Separatists loyal to Russia announced on Tuesday plans to abolish Ukraine and replace it with a new state in what will likely create tensions and threaten a fragile ceasefire deal that was reached in 2015.
The separatist Donetsk News Agency on Tuesday quoted leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Alexander Zakharchenko as saying that the rebels in Donetsk, Luhansk as well as representatives of other Ukrainian regions would form a state called Malorossiya (Little Russia).
Malorossiya was the term used to describe swaths of modern-day Ukraine when they were part of the Russian Empire and is one which many Ukrainians today regard as offensive.
“We are proposing to residents of Ukraine a peaceful way out of a difficult situation without war. It’s our last proposal,” Zakharchenko said in a statement. The new state, whose capital would be Donetsk, would be federal, with regions enjoying a large degree of autonomy.
He said the move was backed by delegates from different Ukrainian regions, though a statement from the neighboring rebel territory of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic said it had been unaware of the initiative.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko dismissed the idea, describing Zakharchenko as part of “a puppet show”, with Russia pulling his strings in order to relay a message.
Ukrainian officials said Russia wanted to show the world, and the United States especially, it could keep the crisis in a suspended state and deepen it if need be. A new US envoy for the Ukraine crisis was appointed this month and Moscow and Washington are likely to start regularly engaging on the issue.
Zakharchenko said the separatists were drawing up a constitution that would be put up to a popular vote later.
“We believe that the Ukrainian state as it was cannot be restored,” Zakharchenko said in remarks carried by the Tass news agency. “We, representatives of the regions of the former Ukraine, excluding Crimea, proclaim the creation of a new state which is a successor to Ukraine.”
Although separatists in the east do have sympathizers in other Ukrainian regions, they have not attempted to capture territories there, nor do they have any political representation there.
France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia worked out an agreement in the Belarusian capital Minsk in 2015 which laid out a roadmap for ending the conflict between government troops and separatists.
Under the deal, the rebels and the Ukrainian government agreed that the rebels would return the control of the territories they had captured to Kiev while Kiev would allow a local election there and grant wide autonomy to the region. While the deal helped to reduce the intensity of fighting, none of the political components have been implemented.
There was no immediate comment from Russia, which has been supporting the rebels.
The 2015 ceasefire deal was supposed to stop fighting in Ukraine’s industrial heartland and bring those areas back into Kiev’s fold while granting them wide autonomy.
More than 10,000 people have died in fighting after Russia-backed rebels took control of parts of Ukraine’s east in April 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. The rebels originally sought to join Russia, but the Kremlin stopped short of annexing the area or publicizing its military support for the rebels.