The declaration announcing the supposed creation of a new entity was read out by Donetsk separatist leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko. (file photo)
Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region have announced what they say is the creation of a new state called Malorossia, or Little Russia, a declaration that was swiftly condemned by Kyiv.
The announcement on July 18 appeared to be the latest twist in attempts by the separatists who seized territory with Russian help in 2014 to claim legitimacy and discredit the government of Ukraine.
But it was met with silence from the Kremlin and failed to win support from fellow separatists in the neighboring Luhansk region, where one leader said the idea "raises big doubts."
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko suggested it was part of a Russian effort to divide and conquer his country, and said that would never happen.
Steeped in the history of Ukraine and its perennially troubled ties with Russia, the announcement comes amid a war that has killed more than 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine and continues despite an internationally backed cease-fire mandated by the 2015 Minsk accords.
Aleksandr Zakharchenko, leader of the separatists who control the city of Donetsk and part of the surrounding province, which borders Russia, read out a declaration on the creation of Malorossia, according to the separatist-affiliated Donetsk News Agency.
Speaking at a meeting with unidentified "representatives" of numerous provinces that are controlled by Kyiv, he suggested that the idea is for Malorossia to assume the mantle of Ukraine, which the declaration asserted "has revealed itself as a failed state."
"We must build a new country in which the concepts of conscience and honor are not forgotten," Zakharchenko said, according to the Donetsk separatists' website.
Another Donetsk separatist leader, Aleksandr Timofeyev, read out a so-called "Constitutional Act" that said participants at the meeting "agree that the new state will be called Malorossia, because the very name Ukraine has discredited itself."
Malorossia, which means Little Russia or Lesser Russia, was a name used in Tsarist-era Russia for several regions of today's Ukraine.
Another tsarist-era term for parts of Ukraine, Novorossia -- New Russia -- was sometimes used by separatists and Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, around the time that Russia was fomenting separatism in Ukraine.
Use of the term added to concerns in Kyiv and the West that Russia would seek to take control over large portions of eastern and southern Ukraine, and might try to annex the area or create a new state beholden to Moscow.
But talk of Novorossia faded after a few months, as Kyiv's forces held the Russia-backed separatists to territory covering parts of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Russia has not formally recognized the self-proclaimed separatist entities in Ukraine as independent, and Moscow's stated position is that they should be part of Ukraine.
Analysts say Russia hopes to continue to use them as long as it can to destabilize Ukraine and maintain pressure on its pro-Western government.
There was no immediate Kremlin comment on the declaration about Malorossia.
But Poroshenko suggested the initiative was part of a Russian effort to break Ukraine into pieces and said it would not succeed.
"From the beginning of the military aggression against my nation, the Russian Federation's goal has been to divide Ukraine into parts," Poroshenko said during a visit to Tbilisi.
He said that the "Novorossia project" had "completely failed."
Poroshenko said that Zakharchenko and Luhansk separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky are "not political figures but a puppet show that transmits messages received from Russia."
Plotnitsky's press service, meanwhile, said the Luhansk leadership had not even been invited to discuss the new initiative and that they support the Minsk peace process, in which Western governments are still pushing for an end to the war in eastern Ukraine.
Another leader of the separatists in Luhansk, Vladimir Degtyarenko, said that "at the moment the expediency of such a step raises big doubts."
Yevhen Marchuk, a representative of Kyiv in talks involving Ukraine, Russia, and the separatists, said the announcement by the Donetsk separatists could scuttle a meeting scheduled to be held in Minsk on July 19.
And Igor Girkin, a Russian who was once a senior commander of the separatist forces in eastern Ukraine and also uses the name Igor Strelkov, told the Russian newspaper Kommersant that the plan to create Malorossia was "stillborn."