Twenty-First Century Soviet Union: Could Moscow be Looking Towards Annexing States in Eastern Europe?March 27, 2014 in Russia, Ukraine
With the annexation of Crimea, there have been growing Western concerns of the rising number of Russian troops along the country’s eastern border with Ukraine. Although Moscow has denied that President Vladimir Putin has an ambitious plan to resurrect vestiges of the Soviet empire and stamp his authority over eastern European nations that sought protection from the West following the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall, the presence of 30,000 troops stationed along the border is nevertheless alarming. Furthermore, while Moscow originally stated that it was intervening in Crimea because of concerns over the ill-treatment of Russians there, who make up more than half of the population, since Crimea’s annexation, Russia has done little to ease Eastern European fears of further takeovers. The question now remains, could similar action take place in other parts of the former Soviet Union?
Since the ouster of Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych in February 2014, there have been frequent pro-Russian demonstrations that have taken place in Donetsk as well as in other cities in eastern Ukraine. So far, at least one person has been killed. Russians however have blamed far-right pro-Western demonstrators for escalating tensions throughout the country.
With Russian troops having staged military exercises near the border, and Ukrainian officials claiming Thursday that 100,000 Russian forces have massed on Ukraine’s border, it would not be difficult for them to move across into Ukraine itself.
If Putin is indeed considering more territorial expansion, than eastern Ukraine is likely to be high on his list. The political costs however would be high, with NATO and Western leaders already warning Moscow against further expansionism.
Although Crimea, which was previously Russian territory, became part of the Ukraine in 1954, Ukraine’s eastern border goes back much further, ties which could be used by Putin in any possible future take overs.
A great deal of attention has also focused on Trans-Dniester, a separatist region of Moldova, which has already offered itself to Moscow. Proclaiming independence in 1990, which has never been recognised internationally, Trans-Dniester is majority Russian-speaking while most Moldovans speak Romanian. NATO’s commander in Europe has warned that Trans-Dneister may be Russia’s next target as Moscow has already deployed 1,000 troops to the region, which borders Ukraine, near the city of Odessa.
The southern region of Gagauzia, an autonomous region of Moldova which is made up of four enclaves with a total population of 160,000 also held a referendum in February 2014, in which 98.4% of voters backed integration with a Russia-led customs union. The Moldovan government has stated that the referendum was illegitimate.
Russia’s 2008 brief war with Georgia resulted in two areas breaking away, South Ossetia and Abkhazi. Although Abkhazia had already declared independence unilaterally in 1999, since the 2008 war, the two enclaves have existed in a grey zone as they are not recognized internationally, nor are they formally are part of Russia. Although Moscow’s stated aim at the time was to protect Russian speakers, most residents are native speakers of Ossetian and Abkhaz respectively. Furthermore, most residents hold Russian passports and are opposed to the Georgian government in Tbilisi.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania
Although the Baltic republics regained their independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, Russians account for about a third of the population in both Estonia and Latvia. Due to the fact that both Latvia and Estonia require knowledge of their languages in order to gain citizenship, some Russian speakers born in the countries are either unable or unwilling to become citizens. Many Russian speakers have complained of discrimination, stating that the strict language laws make it difficult for them to get jobs. This treatment was echoed by the Kremlin in mid-March of this year, with officials expressing “outrage” at the treatment of ethnic Russians in Estonia, the same reason, which they gave for intervening in Crimea.
In Lithuania, ethnic Russians make up about 5% of the population and there is no requirement for them to pass a language test in order to attain citizenship.
However what must be noted is that in the case of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all three Baltic states are members of both the European Union and NATO. Therefore any Russian incursion would have serious consequences as article 5 of the NATO treaty states that an attack on one member state is an attack on all.
Currently, there is no reason why Russia would seek to intervene in Belarus as the country is already closely aligned with Moscow. Furthermore, Belarus is an economic union with Russia, and Russian is an official language. Although only 8.3% of the population identifies itself as Russian, more than 70% speak the language.
Ties between Russia and Kazakhstan go back to tsarist times, when northern cities such as Pavlodar and Uralsk were founded by the Russians as military outposts. Russians currently account for more than half of the population in northern Kazakhstan which, like Crimea, was once a part of Russia itself.
Like Ukraine, Kazakhstan signed an agreement on nuclear disarmament in 1994 in exchange for protection. It has no port like Sevastopol in Crimea, however it does have the Baikonur space facility.
Although Kazakhstan already has close ties with Russia, as it is one of two other members, along with Belarus, of Moscow’s customs union, it has remained officially neutral in the matter of Ukraine.
Other Central Asian Republics
After independence in 1991, large numbers of Russians emigrated to central Asia, with the percentage of ethnic Russians in the region now ranging from 1.1% in Tajikistan to 12.5% in Kyrgyzstan. However it must be noted that the Central Asian economies remain tied to Russia, bot in terms of trade and remittances from migrants working there.
