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Russia: We now want full control over Donbas, southern Ukraine ... and Moldova

(AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)

Volodymyr Zelensky warned the world and Europe that Vladimir Putin wouldn’t stop at Ukraine. Russia confirmed that today by explicitly stating that their war objectives would reach all the way to Transnistria — an ethnic-Russian enclave in neighboring Moldova. That ethnocentric rationale will have the Baltic states clamoring for more protection if Russia succeeds in its plans:

Russian military officials said they want to establish full control over southern Ukraine to secure a gateway to Transnistria, a breakaway region in Moldova, potentially signaling an expansion of Moscow’s objectives in the war.

“Control over the south of Ukraine is another way out to Transnistria, where there is oppression of the Russian-speaking population,” said Maj. Gen. Rustam Minnekayev, deputy commander of Russia’s Central Military District, according to state newswire TASS.

Russia has troops on the ground in Transnistria, officially part of Moldova, with which it fought a war in the early 1990s following the power vacuum left by the demise of the Soviet Union.

A land bridge to Transnistria might entail a Russian assault on Odessa, a key Ukrainian port city that is under Kyiv’s control.

No one should be surprised by this development. Transnistria was a clear ambition for Putin as far back as his first incursion into Ukraine eight years ago. I wrote about it at the time, noting the difficulties that the Russians would have in achieving that objective. The brute-force invasion of the rest of Ukraine has resolved some of those points, but only if Russia manages to achieve its objectives in Ukraine, especially regarding Odessa.

It’s an odd target in one sense, although Russia still has troops in Transnistria — the detritus of the brief military clashes that came at the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moldova’s ethnic-Russian community is only around 6% of its population. Putin’s claim to sovereignty over all ethnic-Russian populations not only has echoes of Adolf Hitler’s pretexts for territorial ambitions, it has even more application in Estonia and Latvia, as I pointed out in 2014. And it might end up stirring up another war in Europe by encouraging Russia’s Slavic allies in Serbia:

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?

It is not difficult at all to imagine Serbian president Aleksandr Vucic attempting to distract NATO by restarting the Balkans wars on the same ethnic-defense pretexts as his ally in Moscow. Two weeks ago, Vucic and Putin met to discuss greater access to Russian energy while the rest of Europe has worked to cut off those sales in order to starve Putin’s war machine. Vucic claimed in his election earlier this month that he would maintain friendly relations with both the EU and Putin, but it would be awfully convenient to Putin to get NATO tied up in a war at the precise moment Russia’s executing the Nazis’ ethnic-pretext strategy to rebuild the Soviet empire, minus the Sovietism. In fact, if the Russians execute the rest of their strategies well enough, they could use any such action by Vucic to intervene in the Balkans in a way they desperately wanted in the 1990s but were completely impotent to do.

Of course, that’s a big if given how disastrously the Russians have performed in Ukraine thus far. They still haven’t quite seized Mariupol despite tremendous logistical advantages and several weeks of siege warfare. Taking Odessa would be nearly impossible, especially with more and heavier arms flowing into Ukraine these days. One analyst cited by the New York Times scoffed at Minnekayev’s statement, noting that Russian troops haven’t been able to move the lines in relatively friendly Donbas after nearly a week of fighting:

Yuri Fyodorov, a Russian military analyst, said that the broader aims detailed by General Minnekayev “from the military standpoint are unreachable.”

“All of Russia’s combat-ready units are now concentrated in the Donbas, where Russia failed to achieve any significant advances over the past five days,” Mr. Fyodorov said in an interview. General Minnekayev’s rank would generally not allow him to make such sweeping policy statements that also contradict what has been said by the country’s top politicians, Mr. Fyodorov added.

“It might signal a divergence of positions, perhaps a significant one, among the military top brass and the political elite,” he said.

Fyodorov’s likely correct about the potential for Russia to execute this strategy, but Minnekayev’s statement doesn’t signal much of a “divergence” either. It’s been plain for at least eight years, and arguably since the 2008 invasion of Georgia. Putin wants to build a Greater Russia and use ethnic-Russian enclaves as pretexts for those ambitions. Moldova’s next if Ukraine falls, and then the Baltics. No one can claim they weren’t warned — by Zelensky, and by voices going back almost a decade and longer.

Update: This is another consequence of Minnekayev’s declared ambitions:

Russians have to hold all this territory for it to work, however. They didn’t succeed at holding territory in the north, and one has to suspect their abilities in the south might be just as poor. However, that’s still a fallback position from Putin’s initial ambition of total annihilation of Ukrainian sovereignty.