Putin's 'statehood' gambit raises stakes in east Ukraine

A shift in Vladimir Putin's language on the conflict in eastern Ukraine reflects a transformation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: AFP.

MOSCOW - 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 that talks should take place immediately "on the political organisation of society and statehood in southeastern Ukraine".

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 bigger

"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 29 August published a message to the rebels entitled "Russian President Vladimir Putin has appealed to the militia of Novorossiya".