Which Former Soviet State Could Be the Next Ukraine?

by Linda Kinstler | April 21, 2014

The continuing crisis in Ukraine has everyone wondering whether Putin will strike elsewhere in the post-Soviet space next. Russia has so far justified its actions by saying that it has an obligation to protect Russian speakers everywhere, which could plausibly be used as an excuse to make additional landgrabs in independent nations that used to be part of the USSR. The former Soviet states know that very well, and all of them are moving to defend themselves against a future Russian invasion. In some cases, that means that old foes are smoothing over their differences for the sake of increasing security; in others, that means appealing to the European Union and NATO for defense assurances. Here's a roundup of how the escalating situation in Ukraine is impacting all of the former Soviet states.

 

Estonia: Russia has time and again expressed concern for Estonia’s ethnic Russians, who make up 25 percent of its population and who are denied basic rights, including, in many cases, citizenship. The most recent expression of discontent came late last month when the Russian envoy to the UN Human Rights Council said, “Language should not be used to segregate and isolate groups," adding that the Kremlin is “concerned by steps taken in this regard in Estonia as well as in Ukraine." Experts have already gamed out how Russia would go about invading Estonia if it came to that. In response, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves called for NATO to deploy forces to his country; this week, the U.S. army is expected to announce that it will perform "extremely modest" military exercises in Estonia.  

Latvia is suspicious that “Russian agents” at its border have taken to polling Latvian travelers about their opinion of the annexation of Crimea in order to measure the effectiveness of Russian propaganda. The country recently banned all Russian state television channels, and one Latvian politician is under investigation for acting as an “agent of influence for Russia” because of allegations that she belongs to a Russian organization seeking to reestablish the Soviet Union. Latvia is known as a “Russian money haven” and has extensive business ties with Russia, which it’s now looking to diminish, especially given that it’s set to assume the E.U. presidency in 2015. Latvian President Andris Berzins was in Istanbul last week, courting increased trade with Turkey; Latvia “wants to see a decrease in the impact of Russian energy,” Berzins told his Turkish audience. Like residents in other former Soviet states, Latvians fear that they will be Putin’s next target, and already-strained ethnic tensions in the country are running high.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite has asked NATO to protect her country from a “Crimea-style scenario.” "When we see the increasingly complex situation on the borders of Lithuania and Europe, when Russia is practically destroying the entire sense of security in Europe," she told reporters on Wednesday, just days after Lithuania's Defense Ministry sent a warship into the Baltic to "secure the country’s economic zone" from being disturbed by a misbehaving Russian naval ship too close to shore. During a visit to Vilnius last month, Vice President Joe Biden pledged to help protect Lithuanian security, a sentiment Senator John McCain echoed in Lithuania’s capital city this week when he promised additional U.S. military exercises with Lithuanian forces.

Poland—not a former Soviet state, but formerly in the USSR's sphere of influence—has been playing the role of Ukraine’s brother-in-arms over the past months and is asking NATO to establish a permanent presence within its borders. “The events of the recent months and the aggressive policy taken by Russia made Poles realize that things must not be taken for granted," said Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak during a visit to Washington this week. “We want to be as close to the West as possible.” So far, the U.S. has sent 12 F-16s to Poland, and Canada followed suit this week by dispatching an additional six fighter jets. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the U.S. will “maintain an enhanced presence” in Poland through the end of 2014, and additional military exercises are being planned. Poland is also helping Ukraine prepare for the cessation of Russian gas supplies; Ukraine restarted natural gas imports from its neighbor this week. In an interview with The Washington Post, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw “Radek” Sikorski said that about a month ago, the country received a letter from a leader of the Russian Duma "proposing that Poland take five provinces of Ukraine." Poland declined the offer. 

Kazakhstan, one of Russia's closest allies and home to 3.5 million ethnic Russians, abruptly got a new prime minister in early April who will have to facilitate the country's accession to Russia's Eurasian Union. Like in Ukraine, Radio Free Europe explains, "The Russian presence in present-day Kazakhstan goes back to the early 16th century. Many of the country's major cities, including present-day Astana and Almaty, began as Russian frontier outposts. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Russian Empire actively imported Russians into the best agricultural regions of Kazakhstan." Meanwhile, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev told Putin he "understands the logic of Russia's actions" even though the resulting sanctions will hurt Kazakh oil exports. On the ground in Kazakhstan, "The 'Russian spring' in southeastern Ukraine seems to have encouraged more anti-integration sentiment than ever before in Kazakhstan," The Diplomat reports, and Nazarbayev is making increased Kazakh patriotism a national priority. 

