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The very scary word in Putin's new statement on the Ukraine crisis

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Dukhanin/Kommersant via Getty

Russian President Vladimir Putin just dropped the biggest, scariest dogwhistle of the Ukraine crisis: "Novorossiya."

The word literally means "new Russia" — it was an old, imperial-era term for southern Ukraine, when it was part of the Russian Empire, and is now a term used by Russia ultra-nationalists who want to re-conquer the area.

Putin has used the word twice during the crisis. First, he used it in April, about a month after Russia had invaded and annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea, subtly suggesting that the annexation was justified because Crimea was in Novorossiya and thus inherently part of Russia.

He used it again on Thursday, in an official presidential statement addressed to the eastern Ukrainian rebels that have seized parts of the country — and whom he addressed as "the militia of Novorossiya."

New Russia, or Novorossiya (Dim Grits)

The statement itself was otherwise banal, but in giving the rebels this name, he is seemingly not just referring to them as an extension of Russia (everybody already knew this) and not just adopting the heavily loaded imperial terminology, but endorsing that the rebels and the land they stand on are, in a sense, part of Russia.

In other words, Putin's choice of phrasing — and picking such a hotly political phrase is no accident — sounds an awful lot like a rhetorical step toward annexing all or part of the rebel-held territory. Significantly, earlier this week Russian forces invaded a part of Ukraine where there had been no previous fighting, along the southeastern-most coast with the Black Sea. That is not a rebel-held area, but it is prime Novorossiya territory.

Still, it is just rhetoric, however loaded, and Putin appears to have left himself an out: while the title of the statement refers to the militia of Novorossiya, the body of it does not — rather, it refers to the rebels by the less politically charged phrase, "representatives of Donbas" (Donbas is another name for eastern Ukraine). So he is not yet fully committing himself to the idea of Novorossiya, but this statement is enough of a step in that direction to be legitimately alarming.