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Who’s next on Putin’s list?

Crimea is under the control of Russia’s military forces and its Moscow-backed government is voting to secede from Ukraine. Where might President Vladimir Putin seek territorial expansion next?

With Crimea under the control of Russia’s military forces and its Moscow-backed government voting to secede from Ukraine – all achieved under Russia’s pretext of protecting the Russian population there – the question arises as to whether, and where, President Vladimir Putin could seek territorial expansion next?

Putin has already vowed to protect his Russian compatriots in Eastern Ukraine; and ordered Russia’s Baltic Sea fleet on tactical exercises as part of a combat-readiness test. 

Justification

It is clear that Putin is intent on maintaining the states of the former Soviet Union within Russia’s sphere of influence. Since ethnic Russians and Russian speakers make up large numbers of the population in a number of former Soviet republics and Putin is ready to use any pretext to protect his compatriots, a number of other states and territories are at risk of Russia’s expansionism in the near and long term. 

The most likely future targets of Putin’s land grab are countries and territories with large populations of Russian speakers and citizens.

The most likely future targets of Putin’s land grab are countries and territories with large and concentrated populations of Russian speakers and citizens – the so-called Russian compatriots - particularly if they reside in territories adjacent to the Russian border.

Russia’s ‘compatriot policies’ are outlined in Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020 but were formulated as early as 2000 in the Concept of National Security. The 2000 document clearly states that Russia’s foreign policy should focus on ‘protecting the legitimate rights and interests of Russian citizens abroad, including by taking political, economic and other measures.’ Over the past decade, the Russian diaspora has facilitated Russia’s interests and served its foreign policy goals in the near abroad as exemplified by Georgia’s separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Moldova’s Transnistria.

Potential candidates

The conditions are set for East Ukraine’s separatism.

Eastern Ukraine is Putin’s most likely target for stirring separatism in the short term since it has a large population of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers (though to a lesser extent than Crimea) and shares a border with Russia. Russian speakers and reportedly bussed-in activists from Russia have already been protesting against the new Ukrainian government and calling for support from Putin. The conditions are set for East Ukraine’s separatism and even potential military intervention from Moscow.

Russia’s recent takeover of Crimea and actions in Eastern Ukraine have also raised concern in the Baltic states and not without reason. Over the past few days the Russian Baltic Fleet has been carrying out tactical exercises along the Baltic coast. The Baltic states have already appealed to NATO which has deployed six warplanes to Lithuania and another dozen will be deployed to Poland. 

What makes the Baltic states possible targets is the fact that Estonia and Latvia have large ethnic Russian populations, representing between a quarter and a third of their population. Lithuania’s Russian population is about six percent and is concentrated in the eastern parts of the countries that share a border with Russia. Not surprisingly Russia has made great efforts to maintain political, economic, and social ties with the Russian diaspora in Estonia and Latvia, including allegedly organising riots of Russian speakers in Tallinn in 2007.

Estonia and Latvia have been members of NATO and the EU since 2004, so the geopolitical conditions are significantly different from those of Ukraine, and the risk of a direct Russian military threat is considerably smaller. However, like Crimea, all three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are of strategic importance to Russia. While Crimea serves as the base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and a pathway to the Mediterranean, the Baltic states possess ice-free ports and a window to the West that have made them targets of Russia’s expansionism since the times of Peter the Great. Following the Baltic states independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow vehemently opposed their integration to NATO and made every effort to maintain them in Russia’s sphere of influence, particularly through the tactical control of gas and oil supply.

In the same neighbourhood as Ukraine and the Baltic states lies another possible quarry for Russia’s efforts to maintain influence and create puppet states and separatist territories. Belarus may seem an unlikely target for Russian expansion since the country’s dictatorial President Aleksandr Lukashenka has generally remained loyal to Putin, despite occasional flirtations with the West. Since the 1990s there have been numerous discussions of Belarus integrating with Russia that have failed to bear fruit. Nevertheless, with its shared border with Russia and a notable population of Russian speakers (according to some studies 70% of Belarusians speak Russian at home), the country is a potential soft target for Russia’s future expansionism.

In Europe’s own backyard, Transnistria, a separatist territory of Moldova, has also become effectively a Russian military-controlled territory where the Kremlin sought to ‘protect’ the Russian speakers and eventually Russian citizens. Today in Moldova proper there are reportedly 150,000 Russian citizens and 11-16 percent Russian speakers, who are mainly concentrated in the south of the country. It is possible that separatism already established in Transnistria could extend to other parts of Moldova.

Further afield both geographically and in the likelihood of Russia’s expansionism is Kazakhstan. It shares some of the same risk factors as Ukraine. The northern territories of Kazakhstan are adjacent to Russia and are populated predominantly by Russians. In the past, Putin has made an effort to keep close political, economic and social ties with Kazakhstan’s Russians. Today Kazakhstan remains allied with Russia in the Moscow-led Eurasian Union, however, a political change or a notable reorientation of the country towards the West or China could potentially elicit Russia’s similar responses as in Ukraine.

Going forward

Over the past decade a number of former Soviet states have started to lean towards the West and away from Moscow – a tendency that is in Russia’s national interests to block or reverse. When such states no longer wished to follow Moscow’s lead, Russia created puppet states or autonomous regions in their receptive territories - as was the case in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria and now Crimea and even Eastern Ukraine seemingly following suit.

Former Soviet states have started to lean towards the West and away from Moscow.

In the future, the states of the former Soviet Union will increasingly enact regime changes, possibly turn towards democracy, and potentially distance themselves from Moscow. Some of these states will have significant Russian populations to facilitate separatist efforts while others will not. How long Russia will be able to rely on the use of military and compatriot protection policy to maintain its influence is to be seen. What is certain is that Putin is intent on regaining influence and territories of the former Soviet Union and redrawing the maps of present day Europe.

About the author

Agnia Grigas served as an advisor in the Lithuanian government. She consults for multinational corporations investing in emerging markets and is the author of "The Politics of Energy and Memory between the Baltic States and Russia" (Ashgate 2013).


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