On July 18th, pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine declared the formation of a new country, Malorossiya, Малороссия, or Little Russia. The term is in reference to the Tsar-era name for Ukraine, and so it is demeaning to Ukrainians who fought to separate Russian influence and Ukrainian identities. This is a confusing development in the Ukrainian conflict, as far as anyone is concerned. In its immediate and practical effects, this declaration is unlikely to change anything on the ground, except for possibly creating a new form of hierarchy within the rebel ranks. In the long run, this decision can ruin the current attempt at finding peace, as it signals that the rebels are not interested in staying within the state of Ukraine, which to Ukraine is a deal breaker.
The main question that must be asked is simple; why? The conflict has been ongoing for three years, the separatist entities have changed their identities multiple times, from the separate Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) which then united to form Novorossiya, but only for a short period of time. This declaration brings about little change for the people’s republics, except for a rebranding of the political identity of the rebels. Instead, it is a threat that the state of Malorossiyawould replace the failed state of Ukraine, as the Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic Aleksandr Zakharchenko describes it. If we are to take him at his word, one cannot exist without the other.
The decision to form Malorossiyawas not even unanimous, as the declaration of the new state was done only by the leadership in Donetsk. The Luhansk based leadership stated they were not involved in the decision. It is no wonder then that the capital of the new state would be Donetsk. Under this plan, Ukraine’s former capital would be relegated to being a mere ‘cultural center’. The most important actor, Russia, has also distanced itself from this decision and claimed it was not consulted in this decision. However, this is up for debate.
The consensus outside of Russia and ‘Malorossiya’ is that Russia is largely behind the rebellion, having funded it both financially and militarily. There is certainly enough evidence to prove a high degree of collaboration if not direct support, even if Russia vehemently denies it. Because of this, we must look at the current geopolitical landscape if we are to understand what ‘Malorossiya’ really means for the world.
The most likely possibility is that the leaders in the DPR decided to spoil the Minsk peace agreement, which has helped calm (but not end) the conflict. If either side in a conflict wants to spoil the attempted peace deal, it would need to know that a) its military capabilities are stronger than its opponent’s and b) the enemy’s foreign backer will not be sending more assistance to change the relative capabilities of the two. As it is the rebels that are taking the steps towards spoiling the peace process, they must have information that they think gives them the upper hand against the Ukrainian army.
However, because of the nature of Russia’s role in the conflict, it is safe to assume that if the rebels want to spoil the peace deal, it is because of Russia. One possibility is that they believe that if the conflict picks up again, they can drag Russia further into the conflict to their benefit. If the Ukrainian army starts an offensive, Russia would be obliged to send help to the separatists so they are not defeated. This would fit the pattern of Russia’s previous behavior in Ukraine and even Syria, which is to enter when its ally seems to be close to defeat and turn the tide of war, or at least turn the loss into a stalemate. That said, the rebels themselves have complained throughout the war that Russia has abandoned them. It is unlikely that they are betting on Russia saving them this time, at least without reason to believe that Russia will act in their favor.
Thus, the more likely scenario is that Russia supported the move, for two possible reasons. The first is the timing of the declaration. The past month has seen Kiev attempting to find framework in which to reintegrate the rebellious territory into Ukraine within the Minsk agreement framework, as well as discussion on how to strengthen the relationship between the EU and Ukraine. Both are things that the rebels and Russia would be interested in preventing, and returning to a state of war would be the simplest way to do so.
The second is the current political situation between Russia and the US, or specifically Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. The relationship between the two is still up for debate, but there is no doubt that there is a relationship and that Trump wants good relations with Putin. If one approaches their relationship from an anti-Trump perspective, the conclusion is that Putin has leverage on Trump that can be used in the global theater. While the drama is still unfolding, it appears likely that Russia played a role in helping Trump win the 2016 US elections. Russia could hypothetically leak information out that would ruin Trump’s presidency if he were to act against their interests. If one approaches their relationship from a pro-Trump perspective, Russia is a natural ally to the US because of many reasons, such as ideological ties between the two leaders and the need to work together to fight terrorism.
If approached from either way, the reasoning for US appeasement of Russian actions in Ukraine is there. What could the US receive from Russia to justify allowing Russia free reign to resume destabilizing Ukraine? It could be undoing sanctions and returning confiscated Russian territory, which Trump has discussed the possibility of. It could be in exchange for the peace deal in Syria, which was dangerously close to seeing an intensified Russia-US proxy conflict in response to the US bombing the Syrian Army. There are many possible conclusions as to what the reason could be that are way out of the public eye. However, what is certain is that the ‘Malorossiyan rebels’ wouldn’t take such a provocative stance without considering Moscow’s current standing in world affairs..