Pro-Russian activists guard a barricade at the Ukrainian regional Security Service building in Donetsk. Photo: Getty
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In eastern Ukraine, protestors are chanting “New Russia” – an old term that’s back in fashion

Separatists in Donetsk and elsewhere are harking back to the 18th century territory of Novorossiya, as Moscow seems to be making moves to federalise Ukraine.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Over the weekend, pro-Russian protesters rioted in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkov. They took over government buildings and arms caches, waving Russian flags and chanting things like “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”). Their aim: to declare independence from Ukraine and, perhaps, become federal provinces (oblasts) of Russia. Early on Monday, separatists in Donetsk declared the creation of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and set a referendum date for 11 May. “If we’re impeded in holding a referendum, we will turn to Russia and ask them to move in their troops,” one separatist said.

The protests are almost certainly Kremlin-backed, part of Russia’s longstanding plan to “federalise” Ukraine, and to reassert control over the territory that used to be called Novorossiya. “The events in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv are coordinated from the same center,” the Kyiv Post reports. Crowds are singing the Russian national anthem in streets of eastern Ukraine; some call themselves the “anti-Maidan,” advocating for the creation of “the spiritually patriotic union“ of Novorossiya. The Twitter account @NOVORUSSIA2014 gained thousands of followers over the weekend, and #RussianSpring and #AntiMaidan are trending.

Novorossiya is the name of the formerly Ottoman territory that Catherine the Great conquered in the Russo-Turkish Wars, which is now much of southern and eastern Ukraine. Led by Prince Grigory Potemkin, Russian forces colonised the land in the late 18th century and established the cities of Sevastopol, Simferopol, Tiraspol, and Odessa.

Catherine the Great conquers Novorossiya in Stefano Torelli's 
The Allegory of Catherine the Great 's Victory over the Turks (1772).
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The area became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the term “Novorossiya” resurfaced after the Soviet Union fell in 1991. In 1994, Transnistria, the breakaway state between Moldova and Ukraine, declared that it was “an inalienable part of the Russian state’s southern region, [which] also includes Crimea, Odessa oblast, and a number of other [Ukrainian] oblasts, [and is] known as Novorossiya.” When it looked like NATO might expand to include Ukraine in 2003, “some not entirely academic quarters in Moscow played with the idea of a major geopolitical redesign of the northern Black Sea area, under which southern Ukraine, from the Crimea to Odessa, would secede from Kiev and form a Moscow-friendly buffer state, ‘Novorossiya’ – New Russia,” writes Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre. Now, the swathe of land spanning from Transnistria to Donetsk is increasingly referred to by that name. 

If the Kremlin isn’t after re-establishing Novorossiya, it’s certainly looking to create something like it – and the first step in that direction is federalising Ukraine. In an interview last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that federalisation is the only “absolutely correct way” to proceed, and that it’s “what the eastern and southern regions request.” If the Kremlin has its way, Ukraine might either become a federation of regional governments, each with wide-ranging authority to act virtually autonomously, or the “independent” southern and eastern regions would become Russian oblasts. “Federalisation would give some pro-Russian regions in Ukraine the de facto right to block crucial decisions, including future moves toward integration with the EU. . . Moscow is likely to find it easier to manage Ukraine and to increase Kyiv’s dependency on its eastern neighbor,” Ukraine scholar Wojciech Konończuk writes

The Kremlin has tried to federalise a handful of former Soviet republics. In the early 2000s, Putin proposed that Belarus should become part of Russia in the form of six oblasts (Belarus rejected the offer) and put forward a similar plan for Moldova, Marcel Van Herpen explains in Putin’s WarsIn Ukraine, the prospect of federalisation emerged during the 2004 Orange Revolution when former President Viktor Yanukovych proposed a referendum on the matter. He pursued federalisation again in 2010, but it was tabled again after Yanukovych’s pro-Russia Party of Regions deemed it “too expensive and problematic.” 

Today, only 14 per cent of Ukrainians support federalisation, according to a recent poll. As the Washington Post points out, the idea is more popular in the southern and eastern regions, where 22 per cent and 26 per cent, respectively, support the creation of a federal state, compared to 3 per cent in the west. But if the Kremlin-backed separatists continue this weekend’s provocations, federalisation could actually happen, especially given the extent to which the Ukrainian government was caught off-guard by the Donetsk declaration

“Frankly speaking, we do not see any other ways for sustainable development of the Ukrainian state other than a federal state,” Lavrov said last week. “Maybe, some people know better and some magic formula can be found within a unitarian state. However, when the west, the east and the south celebrate different holidays, honour different heroes, have different economies, speak different languages, think differently and are attracted by the culture of different European civilisations, it is very hard to live in a unitary state in such conditions.”  

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear