On eastern Ukraine, Putin breaks out “statehood” word

In perhaps his least helpful utterance to date, Vladimir Putin has gone on TV and apparently pitched the idea of splitting up Ukraine. So much for defusing tensions. From the Washington Post:

Seeming to be searching for the right word during a prerecorded television interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested Sunday that one of the issues to be resolved in the Ukrainian conflict is “statehood” for the eastern regions now controlled by separatists.


That’s a new idea, and if he meant it, it would raise the stakes considerably in the nearly 10-month-old Ukrainian crisis.
As Putin’s interview was being broadcast, Dmitry Peskov, the presidential spokesman, went into damage-control mode, saying that Putin was calling for dialogue, not sovereignty for the region, when he urged “substantive, meaningful negotiations” on questions concerning the “political organization of society and statehood in southeast Ukraine.”

Putin has said repeatedly that he does not favor the breakup of Ukraine — though Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in March — but wants greater autonomy for the east.

It’s as if the President of Russia actually got on TV and tried to pitch reverse-engineering this historically-dubious propaganda map as a legitimate policy proposal:

Russian propaganda map purporting to show the creation of a Ukrainian nation by Russia and the USSR.

Russian propaganda map purporting to show the creation of a Ukrainian nation by Russia and the USSR.

Believing that version of events in the history of Ukrainian nationalism and identity doesn’t make it true. Nor does ignoring consistently rising support in Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine — even the supposedly secessionist ones — for a post-Soviet, unified Ukrainian identity.

But considering the latest “not-RussianRussian invasion at Novoazovsk are suddenly identifying themselves as the army of “Novorossiya” — a Russian Empire region name for southern Ukraine, which Putin himself brought back into the modern public discourse in a TV interview back in April — I suppose this is not a new development. It also gives a sense of just how much more of the country Putin might be aiming to seize from Ukraine, with this “statehood” talk.

Novorossiya/New Russia in the Russian Empire in 1897. (Credit: Dim Grits - Wikimedia)

Novorossiya/New Russia in the Russian Empire in 1897. (Credit: Dim Grits – Wikimedia)

So, is breaking up the country (and pretending the resulting eastern state, if not annexed immediately like Crimea, wouldn’t be a breakaway Russian puppet-state like the other Near Abroad breakaway republics) the new plan on Ukraine, under the guise of “statehood”?

The term “statehood” suggests more than that, though, and if the word choice reflected a shift in Kremlin policy, it would ratchet up Moscow’s challenge not only to Kiev, but also to the United States and Western European nations trying to force Putin to back down.

Alternatively, it could suggest uncertainty on Putin’s part as to how he wants to push ahead on Ukraine.

This has, arguably, been the problem from the start with Vladimir Putin’s policy and rhetoric on Ukraine. Russia’s policy is inconsistent to the point of incoherence, while the government and personal rhetoric seesaws erratically from inflammatory (at home, in Ukraine, and further abroad) to inscrutably restrained. All of which points back to the original possibility that everything Russia has done, with regard to Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, since Ukraine’s pro-Russian government collapsed in February, has been entirely improvised on the fly. He might even simply be almost as incompetent with his off-the-cuff policy remarks and decisions as George W. Bush was.

At minimum, it’s always dangerous to ascribe too much foresight and omniscience to other country’s leaders. They tend to make the same mistakes anyone else does, from time to time. Reacting hastily and heavily to every move on the assumption that one’s opponent is an evil genius with a master plan tends to be the path to a self-inflicted trap — and everyone gets hurt badly.

But back to the spin:

“The president was talking about inclusive talks,” Peskov said of the interview, in which Putin also called for an end to hostilities before winter and criticized European leaders for supporting Kiev’s military campaigns against pro-Russian separatists.

“The way, extent and mechanisms of this process — that’s what the president meant,” Pes­kov said, in remarks to Russian news agencies.

Whatever the heck that was supposed to mean. Really cleared things up.

Bill Humphrey

About Bill Humphrey

Bill Humphrey is the primary host of WVUD's Arsenal For Democracy talk radio show and a local elected official. Follow him @BillHumphreyMA on twitter.
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