After a lull, violence in Ukraine escalated once again this week, as Russian-backed rebels launched offensives both in the besieged eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk and on a new front, against the southeastern port of Mariupol. Peace talks in Minsk were canceled today in response to civilian casualties in Donetsk. According to the Financial Times, Western intelligence officials are increasingly concerned that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not just trying to keep Ukraine destabilized, but actively working to carve out a viable Russian puppet state, to be called “Novorossiya” (New Russia), in southeastern Ukraine.
While Putin’s ultimate ambition remains to be seen, another development this week points to why Moscow might find such a puppet state useful. Just today, the Kremlin announced that it was offering a no-bid, 3-year, $3 billion contract to the Russian oligarch Arkady Rotenberg, a friend of Putin’s since childhood, to build a bridge connecting the Crimean Peninsula to the Russian mainland across the 3-mile Kerch Strait.
The practice of giving major construction projects to members of Putin’s inner circle is business as usual in Russia, but this particular project points to the logistical difficulties Russia faces in incorporating Crimea, which it illegally annexed from Ukraine in March 2014. Creating a puppet state connecting Russia overland to Crimea might alleviate the geographic hurdles, but as the experience of Crimea in the past year shows, it would also raise complicated new questions in “Novorossiya” itself.