With Russia’s military occupation of Crimea and the obvious threat that Putin’s stealth invasion implies for other parts of eastern Ukraine, far more than Ukraine’s autonomy is at stake. Should Russia consolidate its control in Crimea and gain de facto hegemony in other eastern provinces, the shock waves could change Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region as we currently know it.
Russian control of eastern Ukraine could ultimately have a negative impact even on some of the strongest post-communist democracies such as the Baltic states, Slovakia and the Czech Republic and possibly even Poland. In addition to this, Hungary’s regression towards authoritarianism could be accelerated. If before the invasion of Crimea Putin’s intentions were not clear, his agenda of restoring Soviet-style influence on the former communist countries is now fully manifest. Putin’s blatant disregard for outside pressure, including that of the US and the EU, is intended to demonstrate a diminished West and to aggrandize Russian power on the world stage.
In the short term, however, the most tangible, direct and immediate consequences of the crisis in Ukraine are bound to be experienced by its two fragile and partly democratic neighbors–Moldova and Georgia. Although Ukraine is much larger in size and carries far greater geopolitical importance, it has a lot in common with Georgia and Moldova in terms of its internal political evolution since the fall of communism. Aside from the special case of the Baltic states, these three countries are the only former Soviet republics that are anywhere close to emerging as democracies. All of the others have become either consolidated or semi-consolidated authoritarian states.
Russia nevertheless continues to exercise significant influence in all three countries, and Moscow has been particularly targeting these “hybrid states” in order to fulfill Putin’s agenda of resurrecting a 21st century version of the Russian Empire.
Developments in each of these three states have in the past proven to have reciprocal effects on the others. Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine share very similar geopolitical roles between Europe and Asia, between East and West. The three countries provide something of a buffer zone between Europe and Russia. Should they stop looking Westward and align themselves with Russia, Europe will find itself uncomfortably close to Putin’s sphere of influence and leverage. This is something Georgia and Moldova understand very well, as they rightfully brace themselves for a potentially devastating impact from events in Ukraine.
Much of the recent US commentary on the Ukraine crisis draws parallels between the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia and the current situation in Crimea. As a matter of fact, the 2008 war is receiving nearly as much press attention today as it did at the time it happened. Wrapped in the cloak of Russia’s “need to protect its citizens” in South Ossetia, the war began in the breakaway region but spread well into other Georgian sovereign territory leaving thousands dead or displaced, with reinforced de facto Russian control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This scenario is now being repeated in Crimea and is leaving Georgians and Moldovans with understandably uneasy feelings. One might even argue that it has taken the West 6 years to see what Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine were made aware of back in 2008: the war with Georgia was not a single isolated incident, but rather a manifestation of Putin’s grand strategy of reestablishing Russian hegemony in the region. The attack on Georgia was Putin testing the waters. Although a belated international response did save Georgia from full dismemberment or subjugation at the time, most of the West’s condemnations and sanctions faded within a couple of years of the conflict. This weak international response convinced Putin that the West was disunited and ineffectual. Putin thus correctly anticipated some of the West’s early weak reactions to his initially veiled-–but swift and decisive-–actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Nearly all Georgians, regardless of their political views, seem to be united in support of Ukraine and against Russian domination. The nation has not come together to take a stand this unified since the Rose Revolution in 2003. This is not only because Georgians care deeply about Ukraine, but also because Georgians know that should Ukraine lose this fight for sovereignty and democracy, their own aspirations of joining the EU and pursuing a democratic future independent from Russia would be severely threatened.
While Georgian civil society and the media have been openly condemning Russian actions in Ukraine, the government has been widely criticized for not making bold enough statements in support of Ukraine. This is quite understandable, however, as the Georgian government has to walk a fine line at the moment, hoping to support Ukraine without unduly provoking Russia.
