‘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.
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.