This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
A draft document prepared by top officials with Russia’s ruling political party calls for a new state named Southern Rus to be created from some regions of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces.
News of the proposal, obtained by Schemes, an investigative project of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, comes as fighting rages in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions, with Russian forces pressing an offensive on multiple fronts against fierce Ukrainian resistance.
It also comes with Russian officials signaling an intention to stage referendums in parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, much of which have been under the control of Russia-backed separatists for nearly eight years, as well as another region, Kherson.
The vote would be aimed at uniting occupied regions with Russia, similar to what happened in Crimea in 2014.
Just days before the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk regions under separatist control as independent states; a declaration that Kyiv, and much of the rest of the world, dismissed.
The draft document obtained by Schemes, titled The Manifesto Of The South Russian People’s Council and dated April 16, does not specify which occupied territories would make up the new state of “Southern Rus.”
The name “Rus” is derived from the name given to loosely organized lands in the 8th to 10th centuries that were first controlled by a kingdom in Kyiv, until power shifted to Moscow, leading to the creation of Russia.
But the manifesto declares that Ukraine lost legitimacy after the 2013-2014 Maidan revolution, which culminated in the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. Russia has long tried to argue that the street protests were a coup d’etat, and that the government was taken over by “Nazis” and “Banderites” — a reference to the 20th century Ukrainian nationalist leader, Stepan Bandera.
“In response to terror and the totalitarian imposition of the ideology of Nazism and Bandera by the former State of Ukraine, we, in the form of the South Russian People’s Council, take power into our own hands and establish a new state of Southern Rus,” the document says.
“We recognize the Russian language, as well as the Ukrainian dialect, as the native language and the language of interethnic communication, with the equality of all languages and nationalities,” the text reads.
The document’s sketch for a new “Southern Rus” state echoes earlier language promoted by Putin and other top Kremlin officials, who called for the establishment of “Novorossia” — another historical concept referring to lands, mainly in Ukraine, that were previously part of the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“We are building our state on the basis of the understanding of the historical and genetic kinship and unity of the tripartite Russian nationality — Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians — fraternal friendship, and mutual assistance,” the document states.
‘Kherson Is Waiting For Liberation’
Metadata for the word document identified by Schemes indicates that Roman Romanov, а top official with United Russia, was either author of the document, or involved in its creation. United Russia is the Kremlin-affiliated party that dominates Russia’s parliament and the country’s political life.
Officials who spoke to Schemes anonymously said the document was later passed to aides of Konstantin Malofeyev, a wealthy and influential Russian businessman who has been instrumental in financing and supporting separatist efforts in the Donbas for years.
Malofeyev was sanctioned by the United States and the European Union in 2014 for his role in the annexation of Crimea. He was indicted in early April for trying to evade those sanctions.
Neither Romanov nor United Russia’s secretary-general, Andrei Turchak, could be reached for comment by Schemes. Malofeyev refused to discuss the manifesto when contacted, and hung up the phone, saying he did not communicate with journalists.
The online news site Meduza reported this week that the Kremlin was considering holding two referendums in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions on May 14 and 15.
Meduza said another referendum may also be staged in Kherson, a region that is just north of Crimea and is partially occupied by Russian forces.
“Unfortunately, there have been rumors that the occupiers are preparing something [in Kherson] for the first days of May.” Hennady Lahuta, the head of the region’s military administration, told RFE/RL. “Either a ‘referendum’ or whatever else you want to call it.”
“I can only say this: the entire Kherson region is waiting for liberation. It is Ukrainian,” he added. “It wants to live in a united, peaceful, glorious, conjoined Ukraine.”