Poster promoting a referendum in Transniester. (photo: Odnoklassniki)
With Russia's annexation of Crimea accomplished breathtakingly quickly, is Russia's land grab over? Anyone listening to President Vladimir Putin's speech on Tuesday, with its soaring appeals to restoring Russian greatness might think that Crimea is too small a prize to right all the wrongs that Russia has suffered. And while just two weeks ago further changes to the map of Europe seemed unthinkable, now they seem a very real possibility. "Russian annexation of Crimea is likely to initiate a pernicious cascade within Ukraine and further deepen the conflict," wrote analysts Samuel Charap and Keith Darden in an analysis for Reuters. "It is not a stable end-point for the crisis."
Concern has been raised anywhere that ethnic Russians live, from Estonia to Kazakhstan. Both those are unlikely to be Moscow's next targets, however, Estonia because it's a NATO member and Kazakhstan because its government has been a relatively compliant Russian partner, especially lately.
Hopes and/or fears may also have been raised in other breakaway territories. South Ossetia has for a long time openly expressed interest in joining Russia; when Russia officially recognized it as an independent country after the 2008 war with Georgia, then-President Eduard Kokoity said: “Now we are an independent state, but we look forward to uniting with North Ossetia and joining the Russian Federation.” In his sycophantic statement on the Crimea referendum, current President Leonid Tiblov somehow managed not to ask to become part of Russia amid all the encomia to Putin, but he certainly doesn't sound like he'd be opposed to the idea. "The profound and at the same time a well-reasoned speech of Vladimir Putin left no doubt in the correctness of the choice of Russia, the only true decision of the Russian leadership," he said.
Abkhazia has been far more ambivalent about its ties to Russia, but when a journalist for the RFE/RL outlet in the North Caucasus, Echo Kavkaza, conducted a survey of Abkhazians on whether they were now interested in joining Russia, she found that 1. many were and 2. the survey caused such controversy that she was forced to take the story down from the website. (The source of this is the Abkhazian newspaper Chegemskaya Pravda, via BBC Monitoring, and it's not online.)
But Russia has not expressed any interest in absorbing those countries in the past, and it's not clear why they would now. "Russia will not rush to make any changes, even if South Ossetia itself were to take the initiative to join Russia," said Russian analyst Mikhail Remizov.
But things to Russia's east may be more complicated. Russian officials have already raised the possibility of intervening in eastern Ukraine to protect Russians there. And Charap and Darden argue that taking Crimea is not a logical last step in Ukraine:
Even if Moscow is only interested in Crimea now, the annexation might cascade into further seizures of Ukrainian territory. Crimea receives 80 percent of its water from mainland Ukraine, along with much of its electricity, heating fuel and telecommunication links. Russia has no direct land-based access to Crimea.
If the crisis escalates to a point where Ukraine decides to cut off Crimea — which cannot be ruled out if annexation proceeds — the Russian military may respond by seizing more territory.
In addition, Russia uses a corridor through southeastern Ukraine for access to its forces stationed in Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria province. Any steps by Kiev to shut down Russian access there could also lead to further incursions.
Transnistria, like South Ossetia, has long desired to join Russia. (According to public opinion polls, public support there falls somewhere between South Ossetia's enthusiasm and Abkhazia's reluctance.) And in the wake of Crimea, there have been voices -- including from Russia about a referendum in Transniester like Crimea's and joining Russia. "Russia should, in my view, after Crimea recognize Transniester and offer to hold another referendum on the issue of rejoining Russia. Only in such a way can we defend Transniester," said Leonid Reshetnikov, the head of the Moscow think tank Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, speaking in Tiraspol. "There is no other solution. Otherwise we will lose Transniester." Said another Russian analyst, Viktor Mironenko: "After what happened in Crimea, I don't see any international-legal, psychological, or internal obstacles for [annexing Transniester]."
But not all are convinced. "The debate has once again emerged, but the facts on the ground haven't changed," said Michael Bobick, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and East European Studies who has studied Transnistria extensively, in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "Transniester is still hundreds of kilometers from Russia, and its military ability to intervene is constrained by this geography. There is a big airfield and a few attack helicopters, but not much else."
More likely, Russia would use Transniester as a means to pressure Moldova into abandoning its pro-Western foreign policy, he said. "The most important things from my perspective is the idea of a blockade (something that while now only related to men/Russian passport holders/military supplies from Ukraine to Russian forces in Transniester) that will gradually shift to the economic realm as Moldova signs an association agreement with the EU (this happened in 2006 when Ukraine and Moldova introduced new customs rules). In other words, these things have been done before, but what has changed is that Russia has acted decisively in a region close to Transniester, thus reanimating hope. But it has also forced Transniester to question their Russianness insofar as it now has some negative consequences."
Of course, the bottom line is: none of us know any more. Watch this space.