When Russian President Vladimir Putin began referring to portions of Ukraine by their Tsarist-era name, Novorossiya, Russia hands expressed alarm.
Novorossiya, or “New Russia,” incorporates the area of Southern Ukraine from Donbass to the present day border with Moldova. Some suggested that Putin’s brazen invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula was a prelude to a much more significant land grab. They noted that Putin could have designs on the entirety of Southern Ukraine, linking Russia to the portion of Moldova known as Transnistria, an area which has been under Russian occupation for years and is already a de facto Russian territory.
In fact, Russia’s gambit in Ukraine were foreshadowed by Putin’s remarks to then President George W. Bush. “You don’t understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state,” Putin said.
Others scoffed at this tasseography. They suggested that Putin’s use of this archaic term was intended for domestic consumption only – a bit of jingoistic nationalism which, while menacing, was generally harmless. Those who scoffed are not looking especially prescient today.
Well, Putin is using the same language he used to delegitimize Ukraine’s existence to threaten another former Soviet Republic – the massive Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan.
Putin was reportedly asked by a Russian student about what he considered a disturbing “growth of nationalist moods in Kazakhstan.” The questioner asked if Moscow had a plan to address this dangerous condition when the long-standing president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, dies.
Putin replied that “Kazakhs did not have a statehood” before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and their condition was a unique one in the former Soviet space. “It was never a state,” Putin said of that central Asian power. “There was never a state there before.”
This report, flagged by the London-based reporter Ben Judah, should not be dismissed in the West as were so many ominous signs that Putin had an interest in repatriating portions of Eastern Ukraine.
Yes, indeed, what are Russia plans for the ethnic Russian north of the country when Nazabarbayev eventually dies. Planted question a threat.
— Ben Judah (@b_judah) August 29, 2014
Meanwhile, The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum has a fantastic column up in today’s Post which warns the world that history did not, in fact, end in 1991 and a total war in Europe is not unthinkable.
The most chilling passage had to do with some in Moscow who advocate for pressing their advantage and directly threatening NATO, just to see if the alliance will buckle when it is asked to make good on its Article 5 defense commitments to its Eastern European members.
But Novorossiya will also be hard to sustain if it has opponents in the West. Possible solutions to that problem are also under discussion. Not long ago, Vladimir Zhirinovsky — the Russian member of parliament and court jester, who sometimes says things that those in power cannot — argued on television that Russia should use nuclear weapons to bomb Poland and the Baltic countries — “dwarf states,” he called them — and show the West who really holds power in Europe: “Nothing threatens America, it’s far away. But Eastern European countries will place themselves under the threat of total annihilation,” he declared. Vladimir Putin indulges these comments: Zhirinovsky’s statements are not official policy, the Russian president says, but he always “gets the party going.”
A far more serious person, the dissident Russian analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, has recently published an article arguing, along lines that echo Zhirinovsky’s threats, that Putin really is weighing the possibility of limited nuclear strikes — perhaps against one of the Baltic capitals, perhaps a Polish city — to prove that NATO is a hollow, meaningless entity that won’t dare strike back for fear of a greater catastrophe. Indeed, in military exercises in 2009 and 2013, the Russian army openly “practiced” a nuclear attack on Warsaw.
Is all of this nothing more than the raving of lunatics? Maybe. And maybe Putin is too weak to do any of this, and maybe it’s just scare tactics, and maybe his oligarchs will stop him. But “Mein Kampf” also seemed hysterical to Western and German audiences in 1933. Stalin’s orders to “liquidate” whole classes and social groups within the Soviet Union would have seemed equally insane to us at the time, if we had been able to hear them.
It’s all quite disturbing. All the while, the leader of the free world golfs and fundraises…
This post has been updated since its original publication.