While it therefore seems unlikely that Moscow would seek to intervene in the region, the post-Crimea turmoil could still have an affect on the area. As the Russian rouble falls, and sanctions hit Russian businesses, jobless migrants returning from Russia could cause trouble for the governments in Dushanbe or Bishkek.
Armenia and Azerbaijan
Although Armenia has no Russian population to speak of, and Azerbaijan has just 1%, both countries tread a geopolitical tightrope between Russia and the West. Furthermore, since Aremenia gained its independence in 1991, Russia has retained a military base at Gyumri.
As was the case in Ukraine, Armenia had been preparing to sign an association agreement with the EU, however in September 2013, officials in the country announced that Armenia would be joining the Russian-led customs union instead.
Azerbaijan on the other hand is less economically dependent on Russia as it exports oil and natural gas to the EU. A pipeline that ends in Turkey effectively allows it to skirt Russian territory.
Russia would like to keep both countries in its sphere of influence, however in the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia is more likely to use economic, as opposed to military, measures.
Poland and the Baltics
Outside of Russia’s direct neighbours, countries such as Poland and those in the Baltics have also caused unease, with a sense that they too are under threat.
Although leaders in Poland have played down the danger, repeatedly reassuring the public, there remains a widespread sense of insecurity throughout the country.
While during an event to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Poland joining NATO, Prime Minister Donald Tusk stated that he saw no direct threat to his country, a view that has been echoed by Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski, an opinion poll has shown that 59% of respondents believed Russia’s foreign policy presented a threat to Poland’s security. Some have stated that they “…feel threatened by Russia because we’re next. Ukraine is first, then the Baltic countries and then Russia’s President Putin will make something bad here.” These fears have been echoed across the country, with one resident stating “now they want to attack Ukraine but we are neighbours so I don’t think Poland is safe, especially because we have a shred history with Russia, and they were always aggressors.” While these remarks to not directly indicate that most Poles fear that Russia is about to launch a military attack on the, their shared history however has generated a widespread mistrust of Russia and its leadership.
During the 18th century Catherine the Great annexed eastern Poland, with the country not regaining its independence until the end of World War One. However after just two decades of freedom, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland just two weeks after Nazi Germany marched into western Poland in 1939. While the Red Army liberated Poland from the Nazis in 1945, this liberation was seen by many as a simple transfer of power, from one enemy to the next. Upon removing Nazi troops out of Poland, Joseph Stalin quickly installed a Soviet-backed communist system throughout the country, with the last Soviet troops leaving Poland in 1993.
According to Marcin Zaborowski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, “…there is a sense that certain boundaries have been crossed, that precedents have been created and because of that its not clear where Putin is going to stop,” adding that “this clearly unprovoked aggression against another state is in breach of international law. It doesn’t seem wise to hang on to the belief Putin’s not going to go further.”
Poland’s growing insecurity however is not solely tied to the country, but is also shared by the Baltic countries, which were also incorporated into the Soviet Union after World War Two.
Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite warned last week that Russia was trying to redraw the post-war map of Europe, adding that while Ukraine is likely to be the next on Putin’s list, Moldova, the Baltics and Poland would be next.
Estonia and Latvia both have large Russian minorities, which is of concern considering Putin’s justification for occupying Crimea has been to protect ethnic Russians there.
In response of growing fears of a possible Russian takeover of Poland and/or the Baltics, the United States has announced that it is increasing its military cooperation with Poland and the Baltic states. Officials have indicated that the US is sending six more F-15 fighters and a KC-135 refuelling tanker to increase its support for NATO’s patrolling of Baltic airspace.
In Poland, about 300 US air force personnel and 12 US F-16 fighters will be deployed for a joint training exercise. This is a significant boost to the 10 US airmen who are already stationed in the country. However the United States response will not solely focus on military aspects, but will also concentrate on the energy issue, which has developed out of the Ukrainian crisis. According to sources in Poland, “our prime minister and president have said we have to work more intensely towards energy independence. Energy is vital because the threat is not just of a military nature, its also about turning the gas taps off.” Poland has already experienced this switch-off as much of Russia’s gas supplies to Europe transit Ukraine while on its way West. In 2009, a price dispute between the Ukraine and Russia halted supplies to many European countries.
Despite the 2009 issue, Poland and the Baltic countries remained dependent on Russian gas supplies, with Poland last year importing 60% of the gas consumed by industry and households from Russian gas company Gazprom. According to Poland’s Prime Minister Tusk, Central and Eastern Europe’s dependence on Russian gas effectively gave Putin too much leverage. However after years of stating that it should liberate itself from independence of Russia’s gas supplies, and not doing much about it, Poland is now diversifying its gas sources.
By the end of this year, Poland is set to complete construction of a liquefied natural gas terminal to import gas from Qatar. It has also increased the capacity of interconnector pipelines with German and the Czech Republic in order to boost supplies from those markets. Poland also hopes to start producing its own shale gas in the future.