Kyrgyzstan is kicking the U.S. off its territory this year, a move that has been widely interpreted as part of an effort to strengthen ties with Russia. Back in 2009, the Kyrgyz parliament voted to close the U.S. Transit Center at Manas, a critical air base that opened in 2001 and played a central role in American operations in Afghanistan. The U.S. “bought its way out of the problem,” giving the Kyrgyz government over $100 million in aid in attempts to retain the property, as Yochi Dreazen and Gordon Lubold report in Foreign Policy. But Reuters reports, “The Kremlin has since become wary of the foreign military presence in its former imperial backyard.” A more recent vote means that the U.S. must vacate the base by July 2014. Rosneft, the Russian state oil giant, is looking to buy the property. 

Tajikistan is strengthening military and economic ties with China, which supplies it with military uniforms and helps train its armed forces. Tajikistan currently holds the presidency of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which consists of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. On Thursday, the country hosted the ninth meeting of the SCO security council secretaries, who discussed how to improve mutual security assurances between member states. China used the occasion as an opportunity to ask participating nations to "tighten control over the Internet and take other steps to prevent 'external forces' from fomenting revolution in member states," Reuters reports.  

Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, usually at odds over who gets to mine the rich Caspian oilfields, have moved to resolve some of their differences in response to the Crimean crisis. When Turkmenistan’s foreign minister visited Azerbaijan earlier this month—the first time a high-ranking Turkmen official had visited the country since 2009—the two countries reportedly discussed plans for a “100-kilometer-long Turkmen-Azerbaijani pipeline under the Caspian Sea,” that would provide gas to European markets. “The recent actions of Russia in Crimea bother all its neighbors and countries are trying to deescalate disputes,” said Azerbaijani MP Rasim Musabekov. There’s significant support for such a pipeline in the U.S.; Assistant Secretary for Energy Diplomacy Amos Hochstein said that the project could be completed by 2018 at the earliest, Politico reports. Turkmenistan and Belarus are also planning ways to strengthen economic cooperation

Uzbekistan: “Poverty-stricken, kleptocratic, and lawless Uzbekistan entrapped in Russia’s orbit,” recently detained a small group of protesters who held up Ukrainian flags in Tashkent. The country stayed mum about the situation in Ukraine for as long as it could, but as renewed fighting broke out in early April Uzbekistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced its “deep concern” over the threats to Ukraine’s sovereignty. Uzbek politicians are now pleading for “restraint” in the conflict and Uzbek President Islam Karimov has expanded the powers of the prime minister and parliament in a gesture toward decentralizing executive power. 

Belarus: Russian aggression in Ukraine has complicated the Kremlin’s relations with Belarus, historically one of its most dependable allies. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko at once criticized and acknowledged Russia’s annexation of Crimea, saying that the incursion set a “bad precedent.” After all, the same rationale that Putin used to invade Crimea, “protecting Russian speakers,” could also be used in Belarus. Last week, Belarus and Iran pledged to work more closely together in “resolving regional issues” at a joint meeting in Minsk; increasing trade with one another will allow both countries to mitigate the impact of U.S. sanctions against them, The Voice of Russia reports. Belarus and China have also been strengthening military and economic ties this year, and have plans for continued joint military exercises and “military-technical cooperation.”

Moldova, whose breakaway region of Transnistria may also be vulnerable to Russian annexation, is hoping to join the European Union as fast as it can, a move that several U.S. senators have expressed support for. Transnistria is already run largely by Russian “peacekeeping forces,” and in a 2006 referendum on Russian accession, 96 percent of voters opted for joining Russia. The Kremlin declined to absorb the region then, but with renewed calls from Transnistrians asking Russia to recognize the region as an independent state, the Moldovan government is anxiously waiting for the Kremlin's response. Putin obliquely expressed his view on Transnistria last week when he said that the “population of Moldova's self-proclaimed Transdniester Republic should be allowed to decide its own fate,” according to The Moscow Times. Comforting, given that's almost exactly what he had to say about the population of Crimea. 

Armenia is rightly worried about the unfolding situation in Ukraine, given that Russia has been stepping up efforts to enfold the country in its sphere of influence over the past year. After Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan announced in September that the country will join Belarus and Kazakhstan in joining Russia’s customs union, protesters took to the streets. Speaking for the Armenian capital of Yerevan in December, Putin made his position on Armenia clear: “Russia has never intended to go away from here … We will be strengthening our positions in the Transcaucasus drawing upon all the best that we have inherited from our ancestors, drawing upon on good relationship [sic] with all the countries of the region, including with Armenia,” Will Cathcart reports in The Daily BeastThe country is expected to officially join the customs union this spring. 

Georgia, unsurprisingly, feels especially threatened by recent events in Ukraine that parallel Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008, a bloody incursion that senior government officials say Putin was never punished for. In June, Georgia plans to sign an Association Agreement with the E.U.—the same agreement that former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign, sparking mass protests in Kiev in November. But as Giga Bokeria writes in Foreign Policy, the newly elected Georgian government looks to be following perilously closely in Yanukovych's footsteps, so it's unclear whether the deal will actually go through.

This post has been updated to clarify that Poland is not a former Soviet state.

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