Russian strongman Vladimir Putin first used “Novorossiya” the loaded Tsarist-era name for what is now southern and eastern Ukraine just after annexing Crimea from Ukraine in March, sparking outrage in Kiev.
The Kremlin made a reference to the term again on Friday when it released Putin’s address to Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists, pointedly calling them defenders of “Novorossiya” (New Russia).
For analysts, this marks a significant development in nearly five months of conflict engulfing eastern Ukraine, with Putin sending a clear message of his determination to carve out a new statelet at all costs.
Putin has definitively decided for himself the issue of Novorossiya, he believes that Novorossiya should exist and there can be no doubt that Moscow will be working on defining borders for the next few months of the planned territory.
Putin’s first mention of Novorossiya came in a televised call-in show with Russians in April when he argued that eastern and southern Ukraine were once part of Russia but were then transferred to Ukraine by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s.
“Why they did this, only God only knows,” he said, recalling the lands had been won by Russia in famous battles led by Catherine the Great.
Putin used similar logic to justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, saying Moscow was simply righting the wrong by returning a peninsula which was part of the Soviet republic of Russia before 1954.
His spokesman defended the use of the word in the Kremlin statement issued Friday.
“That is how the territory has been called historically and if you look at history it has been called Novorossiya in the course of several centuries,” Dmitry Peskov said on radio.
“This is an absolutely Russian name of this territory. This is how in Russia these lands were and are called.”
Putin’s latest use of the term comes amid a dramatic counter-offensive in east Ukraine, where rebels have snatched swathes of southeastern territory from government forces in recent days, halting the advance of Kiev’s troops.
The West and Kiev say Russian troops are not only behind the lightning operation but are also fighting on the ground alongside ragtag formations of Kremlin-backed separatists against Kiev’s forces, claims which Moscow has repeatedly denied.
Independent political analyst Maria Lipman said the latest developments are a clear message from Putin to the West: “I am ready to go very far and you?”
Several rounds of Western sanctions have delivered a blow to Russia’s faltering economy but have not deterred Putin who has ordered a virtual embargo on EU and US food imports.
His tough stance has been met with approval at home, with his domestic approval ratings soaring to record highs after the annexation of Crimea.
Some suggest that Putin may now be seeking to mould Ukraine’s rebel-held regions into a statelet similar to Moldova’s breakaway region of Transdniestr.
Putin appeared driven by a visceral desire to punish Ukraine after the ex-Soviet country chose to sign political and trade deals with the EU, a move seen as a snub to Moscow.
The analyst described the Ukraine crisis as Putin’s mission to vindicate himself and prove he is “the only leader with steely determination and conviction.”