Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

What, precisely, does Novorossiya mean?

The recreation of the Old Soviet Union?  The resurrection of the Russian Empire ruled by Moscow but under a 21st century name?  Or does it mean the Russian Federation will offer special protections to Russian speakers living outside its borders along the lines of the 19th century practice of extraterritoriality?

In reality Novorossiya is a fuzzy concept, but at root it is based on the premise that irredentism is just fine as long as it’s my country that’s being the irredentist.  Which means: the term Novorossiya has far reaching and dangerous consequences for international peace and stability.

For a single country to decide that it will upset the international apple cart through aggression against its neighbors in pursuit of ill-defined, grandiose ultranationalist visions breaking internationally agreed upon rules is far worse than just opening Pandora’s Box or shouting fire in a crowded theater. 

If Russia can pull off such a grand scheme then there’s no reason others can’t, and won’t, follow suit.

In a Hobbsian world of might makes right, why then shouldn’t the Chinese decide to unilaterally invoke a Novokitaiskaya that includes not just the disputed islands in the South China Sea and the Senkakus, off the coast with Japan, but also land ceded to Russia by China along the Usseri River in the 1960s or more that’s been under contention for decades if not centuries?

Why shouldn’t the Finns decide to establish a Novofinlandia (Uusi Suomi or perhaps Suuri Suomi) to include the now Russian province of Karelia, once part of Finland until an earlier Russian land-grab, from where the Finnish and Estonian Kalevala, or national narrative, derives.  Hey, I still have one of those pre-World War II greater Finland road maps that I bought from the map store when I lived in Helsinki at the end of the Cold War.

There was, by the way, a joke circulating in Finland at the time about agreeing to meet someone on the Finnish-Chinese border.

Why shouldn’t the Ukrainians decide to create a Novoukraine that would include parts of Russia inhabited primarily by Ukrainian speakers.  Or how about the recreation of a modified Ottoman Empire under the Turks, a NovoTurkeiya that includes part of the Russian Federation, the Crimean Peninsula and Ukraine under Ankara or Istanbul.  Hmmm, what if the Swedes decide to take back their early settlements along the Volga including Kiev and Moscow not to mention Finland and the Baltic states.

Or for the Poles to restore the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom which also included chunks of Ukraine and Russia at its height?  Oh, I forgot, the Russians and Ukrainians might not agree.

That’s the problem with the pursuit of the Big Idea or “Megali Idea:” the engagement in national expansionism at the expense of the neighbors whether pursued by the Greeks in their ill-fated invasion of Asia Minor after WWI or any other country which once upon a time ruled territory of another. 

But what about “just” protection for those native Russian speakers no longer living in Russia itself?  What a canard.

Do you really think that the US would countenance losing a slice of the Pacific coast so that the Kremlin could protect people whose ancestors fled Russia to escape its stifling bear hug?  Or for that matter how agreeable would the Estonian Old Believers be to “protective” interference from Russia?  These Russian speakers live along the Estonian side of Lake Pepsi much as their ancestors did after fleeing Russia after the revolution. 

Mr Putin, don’t you think that anyone who wanted to return to the fold would have done so by now?

Seems to me that this lightly populated country that spans 14 time zones is quite large enough to accommodate anyone who wants to live there – just as it is.

Since 1991, Russians have been returning to the homeland from places like Central Asia and the Caucasus thereby offsetting a steady domestic Russian population decline.  Most recently, since the hostilities began in Eastern Ukraine, Russians and Ukrainians have been fleeing across the border as the fighting in the East continues supposedly in their name.  Others have likely been fleeing to Western Ukraine as well but those numbers are harder to come by, the Russian border is closer and easier to reach and Russian propaganda’s siren call beamed at them 24/7 has told them that Ukrainians are fascists whereas Russia is their great protector.     

On March 30, a former Kremlin advisor named Andrej Illarianov put the world on notice that Finnish sovereignty was in his sights claiming that the Finnish declaration of independence of 1917 was illegal and that, therefore, Finland should rightfully be restored to a greater Russia.  Never mind that Finns speak Finnish, not Russian, the country is one of the most properous in the world, that Finnish independence has been recognized by every international organization for nearly a century and even Lenin had agreed that the Finns and the Baltic states should be separate and sovereign. Illarianov’s absurd pronouncement seems to have evaporated into thin air along (although it keeps recirculating on the Internet) with Illarianov at about the same time the Ukrainians decided to stand up and fight. 

But what choice do Ukrainians have – unless they prefer to become a vassal of the Kremlin yet again? 

Arm chair analysts tell us that the Ukrainian forces cannot withstand a Russian military invasion from across the border. That may well be true but for Russia to occupy the country it would take far more troops than the 20,000 evidently playing “tavli” on the border while waiting for orders from Moscow. Or have some of them crossed the border through the forests in the dark of night? Hard to tell. 

Yet as the US learned once again in Iraq, invasion light is possible but permanent invasion is costly in so many ways. 

One thing that Ukrainians can learn from the Finns is not Finlandization, or accommodation with Russia, but the necessity of demonstrating time and again that they will make foreign military invasions costly and unpleasant.

In the end, it’s far more productive to have friendly relations with the neighbors than to bully or occupy them. Mr. Putin, think about it.