A shift in President Vladimir Putin's language on the
conflict in eastern Ukraine reflects a transformation in the
situation on the battlefield and sounds a warning to Kiev to
negotiate sooner rather than later.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quick to tell journalists
that the Kremlin leader was not demanding independence for
pro-Russian separatists when he said on Sunday (local time)
that talks should take place immediately "on the political
organisation of society and statehood in southeastern
But in the context of the separatist war in which the rebels
have made startling gains in the space of a week - with the
help, Ukraine and its Western allies say, of Russian tanks
and troops - the formulation had an ominous ring for Kiev.
It was the first time that Putin had publicly talked about
"statehood" in the eastern Russian-speaking regions where
rebels are fighting to break away from Ukraine, in a war that
has killed some 2,600 people since April.
The implication was that if Ukraine fails to reach a quick
settlement with the rebels on "federalisation", the term
Moscow has previously used for enhanced autonomy in the east,
then it may find itself facing demands for something much
"I think it's a conscious or unconscious hint that the longer
the situation lasts, and the longer it takes Kiev to discuss
it, the worse the conditions will be," said Fyodor Lukyanov,
editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
After the past week's rebel advances, he said, "I think as a
minimum, Ukrainian leaders are being given to understand by
Moscow: whatever you do, you will not win this war. Therefore
it will either go on endlessly or, as (Putin) said yesterday,
substantive negotiations are needed."
In another significant shift in terminology, the name used by
the rebels for their eastern lands - Novorossiya, or New
Russia - appears increasingly to be part of Kremlin parlance.
Putin first used the expression in April, calling it a
Tsarist-era name for territory that had historically been
Russian but was incorporated, "God knows why", into Ukraine
in the early years of Soviet power in the 1920s.
Ukrainians consider the term deeply offensive and say it
shows Moscow's imperial ambition to wrest territory from
their thousand-year-old state, which has had shifting
frontiers during centuries of dominance by Austria, Poland,
Lithuania and Russia.
Putin's spokesman Peskov used the term again on Sunday, and
the Kremlin website on August 29 published a message to the
rebels entitled "Russian President Vladimir Putin has
appealed to the militia of Novorossiya".
The language coming from the Kremlin appears calculated to
increase pressure on Kiev, while keeping Ukraine and the West
guessing about Moscow's ultimate objective.
Russia denies intervening in Ukraine militarily despite the
protestations of Europe and the United States, and in the
face of overwhelming evidence including satellite imagery,
eyewitness reports and the capture of Russian soldiers on the
territory of its former Soviet neighbour.
What is indisputable is that the separatists, in the space of
a week, have recovered from the brink of defeat, opening a
new southern front and breaking through to the coast of the
Azov Sea, where they succeeded in shelling a Ukrainian navy
vessel from the shore on Sunday.
With the rebels firmly back on the offensive, Putin may
calculate he can ease back on covert Russian military support
and thereby avoid a threatened new round of Western sanctions
and a further escalation of tension with NATO, which holds a
summit in Wales this week.
As if to emphasise that Russia can turn to powerful
alternative partners if further sanctions materialise, he
presided on Monday over a ceremony to mark the start of work
on Gazprom's 4,000 km 'Power of Siberia' pipeline, part of a
$400 billion deal to supply Russian gas to China for the next
Against such an uncertain background - military, political
and economic - Putin himself has said in the past week there
is no knowing how and when the Ukraine crisis will be
Russia has several models for the outcomes of "frozen
conflicts" that have allowed it to keep leverage over
neighbours since the Soviet Union broke up.
Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in March. In other
parts of the former Soviet Union, Russian troops defend a
breakaway region of Moldova without recognising its
independence, and safeguard two rebel regions of Georgia that
Moscow recognised after a brief war in 2008.
Some analysts speculate Putin might settle for a solution in
eastern Ukraine that resembles Bosnia's Serb Republic - an
entity formally within Ukraine with sufficient power and
autonomy to block Kiev from adopting any course of action
that Moscow opposes, in particular any attempt to join NATO.
Lukyanov said Putin himself may not know the final objective.
"I don't think there is any clear model, and the target is
moving," he said. "He doesn't have a strategic plan, but at
each step he understands what needs to be done."