As Russian-backed rebels encircle government forces in east Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on Kyiv to start talks with the rebels over “statehood” for a territory in “south and east Ukraine” that he refers to as “Novorossiya.”
Ukrainian forces fighting in East Ukraine have suffered their worst setback since the start of the war in April, with thousands of their soldiers now encircled by Russian-backed forces near the major city of Donetsk. The encirclement – by reportedly both regular Russian forces as well as Russian-backed rebels – occurred after Russian-backed forces seized the border town of Novoazovsk on the Azov Sea on August 27, and rapidly moved north to attack from the rear the Ukrainian government forces besieging the major city of Donetsk and satellite towns, in particular the town of Ilovaisk.
Rebel artillery has since blasted at the trapped government fighters, hundreds of whom are reported to have been killed or injured, with many taken prisoner. Talks have taken place between the various sides for a ceasefire to allow Ukrainian forces to escape the encirclement, though reports say that despite being given the promise of safe passage, one Ukraine volunteer battalion claimed to have been shot at by Russian troops, massacring hundreds. “This has been the blackest day for Ukraine since the start of the war,” says Konstantin Mashovets, a defence analyst.
In the town of Volnovakha near Starobesh – the scene of some of the fiercest fighting – pro-Ukrainian forces counted their losses. “My cousin was killed beside me today by sniper fire,” says a fighter from a brigade of traffic police from West Ukrainian Kamenets-Podolsk, fighting on the front line. “He leaves behind two children, the youngest of which is starting school tomorrow… How can I explain to them what has happened?”
Serhiy Dubtsev, a local taxi driver, tells bne: “Yesterday I drove a refrigerator truck to Starobesh to pick up the corpse of a local truck driver who had been hit by shell fire – no one knows from what side. It is like a horror movie there – everywhere smashed trucks, burning houses, corpses, and constantly the crash of shells.”
The commander of the encircled “Donbass” volunteer battalion, who calls himself Semen Semenchenko, lashed out at Ukraine’s defence ministry and army officials from his hospital bed after being wounded. “A tragedy has taken place – and I have every reason to believe that the encirclement of the voluntary battalions is the result of treachery,” he wrote on Facebook.
Defence analyst Mashovets however blames the volunteer battalions for lack of discipline. “The battle was fought in a semi-anarchic manner, two units simply quit their positions without any explanation, and then tried to pretend they were heroes,” he says. “The volunteer units fight according to their own plan.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin appealed to the Russian-backed separatists on August 29 to allow Ukrainian forces to escape the encirclement. “It is clear that the [rebel] militias have achieved serious success in thwarting Kyiv’s military operation… A large number of Ukrainian servicemen… have been encircled. I call on the militia to open a humanitarian corridor… to avoid senseless casualties.”
Putin also appealed to Kyiv to “sit down at the negotiating table with the representatives of Donbass, and to resolve all the accumulated problems exclusively by peaceful means.”
Exploiting the Ukrainian disarray, Putin stepped up the pressure on Kyiv on August 31, saying that any such talks with the Russian-backed rebels should negotiate “statehood” for “the south and east of Ukraine.” Speaking in a set-piece interview on Russia’s First Channel, Putin said Kyiv should “proceed swiftly to substantive talks, not on technical questions but on questions of the political organisation of society and statehood in south and east Ukraine.”
The term “statehood” – with its implications of independence – sent shockwaves through Ukraine. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, later explained that Putin did not mean outright independence for the territory, but some form of autonomy within Ukraine. Peskov said that Putin was “absolutely not” talking about independent statehood. “[Putin was referring to] the inclusive talks to determine mutual relations with the eastern regions – ie. talks within Ukraine relating to the intra-Ukraine structure, in order that the interests of the eastern regions, the interests of Novorossiya [south and east Ukraine], are taken into account – how, to what extent, using what mechanism etc. That is what the president was referring to,” Peskov said.
But Peskov’s use of the term “Novorossiya” – a broad term potentially including the whole of the east and south of Ukraine – further muddied the waters. Putin first used the term in a question and answer session on Russian TV in April, saying that it included “Kharkov, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa ” – territory far larger than that currently controlled by the rebels, constituting roughly half of the entire Ukraine.
The rebels of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” however also employ the term to refer to themselves jointly. Putin used the term in his August 29 appeal to the “Militia of Novorossiya” to allow encircled Ukrainian forces to escape, implying it could also denote only the Donbass regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
In any case, the Kremlin has now made clear the linkage between the ongoing war in Ukraine and the future status of the country’s east: The war will not stop until Kyiv recognizes the rebel structures as negotiating partners, and enters talks on autonomy for East Ukraine.
As top-level talks on Ukraine that began in Minsk continue on September 1, involving Russia, Ukraine and EU officials and member countries, Peskov repeated Kremlin calls for Kyiv to start direct talks with the rebels. “There can be no agreements [of Russia] with [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko about a solution to the conflict because it is not a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, it is an internal Ukrainian conflict,” Peskov said.