The myth of the land bridge

‘It is not our assessment that he [Putin] is bent on capturing or conquering all of Ukraine,’ said the American Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, in March, ‘he wants a whole entity composed of the two oblasts (regions) in eastern Ukraine which would include a land bridge to Crimea.’ The ‘land bridge’ idea is a popular one among Western politicians and international affairs commentators. A March article in The New York Times, for instance, described such a bridge as one of Russia’s ‘key goals’. The thinking is that because Crimea is isolated from the rest of Russia, Moscow needs to establish overland communications with it by conquering Ukraine’s southern coast. This would involve not only capturing the city of Mariupol, but going beyond the boundaries of Donetsk Province, through Zaporozhe and into Kherson, an advance of around 300 kilometres.

Closely associated with the land bridge concept is that of Novorossiia, a somewhat undefined entity which notionally includes all of the eight provinces of southern and eastern Ukraine. From Russia’s point of view, promoting the idea of Novorossiia has the advantage of providing ideological justification for further expansion to secure the alleged land bridge. In line with this, soon after the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 Ukrainian rebels demanded the creation of Novorossiia, invented symbols for it (including competing flags), and even set up institutions which were meant to represent it. Most prominent among the latter was the so-called Novorossia Parliament, chaired by Ukrainian politician Oleg Tsaryov.

Republic-of-Novorossiya

This Wednesday, however, Tsaryov declared the Novorossiia project ‘frozen’. ‘It isn’t foreseen by the Minsk agreements’, Tsaryov said, ‘and we don’t want to be blamed for disrupting them’. The ‘parliament’ was no longer meeting, he added.

From a practical standpoint, this announcement is not very significant. Just one of several competing institutions formed in spring 2014, the self-elected Novorossiia parliament soon lost ground to the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR & LPR), which became the true locus of loyalty and authority in rebel controlled areas and which eventually acquired some form of legitimacy through the elections held in November 2014. Over time the DPR and LPR have gradually created the basic structures of real states, while Novorossiia has remained moribund. Tsaryov’s declaration is no more than an acknowledgement of reality.

Still, from a political point of view this acknowledgement does have real meaning. Tsaryov is a Ukrainian, not a Russian, and it would be a mistake to describe him as a simple puppet of the Kremlin. Nevertheless, had his project had strong backing in Moscow (whether financial or even purely moral), it is unlikely that it would have stalled so completely. Tsaryov’s statement is proof that the Kremlin does not support the creation of Novorossiia, but instead backs the provisions of the Minsk agreement which envision Donbass remaining within Ukraine, albeit under an amended constitution.

What, then, does this mean for the land bridge? The answer is simple. Not for the first time Mr Clapper and American intelligence have it wrong: Russia doesn’t want it, and isn’t doing anything in order to get it. Work began this week on the construction of a real bridge linking Crimea with Russia across the Kerch Strait. Russia, it seems, will be content with that.

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9 thoughts on “The myth of the land bridge”

  1. This article gives the distinct impression that Novorossiya is an idea dreamed up in 2014 by the Russians and inhabitants of Donbas. As far as I can ascertain, that is absolutely not the case. Wikipedia (not always the most reliable of sources, but usually adequate for such neutral matters that happened 250 years ago) says:

    “In 1764 the Russian Empire established the Novorossiysk Governorate…”

    This makes it plain, as well, that Novorossiya was considered an integral part of Russia long before the USA became independent of Great Britain.

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  2. Just one other point: One reason why Russia does “fully intervene”, not even in Donbass, is the following:

    Imagine that the Russians move in and obliberate the Kievan forces in the area. They could do that without much problems. But what now? There would probably be pro Russian uprisings in Kharkov, Odessa, maybe (thats a big if, the Dnipro Mafia really dislikes the Donbass) even in Dnipro. Now, pro Russian sentiment in this areas is way less pronounced then in Donbass, and holding these territories would be complex, even if Russia moves in there too. Now, these “new” Novorussijan regions may inspire uprisings further west, where pro Russians are a very very clear minority, or regions further west would have to be taken/pacified to “keep Novorussija safe”. In any way, it would be a very slippery slope that could well end in Lviv. Where the Nationalist are the majority, the country is pretty decent for Guerillia war, and where f.e. Polish supplies or safe heavens are pretty close. Russia would have much of an exit strategy, and decding that the Dniepr is the border wont work very well either.

    In that context, the whole landbridge to Crimea horse manure is just showing a pathology that the western political scene seems to increasingly follow. There is no longer and boundary between propaganda and actual analysis. I consider that Western Propaganda has become so “good” that a lot of western decision makers are believing it. The Russians dont, and Russian propaganda well:

    To use an analogy, Russian propaganda is like seeing the world through a somewhat curved glass. If you know the glasses curvature, reorganizing the picture so that it corresponds to reality again is pretty trivial. Exposure to similiar Soviet propaganda means that this curvature is pretty broadly known in the Eastern block.

    Western PR is in some ways pretty “decentralized” and “horizontal” in its censorship. There thus also is no unifiying curvature, and retranslating propaganda into reality is actually more difficult, because the propaganda is very heterogenous and very varied in its degrees and its strength of distortions.

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      1. Of course not.
        Otherwise, Ukraine would be by default pro-Russian.
        Russian is the most spoken language in Ukraine.

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      2. The actual faultlines are indeed more among cultural and identity lines.
        Being Russian speaking is basically a neccessary, but not a sufficient, criterion for being pro Russian.
        Although there are some Ukrainian speakers among the rebels, there are also people in the DPR that stood on Maidan, according to General Ruban.

        There is also the fact that a major reason for Dnipro being anti DPR is sheer pride as far as their elites are concerned. Dnipro is not going to bow before Donetsk/Donbass, and the Dnipro clans actually won most power struggles against Donetsk since Ukrainian indepence.

        Something else that keeps “pro Russian sentiment” in check among the “potentially pro Russian elites” in Dnipro, Kharkov or Odessa is the fact that the DPR/LPR has not been very kind to their traditional oligarch elites. As a matter of fact, the entire POR apparates appeal was basically a “hold your nose and vote POR/Socialist/Communist lest the crazies from Lviv win” thing. POR was powerfull because most of the “pro western” alternatives were considered somewhat unacceptable, when, despite the POR elites looting Donbass dry, said elites failed to stop the Maidan, they had proven that they are expensive and worth nothing in the eyes of the people.

        DPR/LPR is revolutionary in a way Maidan wasnt. The people in charge of DPR/LPR now were nobodies before, the people in charge of Kiev are by contrast well established movers and shakers, especially if you ignore the fascist parts of them.

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  3. Arghhh, Russia would NOT have much of an exit strategy.

    I should seriously not write these posts at night!
    I claim “English is my third language” as an apology.

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  4. I get the impression that Putin’s only plan is to have the DNR and LNR in Ukraine as autonomous regions that could veto, on the national level, any undesirable geopolitical development (NATO membership, full anti-Russian blockade, etc).

    For the Kiev regime this is unacceptable, because it’ll lead to other regions demanding similar autonomy, and potentially to a disintegration a-la 1991 USSR.

    Since Kiev is very unlikely to accept this, it’s probably heading for a disintegration anyway, only much more painful, with economic collapse and armed conflicts all over the place.

    What Kiev could do, however, is to eject the DNR and LNR (a politically difficult move), manage to survive economically, and consolidate control over the rest. Putin’s task is to prevent this scenario. Thus – Minsk, the sacred Minsk agreements.

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