Moldovan media and civil society groups have also been apprehensive about the implications that Russian military actions in Ukraine will have for their national security and political autonomy. Like Georgia and Ukraine, Moldova also suffers from problems of territorial integrity. The majority of the population in its autonomous republic of Gagauzia and the conflict zone of Transdniestria are Russian-speaking and generally of anti-Western orientation. This issue was once again brought to light after a recent referendum in Gagauzia (denounced as illegal by the central government) in which the voters expressed overwhelming support for the Eurasian Union (Putin’s new initiative that is meant to counteract the European Union’s growing influence in the region) versus closer integration with the EU and Moldova’s participation in the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative.
Moldovan analysts are understandably worried about Transdniestria. They believe that if Russian “peacekeeping” forces located in that breakaway region were given the order, they could take over Moldova’s capital city in a matter of hours. Unlike Georgia, Moldova would likely go down without much of a fight.
In addition to this significant military vulnerability, Moldovan politics have long been prone to Russian influence. The Communist Party of Moldova still continues to enjoy a high level of support, receiving 35% of the votes at the last parliamentary elections. With its close ties to Russia, the Moldovan Communist Party has repeatedly prevented the opposition parties from forming strong and effective coalitions and implementing crucial democratic and economic reforms. And, thanks to the Communist party’s boycott, the country was left without a president for three years, from 2009 to 2012.
Having initialed the same EU Association Agreement that Yanukovych refused to sign at the Vilnius Summit last November, Moldovans are also very concerned about being forced to join the Russia-led Eurasian Union, thus sabotaging their chances for a more prosperous economic future linked to the EU and to the West more generally. For the present, however, Moldova appears to be closer to the EU than ever before. Just last week, Moldovans were celebrating the European Parliament’s vote to approve an end to visa requirements for Moldovans traveling in Europe. But the successes that Moldova (and Georgia) have so far had in integrating more closely with the EU is easily reversible, and that is a vulnerability that the West should remain keenly aware of.
Discussions of Ukraine and Russia in the Moldovan press are filled with references to the role of the EU and NATO. Both the independent news media and official statements from the Moldovan government advocate a diplomatic solution. Major Moldovan news sources like IPN and Tribuna reiterate phrases like “respecting sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” when condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and they champion the principle of international law in any crisis.
Several political parties have spoken out against Russia’s actions, with the Green Ecologist Party going as far as to call the Kremlin “fascist”, and several news sources have criticized President Timofti’s statements on the situation as being “sterile” and not nearly as critical or as assertive as they should have been. Like the Georgian government, Moldovan officials are also walking a fine line and realize that, despite their recent progress, this long-coveted process of closer integration with the EU and the West could easily evaporate should Russia get involved.
Thus, the degree of anxiety regarding the Russia-Ukraine conflict is very high in both Georgia and Moldova. While the West should stand up to Russia’s challenge for Ukraine’s sake, it should not forget that much more than Ukraine’s territorial integrity is at stake. The US and the EU as well as the UN must do everything they can to avoid dismemberment or bloodshed in Ukraine. But they should also be proactive in protecting Georgia and Moldova from Russian aggression or intimidation.
While Georgia and Moldova may not face the immediate threat of direct military invasion that Ukraine now faces, these two countries are particularly vulnerable to possible worsening of relations with their breakaway regions that Russia could help escalate.
South Ossetia, in particular, is going to need close monitoring, given that Russian troops have started putting up barricades along the border lines with Georgia. This process was stopped while the Sochi Olympic Games took place, but recent reports say the “borderization” of South Ossetia resumed immediately afterwards. Also, Putin’s economic sanctions (embargoes on Georgian and Moldovan products) have in the past proven devastating to the financial stability of the two countries. In addition to this, Moldova heavily relies on energy imports from Russia.
This anxiety in Georgia and Moldova won’t be relieved until the Ukraine crisis is over. However, if the West shows a commitment to making their EU integration process irreversible, they will be less prone to falling under Russian influence. One way to do this would be to continue to engage with both governments and show them clear and firm support. Tblisi and Chisinau will need continued reassurances from the West that they will not be abandoned if faced with Russian threats and that we have learned important lessons from the 2008 Russia-Georgia war-–and now again from the Crimean crisis.