In the immortal words of Tom Lehrer from a different context, who’s next on the Vladimir Putin Hit Parade? Now that Putin has claimed the right to intervene on behalf of supposedly-beleaguered ethnic-Russian minorities, the field to his west is wide open to all sorts of possibilities. Allahpundit tweeted out this alarming report from Der Spiegel on Moldova, on the other side of the Black Sea, which hints that Putin may be busy trying to generate a pretext for action there:
If Mihail Formuzal had his way, the revolution in Kiev never would have happened. Then, Moldova would choose Russia instead of Europe, and the planned Association Agreement with the EU would already be history. The 54-year-old Formuzal is president of the autonomous Gagauzia region in Moldova. In early February he carried out a referendum by polling the approximately 155,000 members of the Gagauz Orthodox Christian minority here.
He wanted to know if they’d rather be part of the Russia-led Customs Union or work with the European Union. The result: 98.5 percent of the participants voted for Russia — 68,000 votes to 1,900.
In Moldova, the Gagauz are considered Moscow’s fifth column. “We aren’t against the EU, we’re pragmatic,” says Formuzal, a former Soviet artillery major, as he sits in an office on Lenin Street with a massive granite Lenin perched in front of his window. “My son is studying in Giessen, in Germany; Europe’s biggest shoe salesman, Heinrich Deichmann, is Gagauzia’s greatest patron,” he says. “We like all European values, except your gay marriage.” …
Moscow is now in the process of infiltrating the last pro-European republics in its sphere of influence. Moldova is especially important to the Russians: a country, smaller than the German state of Nordrhein-Westfalia, almost entirely surrounded by Ukraine except for a border it shares with Romania. The republic, which left the Soviet Union in 1991, only has three million inhabitants.
Until 2009, the communists led the country — but now a pro-European coalition is in power. Moldova long ago agreed on the text of an Association Agreement with the EU and it is supposed to be signed in August. This makes Moldova and Georgia the only ones of the six original former Soviet republics risking rapprochement with Europe.
But will it actually happen? The Kremlin is currently expending significant effort to loosen Europe’s grasp on Moldova — and using the Gagauz to do so. The Gagauz capital, Comrat, is a sleepy town in the south Moldavian steppe where the only language spoken aside from Gagauz is Russian and people watch Moscow’s Channel One.
There are a couple of problems with the Moldovan scenario, though. First, Moldova is landlocked and shares no border with Russia. Even if Ukraine gets partitioned, Moldova would still have no border close enough for Russian intervention. Putin would have to violate Ukrainian airspace and likely Romanian airspace to intervene — and Romania is a NATO member. Moldova simply doesn’t have enough strategic value to Moscow to run that risk. Besides, only 5.8% of Moldova’s population (~3.6 million overall) is ethnic Russian, which makes for a pretty poor pretext.
But what might have that much strategic value? Look more toward the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, where a quarter of the population or more in both are ethnic Russian. Both border Russia, and together with Lithuania block access to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg in East Prussia a century ago). Guess what Russia was doing this week in Kaliningrad?
Russian naval warships and coastal troops conducted live fire exercises Monday in the country’s western Kaliningrad and Leningrad Regions, a Ministry of Defense spokesperson said.
The exercises, part of a combat readiness test ordered by President Vladimir Putin last week, come amid a growing international crisis as evidence mounts that Russian troops have been deployed across Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. …
A spokesman for the Western Military District, which borders Ukraine, said that a broad range of weapons systems, including ground troops, tanks, and naval artillery and air defense missiles, took part in the Baltic Fleet exercises.
The Baltic Fleet units engaged dummy air, sea and land targets simulating enemy forces, including tanks, aircraft and submarines.
Putin’s declaration of sovereignty on the basis of ethnicity has echoes in recent history, and that’s all bad, as I argue in my column for The Week today:
Russia now claims to act as the protector of ethnic Russians as justification for occupying the Crimean Peninsula — against the wishes of Crimean Tatars — and possibly most of eastern Ukraine soon.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how dangerous this could be in a region of former Soviet satellites. According to the CIA World Factbook, ethnic Russians comprise 17.3 percent of Ukraine’s population. Nine percent of Georgia’s population speaks Russian as a first language. In the formerly Soviet Baltic states of Estonia (24.8 percent ethnic Russian) and Latvia (26.2 percent), the issue is more acute. Together with Lithuania (only 5.8 percent ethnic Russian) they form a bridge to the disconnected Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. With their large Russian populations — a vestige of decades of Soviet occupation — it’s not difficult to imagine that Putin could create a pretext for action by stirring up unrest among ethnic minorities there, although those two states were wise enough to join NATO soon after their independence. Despite the current inept response from NATO, it’s almost impossible to imagine that Russia could get away with that kind of play.
Russia may not be the only country watching this precedent, either. The Balkan wars largely settled the deconstruction of the former Yugoslavia at the expense of Serbia, which fought to control its former provinces. If mistreatment of ethnic minorities justifies military occupation, how long before a future expansionist Serbian regime starts making trouble in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where ethnic Serbs comprise 37 percent of the population? Or Montenegro, which is 32 percent ethnic Serbs and has access to the Adriatic?
Belarus is a loyal satellite of Moscow, and provides a strategic pathway to Kaliningrad and a secure flank to the Baltic States. If the West doesn’t get its act together soon, expect to see unrest among ethnic Russians in both Estonia and Latvia very soon — and Putin sharpening his troops with more war games to “protect” them.
Addendum: Stephen Schwartz wrote yesterday that “Ukraine fever sweeps the Balkans,” by which he means popular uprising against autocratic governments. With the Putin precedent in mind — especially considering the close relationship between Russia and Serbia — that could provide opportunities for a hypothetical expansionist government in Belgrade, too. This is the danger of allowing for claims of jurisdiction by ethnicity.