Are Moldova and Ukraine at Risk? Ex-Soviet States Fear Russian Aggression

Moscow's recent offensive in the Caucasus region has former Soviet republics worried. They see it as a return to old imperialist policies and fear they could be the next victims of Russian aggression. How much at risk are Ukraine and Moldova?

By Otto Luchterhandt

Russia's invasion of Georgia shocked its neighbors, so much so that many people in the Baltic republics and in Poland are worried that they could be next. As Russia flexes its imperialist muscles, there are growing fears that former Soviet republics could face threats to their very existence.

Pro-Russian supporters welcome a Russian missile cruiser Moskva to Sevastopol.

Pro-Russian supporters welcome a Russian missile cruiser Moskva to Sevastopol.

Ironically, these countries are not just members of the European Union, but are also protected under NATO's mutual defense guarantee. Hence, it comes as no surprise that citizens of Moldova and Ukraine, members of neither the EU nor NATO, see the situation as even more troubling.

During a meeting in the Black Sea port of Sochi on Aug. 26, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin against forcefully attempting to regain control over Transnistria, a region that seceded from Moldova in 1992. After the meeting, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner emphatically warned Russia against intervening in Moldova and Ukraine. But how serious, in fact, is the risk?

Fears of open conflict with Ukraine, especially over the Crimea and the Russian naval bases Russia maintains for its Black Sea fleet in Sevastapol, should be taken very seriously. At first glance this concern is surprising. Crimea, which has been part of Ukraine since 1954, is populated mainly by Russians. Crimean Tatars also make up more than 10 percent of the area's population. However, efforts in the early 1990s to incorporate the Crimea into Russia remained unsuccessful -- for lack of strong support from Moscow.

Russia's presence in Sevastopol is even more precarious. A protracted dispute over the fate of the former USSR's Black Sea fleet and its home port was settled -- with difficulty -- in 1997 when the two countries signed a 20-year lease agreement. Although Russia has been developing its Novorossiysk Black Sea port into a fully functional alternative for years, that doesn’t mean it is ready to leave Sevastopol in 2017 as agreed. It is completely possible that the Russians will try to remain in the city under some flimsy excuse.

Moscow in Sevastopol

There is good reason to be skeptical, because Sevastopol has long been a national symbol of the Russian authoritarian state. Although the lease agreement is restricted to military facilities, Russia sees itself as being in charge of the city, and it is Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov who underscores this claim with his presence and pithy rhetoric. In May 2008, during an appearance at a celebration to mark the 225th anniversary of the Black Sea fleet, Luzhkov reiterated earlier calls for the reintegration of Sevastopol and the Crimean Peninsula into the Russian Federation.

After the speech, the Ukrainian government declared Luzhkov persona non grata, and President Viktor Yushchenko took the initiative by proposing a law that would terminate the lease when it expires in 2017. Russian military officials and politicians sharply criticized Yushchenko and downplayed his harsh reactions as short-sighted political pandering to NATO.

As for Crimea, in Ukraine's constitution it is given the pro forma status of an "autonomous republic," but without the true character of a state. Nevertheless, separatist calls for a return to Russia remain consistently popular on the peninsula, a circumstance that Moscow could easily use to its advantage.

In the assessment of political scientist Alexei Arbatov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, there is good reason to be concerned. In a guest article for the newspaper Nezavisimaya gazeta, Arbatov writes: "A certain group of people in Russia, in the political parties, mass media, government agencies and business community, has come to the conclusion that Ukraine and Georgia will undoubtedly join NATO. They may certainly join, but only after being reduced somewhat in size: Ukraine without the Crimea and the Donetsk Basin, and Georgia without Abkhazia and South Ossetia." According to Arbatov, the adherents to this line of thinking are already preparing for the virtual secession of the disputed territories.

Russia's response to Georgia's invasion of South Ossetia seems to confirm this view. This, in turn, does not bode well for Russia's relations with Ukraine, and Bernard Kouchner's warning is more than justified.

Russian Troops in Transnistria

When it comes to Moldova things look completely different -- the danger of escalation there is low because Russia's position is much stronger than in Ukraine. It maintains troops in Transnistria, thereby upholding the independence of the non-recognized republic from the central government in the Moldovan capital Chisinau and keeping Transnistrian President Igor Smirnov in power in his capital Tiraspol. Contrary to countless assurances it has given to the mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Moldova, Russia has yet to withdraw its troops from Transnistria.

And this is unlikely to change in the future, at least as long as Moldova, as a nation, has not adopted a constitutional order acceptable to Russia and guaranteed by Moscow, as the protective and intervening power. Such an amendment to the Moldovan constitution would correspond to the so-called "Kozak plan" of 2003. Although it called for incorporating Transnistria into a "Federation of Moldova," it also largely preserved Transnistria's independence and gave Tiraspol more power to influence the central government, giving Moscow an indirect route to influence Moldovan politics. A consensus could not be reached on the plan, however.

A September 2006 referendum in Transnistria on joining the Russian Federation strengthened Russia's justification for intervening in Moldova, when 97 percent of Transnistrians voted in favor of the proposal. Of course, the vote leaves the decision entirely up to Russia, but it also gives Moscow something it can define as a democratic referendum by the "people of Transnistria," which Russia could, and would, invoke if necessary, if it felt that intervening in Moldova were in its interest in the event of a conflict.

Nevertheless, Russia is unlikely to pursue an "annexation" of Transnistria. Indeed, Moscow is pursuing a different strategy there, using its dominance over Transnistria as political and diplomatic leverage to keep Moldova generally within its sphere of influence and, in particular, to prevent the country from joining NATO.

At first glance, there are strong similarities between Transnistria and the rebel republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. All three are products of the breakup of the USSR, and all three are home to national minorities, are run by unrecognized, de-facto regimes and are small. But the differences are even greater, namely that Russia has no common border with Transnistria, that the OSCE has played an important role in handling and "internationalizing" the conflict since it began, and that the Republic of Moldova is far too weak to seriously consider military action.

For these reasons, Medvedev's warning was merely a symbolic demonstration of Russian hegemony.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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