The whole of the Western media followed it’s futile outpouring of grief after the annexation of Crimea with countless attempts to psychologically profile the steely leader of the Russian Federation, Vladmir Putin. The conclusions of these studies weren’t exactly groundbreaking.
He’s a realist. Much like Western countries his priority is to strengthen his country’s position in the world and to maintain the support of the electorate. However, unlike most Western countries, his nostalgic electorate care less about rights and freedoms and more about the resurgence of Russia as a civilisation and super-power.
His behaviour may seem baffling. He vehemently defended the use of international institutions and law when his Western counterparts wanted to intervene in Syria, yet the UN and the right to territorial integrity slipped his mind when he consolidated his control of Ukrainian land.
However, his behaviour is remarkably consistent with his stated motivations, arguably more so than any Western politician. In 1999, in his speech to the State Duma who were about to confirm his appointment as Prime Minister he said,
“Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so. It has always had and still has legitimate zones of interest abroad in both the former Soviet lands and elsewhere. We should not drop our guard in this respect, neither should we allow our opinion to be ignored.”
This excerpt could well be tattooed to his arm as it’s inextricably linked to his foreign policy. As Oliver Bullough, the Caucasus editor at the Institute of War and Peace Reporting says, “Few realised it at the time, because few were listening, but that speech provided a blueprint for pretty much everything he has done…”
Putin is an opportunist with very clear objectives and very few restrictions. As the West tumbles over itself scrambling to find a way to prevent him going further Putin could be assessing his options. Now may be the time to seize back more former soviet territories, but which ones?
Andrej Illarionov, the President’s former chief economic adviser told the Swedish paper Svenska Dagbladet that “Parts of Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States and Finland are states where Putin claims to have ownership.”
Some of these states on Putin’s shopping list are safe for now (I say very tentatively). Belarus, an ally of Russia has not been totally supportive of Russia’s recent endeavours but the close pair are unlikely to come to blows. The Baltic States on the other hand, being members of the EU and NATO are guaranteed the protection of larger Western powers and would then be too risky to invade. Putin, despite his bravado, will not want a confrontation with a superpower on his hands.
Yet Putin might have other states on his radar. For Putin to pursue another land grab would be audacious in the extreme. But then again, the West has often regretted relying on the humbleness of Russia’s President.
The former Grand Duchy of Tsarist Russia has had frosty relations with its former coloniser. Conflicts over airspace violations, border controls and spying have meant that the neighbours regularly get into minor spats. However idea of Finland joining NATO is something Russia fiercely rejects. So far the Finnish have partnered with NATO on the Partnership for Peace Programme and subtly flirted with the possibility of membership, but more than this would likely enrage Putin.
Conversely, without NATO membership, Finland is not protected by collective defence and leaves itself as vulnerable to attack as Ukraine. Naturally, the Finnish Air-force has enhanced its surveillance programmes in the Baltic Sea.
However, Finland is not a Russian satellite and its ethnically Finnish public would make occupation exceedingly difficult for Russia.
Ukraine (a bit more)
If Crimea proves anything, it is that Ukraine has no concrete protection from its Western allies. It was annexed gradually and overtly without anything more than a gasp from the West.
Tens of thousands of Russian Troops are waiting menacingly on the Eastern border of Ukraine. The guise of “military exercises” has always been a not-so-subtle euphemism for something more sinister.
There are plenty of ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine to ‘rescue’. As of 2006 ethnic Russians were the most populous ethnic group in Donetsk, the largest city in Eastern Ukraine, but not by much. These Russians would likely vote to secede but infighting between them has hindered any hope of a Crimeaesque pro-Russian takeover.
While the Russian Ambassador to the USA stated that his country has “no plans to invade” Ukraine’s Eastern industrial heartland, the Ukrainian government will be justified in taking this lightly.
Nevertheless, an invasion of mainland Ukraine would be costly for Russia. The Ukrainian military a force of 130,000 and 1000,000 reservists would be no pushover. Even if Russia succeeded, analysts suggest the Russian occupiers would have a Chechnya-style insurrection of their hands.
Moldova’s breakaway region of Transinistria is mostly populated by Russian speakers. The region declared independence from Moldova in 1990 before a brief war between Russia and Moldova allowed for the continued presence of Russian “peacekeepers”.
Moldova has increasingly shifted towards the EU and it may be forced to forfeit the conflicted region of Transinistria for its deviance. Transitistria asked to join Russia in 2006 and the Russian military has enhanced its military presence, holding exercises in the region last week.
It seems then that Moldova might seem like a likely target for Russian reconsolidation over Eastern Europe. Russia would be unlikely to face either opposition or fierce resistance from Moldova. This option would also allow Putin the possibly to annex a land bridge or ‘corridor’ between Transinistria and neighbouring Crimea, which will worry the nascent Ukrainian government.