Max Fisher identifies the key term in Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric.
Russian President Vladimir Putin just dropped the biggest, scariest dogwhistle of the Ukraine crisis: “Novorossiya.”
The word literally means “new Russia” â€” it was an old, imperial-era term for southern Ukraine, when it was part of the Russian Empire, and is now a term used by Russia ultra-nationalists who want to re-conquer the area.
Putin has used the word twice during the crisis. First, he used it in April, about a month after Russia had invaded and annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea, subtly suggesting that the annexation was justified because Crimea was in Novorossiya and thus inherently part of Russia.
He used it again on Thursday, in an official presidential statement addressed to the eastern Ukrainian rebels that have seized parts of the country â€” and whom he addressed as “the militia of Novorossiya.”
Anne Applebaum, who has written a book on the totalitarian genocides committed in Europe’s Eastern Borderlands during the last century, tells us that she suddenly feels as if she is living in the Summer of 1939, and warns, on the basis of familiarity with the kinds of things which appear in the Russian press which the New York Times is never going to report, just how scary the thoughts are that Russia is thinking.
A few days ago, Alexander Dugin, an extreme nationalist whose views have helped shape those of the Russian president, issued an extraordinary statement. â€œUkraine must be cleansed of idiots,â€ he wrote â€” and then called for the â€œgenocideâ€ of the â€œrace of bastards.â€
But Novorossiya will also be hard to sustain if it has opponents in the West. Possible solutions to that problem are also under discussion. Not long ago, Vladimir Zhirinovsky â€” the Russian member of parliament and court jester who sometimes says things that those in power cannot â€” argued on television that Russia should use nuclear weapons to bomb Poland and the Baltic countries â€” â€œdwarf states,â€ he called them â€” and show the West who really holds power in Europe: â€œNothing threatens America, itâ€™s far away. But Eastern European countries will place themselves under the threat of total annihilation,â€ he declared. Vladimir Putin indulges these comments: Zhirinovskyâ€™s statements are not official policy, the Russian president says, but he always â€œgets the party going.â€
A far more serious person, the dissident Russian analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, has recently published an article arguing, along lines that echo Zhirinovskyâ€™s threats, that Putin really is weighing the possibility of limited nuclear strikes â€” perhaps against one of the Baltic capitals, perhaps a Polish city â€” to prove that NATO is a hollow, meaningless entity that wonâ€™t dare strike back for fear of a greater catastrophe. Indeed, in military exercises in 2009 and 2013, the Russian army openly â€œpracticedâ€ a nuclear attack on Warsaw.
Is all of this nothing more than the raving of lunatics? Maybe. And maybe Putin is too weak to do any of this, and maybe itâ€™s just scare tactics, and maybe his oligarchs will stop him. But â€œMein Kampfâ€ also seemed hysterical to Western and German audiences in 1933. Stalinâ€™s orders to â€œliquidateâ€ whole classes and social groups within the Soviet Union would have seemed equally insane to us at the time, if we had been able to hear them.