As the military situation in eastern Ukraine become more violent with the incursion of Russian troops, Vladimir Putin has called for talks to determine the statehood of eastern Ukraine. The Interpreter, a website that translates and analyzes Russian media reports, states that in an interview on Russian television Putin said:
We must immediately get down to a substantial, substantive negotiations, and not on technical questions, but on the questions of the political organization of society and statehood in the south-east of Ukraine with the purpose of unconditional provision of the lawful interests of people who live there.
[Translation by website The Interpreter.]
In its analysis of this somewhat cryptic quote, the Interpreter posits:
It is not clear how Putin envisions the “Novorossiya” entity, but given a presentation by his aide Sergei Glazyev yesterday at a conference in Yalta attended by Russian-backed separatists and European far-right party figures, there is a notion to make the amalgamated “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Lugansk People’s Republic” a member of the Customs Union of which Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan are members.
For more on the Eurasian Customs Union, see this previous post.
As for the rhetoric of an independent Novorossiya, described in Foreign Policy as the rebirth of a forgotton geopolitical term, Anne Applebaum wrote the following this past week in a grim article on Slate:
In the past few days, Russian troops bearing the flag of a previously unknown country, Novorossiya, have marched across the border of southeastern Ukraine. The Russian Academy of Sciences recently announced it will publish a history of Novorossiya this autumn, presumably tracing its origins back to Catherine the Great. Various maps of Novorossiya are said to be circulating in Moscow. Some include Kharkov and Dnipropetrovsk, cities that are still hundreds of miles away from the fighting. Some place Novorossiya along the coast, so that it connects Russia to Crimea and eventually to Transnistria, the Russian-occupied province of Moldova. Even if it starts out as an unrecognized rump state—Abkhazia and South Ossetia, “states” that Russia carved out of Georgia, are the models here—Novorossiya can grow larger over time.
Applebaum notes that for Novorossiya to move from Putin’s rhetoric to political reality will require more than the actions of the Russian army. “Novorossiya will not be stable as long as it is inhabited by Ukrainians who want it to stay Ukrainian,” she explains. Moreover, “Novorossiya will also be hard to sustain if it has opponents in the West.” Further sanctions will likely be the centerpiece of the EU and U.S. response.
But while some would say “international law is useless without sanction,” in this case I believe that economic sanctions are not enough without international legal argument. For the moment, Russia’s strategy seems to be an amalgamation of stealth invasion and quasi-legal rhetoric. The “stealth” part of the invasion is to maintain a fig-leaf of deniability and to make the uprising in eastern Ukraine seem homegrown as opposed to Russian-led. This strategy of stealth interlocks with Russia’s rhetoric, a quasi-legal/ nationalist amalgamation that attempts to persuade those who can be persuaded and befuddle those who cannot.
However, we are at an inflection point where an important new argument (the apocryphal “once and future Novorissya” argument, in this case) is being sent up like a trial balloon. Perhaps a more accurate metaphor is the idiom: “send it up the flagpole and see who salutes.” Putin and his advisers are sending the flag of Novorissya, figuratively and literally, up the flagpole.
If the EU and U.S. do not want another South Ossetia or Transnistria, then they will have to actively engage Russia’s arguments over what is “right.” Consider this statement by Putin this week, explaining why the events in Eastern Ukraine confirm that Russia was correct in its actions in Crimea:
Now, I think, it is clear to everyone – when we look at the events in Donbass, Lugansk and Odessa – it is now clear to everyone what would have happened to Crimea, if we had not taken corresponding measures to ensure that people could freely express their will. We did not annex it, we did not seize it, we gave people the opportunity to express themselves and make a decision and we treated that decision with respect.
I feel we protected them.
If the illegality of Russia’s actions is not stressed, if the denial of Ukraine‘s right of self-determination is not emphasized, then the only thing many will hear is the rhetoric of those trying to slice off successive pieces of Ukraine. That rhetoric, unanswered, can reinforce the beliefs of those who want to dismember Ukraine. For others, it may make it seem as if maybe Russia “has a point” and muddy the waters. In both instances, effective sanctions could be perceived as just another example of might overcoming right. And, rather than resolving the situation, the seeds for further conflict would be planted.
While effective sanctions enforce norms, clear norms strengthen sanctions.