zakharchenko. “Moscow learned about it from the press,” Peskov said. Boris Gryzlov, Russia's envoy for the Minsk talks, also Russian told journalists that the proposal was “likely related to informational warfare and is not a subject of real politics.”

Although there seems little prospect of Malorossiya becoming a recognized country anytime soon, Tuesday's announcement highlights that little progress has been made in finding a solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine since the Minsk agreement came into force in 2015. And Zakharchenko seemed undeterred by the low feasibility of his plan.

“I am convinced that we will do everything possible and impossible,” Zakharchenko told reporters Tuesday.

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